China plays up Xi Jinping’s reappearance for foreign media

BEIJING — Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping appeared in public Saturday after a two-week absence that had sparked intense speculation in the foreign press and on the Internet about his health and possible infighting in the top ranks of the Communist Party.

State-run media reported that Xi, who has been tapped to succeed Hu Jintao as president, made an appearance at China Agricultural University in Beijing for observances of National Science Popularization Day.

Xi’s absence has not been discussed in official Chinese media, but myriad reports in overseas publications have speculated about possible ailments, including a back strain and a heart condition.

On Saturday, Xi’s return to the public eye was given top billing on the English-language version of the New China News Agency website, along with five photos that showed him strolling outdoors at the campus, inspecting a table of insect-resistant corn, watching some science demonstrations with young children and delivering some “impromptu” remarks.

The account did not acknowledge that Xi had not been seen in public since Sept. 1, and it made no mention of where he had been for the last two weeks, or what he had been doing.

On the Chinese version of the agency’s website, in contrast, Xi’s appearance was given very minor billing, treated like any other routine appearance by a senior official at an event of little consequence, and only three photos accompanied the report. The dominant headlines for Chinese audiences instead concerned the latest moves by officials in Beijing in their dispute with Japan over three uninhabited islands southwest of Okinawa.

Xi’s last public appearance was a speech at a Communist Party school two weeks ago. After the 59-year-old missed a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton early this month, rumblings about his whereabouts began to build.

Waves of reports on Chinese exile news websites and in the Hong Kong press quickly ratcheted up the speculation: He had been hospitalized after a car accident, or even an assassination attempt. Journalists who asked about Xi’s whereabouts and condition at Foreign Ministry news conferences were rebuffed.

Adding to concern that political disputes, rather than an ailment, might be behind Xi’s recent low profile was the fact that Communist Party officials have yet to announce a date for their 18th Party Congress, at which Xi’s elevation is scheduled to occur. The meeting is expected to begin in October or early November, and political observers say a decision on an opening date is overdue.