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China VP’s absence raises succession questions

BEIJING — For China’s Communist Party, it should be easy to quash all that speculation — from plausible to outlandish — about the unexplained absence of the country’s next leader. Just trot him out in public to show that he is hale and hearty.

Yet, as Xi Jinping’s absence carried into an 11th day Wednesday, party officials were saying nothing. Their silence only added to the rumors’ momentum and raised an important question: What happens to China’s once-a-decade leadership transition if the 59-year-old is unable to assume the mantle of power as planned later this fall?

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Xi, China’s vice president, has not been seen in public since Sept. 1. He has missed planned meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other dignitaries.

The most plausible speculation centers on some sort of health crisis, ranging from a muscle pull to a stroke or a heart attack. But some of the more far-fetched rumors have imagined him the victim of an assassination attempt or a political feud with outgoing President Hu Jintao.

The latest claim, appearing Wednesday on Hong Kong’s iSun Affairs website and sourced to an unidentified relative of Xi’s, said he was merely busy preparing for the political transition and accompanying political reforms.

It said his health was fine.

Given the runaway speculation, the silent approach is ‘‘even more reckless than controlling the message,’’ allowing the rumor mill to turn faster and faster, said Kellee Tsai, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

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