BEIJING -- With still no sign of China's designated new leader, Xi Jinping, who has not been seen in public since Sept. 1, many insiders and well-connected analysts say the Chinese political ship is adrift, with factions jockeying to shape an impending Communist Party conclave.
The government has maintained its official silence about Xi's absence. After an initial burst of chatter, blog posts alluding to Xi have been effectively smothered on China's social media platforms, and China's beleaguered Foreign Ministry spokesman says on a daily basis that he has no information, despite a barrage of questions from the foreign media.
By Thursday, a number of ranking party members with years of experience following Chinese politics were generally in agreement that Xi, 59, had suffered either a mild heart attack or a stroke, forcing him to cancel his appointments.
"The most reliable information we can find is that it's his heart," said a senior Chinese newspaper editor who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Li Weidong, a former editor of a government-sponsored reformist journal, agreed.
Thursday, Xi's name appeared in the Chinese media for the first time in days, as he offered condolences over the recent death of a veteran party member.
But that terse report only mentioned him among several leaders and did not imply anything more than a formal expression of sorrow.
"I think it's hard to say this proves anything,"
"He didn't appear but just sent condolences."
Even if Xi does soon show up in public, he will be re-entering an unexpectedly contentious political arena.
Planned years in advance, the 18th Party Congress is slated to be the most sweeping government reorganization in a decade, with scores of leaders scheduled to retire. The Communist Party has numerous factions, but the overall framework of the transfer was thought to have been mostly ironed out over the past year.
But recent developments, including Xi's mysterious cancellation of several public appearances, suggest that may not be the case.
The most obvious sign of discord is that the dates for the congress have not been set.