By Malcolm Moore
Xi Jinping, China’s president-in-waiting, who has not been seen in public for two weeks, was under intense pressure from within the Communist party before he disappeared, the Daily Telegraph has been told.
Mr Xi, 59, came under attack from party elders, who described him as “unreliable” and questioned whether he should be elevated to the pinnacle of Chinese power.
The attacks came at the beginning of August at a short and bad-tempered meeting in Beidaihe, a Chinese seaside resort, when senior party members gathered to negotiate and plan their once-in-a-decade leadership change.
Two critical issues were on the agenda: who should be on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, and how to deal with Bo Xilai, the Politburo member whose wife has been convicted of murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood.
There was no agreement on either question, according to a well-connected former editor of a state media outlet.
As China begins to count down the weeks to the 18th party congress, factions are again vying for power in process is still clad in Soviet-era secrecy.
"At the Beidaihe meeting, no decisions were made but the old gang criticised Xi harshly, especially Qiao Shi and Song Ping,” said the former editor, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.
Both Mr Qiao, 87, and Mr Song, 95, are strong supporters of Hu Jintao, the outgoing president.
The elders allegedly accused Mr Xi of not sticking to the rules by meeting twice with members of the Central Military Commission, which controls the People’s Liberation Army, while Mr Hu was visiting Hong Kong in early July.
One meeting occurred in Mr Xi’s house and the other at the commission’s compound.
“They called him unreliable and even brought up the idea of significantly delaying the party congress,” said the source. “The fight was so harsh that Jiang Zemin [the former president] had to mediate.”
With Hu Jintao preparing to step down from power, and hand over to Mr Xi, he faces the uncertainty of whether his successor will continue his legacy, or turn against him, a perennial fear for a Chinese politician.
A new rift appears to have emerged between the two main factions in the Communist Party: the “red” princelings, the up-and-coming children of Communist Party heroes, and the technocrats.
Mr. Xi is a princeling, while Mr. Hu is a technocrat, although Mr. Xi has been successful at bridging the divide. “Song Ping and the other elders are suspicious of Mr Xi and the other princelings because they are not obedient. They saw these princelings grow up and know the difference between them and Mr. Hu and Wen Jiabao [China’s premier], who are more polite and less personally ambitious”.
The pressure on Mr Xi, who is the focus of the world’s attention as he tries to grasp his chance to be president, may explain his mysterious absence.
A number of sources have indicated that he suffered a mild heart attack, but is now “recovering well.” He is expected to make a public appearance Saturday, according to one commentator. However, other sources have suggested that Mr Xi has been occupied with trying to consolidate his position as he prepares for power.
On Friday, when asked if the condolences that Mr. Xi sent on the death of a former general was a sign of his good health, a spokesman for the foreign ministry said: “I am happy you have taken notice of the relevant information”.
Zhang Ming, a professor of politics at Renmin University, said he had heard that Mr. Xi was criticised by the party elders. However, he still expected him to take control. “No one would risk ruining the stability of the party at such a late point,” he said. He added that physical illness was also no barrier to Mr. Xi’s ascendancy. “Who on the Politburo is not nursing some sort of chronic illness?"