Both foreign and domestic observers questioned the health of Chinese dictator Xi Jinping on Thursday when a televised speech was interrupted by violent coughing fits and he canceled the remainder of an important tour of southern China.
Taiwan News reported Xi’s speech was “inexplicably delayed” for over 12 hours, and when he finally delivered his address, he “spoke at an unusually slow pace compared to previous talks.”
Xi began drinking water and coughing in the last seven minutes of his 52-minute speech, prompting a visible reaction from the “usually staid audience of communist cadres” as he struggled to deliver some of his lines.
“Each time Xi coughed during the live feed from state broadcaster CCTV, the camera crew would quickly cut to the audience. However, his incessant cough and gulping of water were still highly audible and followed by long, awkward pauses,” Taiwan News wrote.
Unsurprisingly, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) censorship apparatus appears to have blocked all searches for video, audio, or discussion of Xi’s coughing. The YouTube video of his speech was removed, although CCTV’s version was still available on the broadcaster’s Weibo social media account on Thursday evening. Other accounts on Weibo bubbled with speculation that Xi might have contracted the Wuhan coronavirus.
Taiwan News also noted that Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam was seated as far from Xi as possible and conspicuously distanced from the official seated closest to her. Lam recently attended a concert at which one of the musicians tested positive for the coronavirus, so there may have been some concerns about her health.
Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, one of the most popular newspapers among pro-democracy activists thanks to the government’s persecution of owner Jimmy Lai, reported that Xi returned to Beijing on Thursday, cutting short his tour of the Shenzhen special economic zone on its 40th anniversary. Chinese state media and sources on the ground disagreed about exactly when Xi called a lid on the trip. Some members of his entourage apparently continued making public appearances without him.
In addition to rumors about Xi’s health, Apple Daily quoted China expert Willy Lam suggesting Xi might have cut his tour short to prepare for an upcoming plenary session of the Central Committee of the CCP. Lam described the session as “an important occasion for him to consolidate his power and prepare for the eventual move to extend his term in 2022.” Xi removed all legal obstacles to ruling for life in 2018.
The UK Daily Mail opined on Thursday that China’s rapid economic recovery and low number of reported coronavirus infections make it “extremely unlikely that Xi has contracted the virus, although China’s rush to censor his coughing shows how sensitive the issue is politically.”
67-year-old Xi’s position of absolute dictatorial authority, and the lack of a clear succession plan, make speculation about his health issues inevitable. The Wall Street Journal reported a vigorous round of such speculation in April 2019 when Xi was observed “walking with a slight limp” during a visit to Europe.