BEIJING (Reuters) - China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping could make a public appearance as early as Saturday as he recovers from a bad back, sources said, dispelling rumors about his health after he dropped out of sight at the start of this month.
Xi has been out of the public eye for almost two weeks and has skipped meetings with foreign leaders and dignitaries, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Chinese government officials have repeatedly refused to say what happened to him, fuelling speculation that has included Xi suffering a heart attack, a stroke, emergency cancer surgery and even an attempted assassination.
But three sources close to the Chinese leadership, who are familiar with internal accounts of Xi's condition, said the 59-year-old has been nursing a back injury the entire time, obeying doctors' orders to get more bed rest and undergo physiotherapy, while spending time preparing for the leadership transition later this year.
"He is fine now. He went for physiotherapy for three days," one source said. "He should make a public appearance soon."
Xi has been undergoing physiotherapy sessions within Beijing's walled and tightly guarded Zhongnanhai leadership compound, said a second source close to senior party officials.
"It wasn't serious but very painful and he was ordered to have bed rest," the second source said.
A third source said Xi could make a public appearance as soon as Saturday, but no other details were immediately available.
The sources all spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of discussing the health of leaders, which has long been considered a state secret in China.
Xi last appeared in public on September 1. He pulled a back muscle while swimming shortly before Clinton arrived on an official visit on September 4, the sources said, forcing him to scrap a meeting with her the next day and also with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The ruling Communist Party's refusal to comment on his disappearance from public view and absence from scheduled events is in keeping with its traditional silence on the question of the health of top leaders, but it has worried or mystified most China watchers.
On Wednesday, state media carried comments attributed to Xi for the first time since he dropped out of sight, but there was no public sighting of him or any new photograph.
There has been no direct official comment addressing the rumors and the refusal to quell the speculation is widely seen as out of step with the country's global economic and military significance and has been likened to the kind of old-style communist secrecy practiced during the Cold War.
Beijing has yet to formally announce a date for the party's five-yearly congress at which Xi is tipped to replace Hu Jintao as party chief, though it is still expected to be held in mid or late October at the earliest. In March next year, he is to formally take up the reins of the world's second-largest economy.
Xi has been working overtime during his recovery to prevent any delay in the congress opening, the second of the three sources said.
"He canceled all external and internal public functions to concentrate on preparatory work for the 18th congress.
"He has been working with Li Yuanchao and Li Zhanshu," the source added, referring to the party minister in charge of personnel and the new chief of staff to Hu respectively.
The two Lis are not related.
Xi and the two Lis have been rushing to finalize a list of new full and alternate members of the party's elite Central Committee, the keynote speech of Hu at the upcoming 18th congress and the agenda of the pre-congress 7th plenum of the 17th Central Committee.
Li Zhanshu, one of Xi's closest allies who is also acceptable to the Hu camp, was named chief of staff only in September, confirming a July 18 Reuters story.
On the government's reluctance to comment on Xi, Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington D.C., said: "It's perfectly understandable. What can you say? If you say he's in hospital, people think: ‘Oh my god, he's dying.' That will spur a new round of sensational stories."
"With all these things going on, I perfectly understand why they are so hesitant. There's another kind of mindset: ‘It's our own business. We'll let you speculate the rumors, let you embarrass yourself later on.'"
The uncertainty surrounding Xi's absence has had no impact so far on Chinese or foreign markets, which have been absorbed by Europe's debt crisis and China's own economic slowdown. But investors have been keeping a close eye on the mystery surrounding Xi, after months of high political drama in China.
Senior leader Bo Xilai was suspended from the party's 25-member Politburo in April and his wife convicted of the murder of a British businessman. Blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest in April and took refuge in the U.S. embassy before leaving for New York.
In another scandal this month, a senior ally of President Hu was demoted after sources said the ally's son was killed in a crash involving a luxury sports car.
Additional reporting by Michael Martina, Sally Huang, Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Raju Gopalakrishnan