China’s leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping, whose disappearance from public view for two weeks this month prompted widespread rumors, today met visiting US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Xi, flanked by several Chinese military officers, shook hands with the Pentagon chief in a frenzy of camera flashes at a ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, according to an AFP reporter.
It was Xi’s first public meeting with a foreign dignitary since he re-emerged at the weekend having vanished for a fortnight at a highly sensitive time, with China gearing up for a generational handover of power.
The Chinese vice-president looked relaxed and healthy, and wore a dark blue suit with a pale blue tie.
Xi smiled as he sat next to Panetta under grand chandeliers with a vast mural on the wall behind them, and said that seeing the American “reminds me of my visit to the United States” in February.
Panetta responded that it was an “honor to have the opportunity to visit with you here” and he looked forward to discussing promoting security ties between “two great Pacific nations”.
Xi’s unexplained disappearance had attracted global attention, as well as speculation on China’s popular but heavily censored microblogs, with theories about his health ranging from a backache to a heart attack.
He has been widely tipped to succeed President Hu Jintao as leader of the ruling Communist Party at a crucial meeting that is expected to be held later in autumn, before taking over as head of state in March next year.
During his absence earlier in September, he cancelled meetings with four foreign dignitaries, including visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
His first public appearance came on Saturday, when he was shown on state television visiting a university.
The lengthy footage, along with reports on the official news agency Xinhua, did not give a reason for his disappearance.