By John Ruwitch
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China's leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, did more than apparently injure his back this month - by vanishing from public without explanation for two weeks, he also wounded his own credibility.
China political experts expressed dismay over the ruling Communist Party's handling of Xi's ailment, which remains a state secret despite sources close to the leadership saying he did no more than hurt his back in a swimming pool.
The injury kept the likely next leader of the world's second-largest economy and a nuclear power out of public view until Saturday when - after a swirl of unanswered rumors that ranged from a heart attack to attempted assassination - he appeared smiling for the cameras at a Beijing university.
It was as though his disappearance - which forced Xi to skip meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the prime ministers of Singapore and Denmark - had never happened.
"The basic issue is that they have not come to terms with what running a globalized power means in this day and age...," said Roderick MacFarquhar, an expert in Communist Party history at Harvard University.
"The next leadership will have to come to grips with this because it's going to get worse. There will be times when there are real problems," he said, adding that he believed the party was likely to at least review how it had handled the episode.
Xi's vanishing act highlighted the perils of the party's tendency toward secrecy at a politically sensitive time, just a few weeks before the party is expected to finalize a once-in-a-decade leadership change at its 18th congress.
Xi, 59, is all but certain to be promoted to party chief at the congress - the timing of which is still secret but expected in mid-October - before taking over the presidency in March.
He will take the helm of a nation that has been transformed economically but, as his disappearance showed, not politically.
"Basically, you have a system that's inherited from the early 20th century that is totally mismatched with the demands of 21st century China," said Damien Ma, a China analyst at the Eurasia Group.
The party has always closely guarded and carefully manicured the public images of its top leaders. Details of their private lives, including health issues, have been mostly kept secret since Mao Zedong's days at the helm.
Mao himself famously vanished from public view at times.
From late-1965 to mid-1966 he was nowhere to be seen in public, likely due to health reasons. His return was heralded by a widely publicized swim in the Yangtze river, an event orchestrated to send a message of his vitality.
China could get away with it back then, before its rapid industrialization put it at the centre of the global economy and of financial markets and before the birth of the Internet.
"They have not got acclimatized to the differences between running a dynamic economy and sticking in the past with a very, very un-dynamic leadership," said MacFarquhar of Harvard.
'READING THE TEA LEAVES'
Rumors about Xi's health burst onto China's popular Twitter-like site Sina Weibo and elsewhere, with some guessing he had gone incommunicado after an assassination attempt or was laid up after a heart attack, stroke or surgery for early-stage liver cancer.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei dodged question after question on the issue at routine media briefings and berated a journalist who at one point asked if Hong could confirm if Xi was still alive.
Xi's last known previous public appearance had been on September 1, but it took Chinese state media until late on Sept 12 to cite Xi as having issued a public statement - a message of condolence to the family of a deceased party official - and then another three days before he re-emerged in the flesh.
In the meantime, the information vacuum was filled by wild and potentially dangerous speculation in a year that has already proven to be a tumultuous one for the party.
In the months leading up to Xi's disappearance, China's rumor mill was already near fever pitch over a murder scandal that had ruined the career of a senior politician, Bo Xilai, who had had ambitions to join Xi's top team in the new leadership.
"By not communicating it allows people to see weaknesses in the system which may not be there," said Dane Chamorro, Director Asia Pacific at Control Risks.
"People start to question: Is the system weak? Is the system breaking down? Can it deal with the modern world?"
For now, Xi's unexplained disappearance has not wrought much tangible damage. Financial markets, though paying close attention, did not trade on the rumors.
"It didn't (cause damage) this time, but that doesn't mean that it won't in the future," said Ma of Eurasia Group.
"The biggest danger under the new ... administration, we believe, is if they don't concertedly and seriously address some of these issues in an information-intensive environment, they're going to increasingly face a deepening legitimacy crisis."
Until then, we are "condemned to carry on reading the tea leaves", said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University.
"So much for China's great openness to the outside world which started in 1978."
(Additional reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Mark Bendeich)