Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping is now away from his nation for a ten-day trip to five countries in the Middle East and Africa, his first overseas visit since the Communist Party of China scrapped his presidential term limit in March.

The itinerary for his visit to the United Arab Emirates, Senegal, Rwanda, South Africa and Mauritius is packed with a panoply of pomp as well as deals symbolizing Beijing’s newfound pull in those parts of the world.

Yet while the leaders of those countries roll out the red carpet to fete Xi, it appears that a storm is brewing back home when, perhaps in a hint of things to come. After years of propaganda to whip up a personality cult around Xi, it conked out soon after his flight took off from Beijing: On three separate days within a short span of less than a week, his name disappeared from front-page headlines in the paramount party mouthpiece the People’s Daily.

This has fueled speculation about fresh dissent within the CPC’s top caucus, as previously Xi’s name and photos as well as references to “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” – now enshrined in the nation’s constitution – used to be plastered across the People’s Daily and virtually all other official publications on a daily basis.

Reports about Xi Jinping (习近平) normally occupy the front page of the People’s Daily.
A man is captured on camera delivering notes to hosts of Xinwen Lianbo (News Simulcast) aired on July 12 by state broadcaster China Central Television. CCTV has also toned down its coverage of Xi in key news programs such as Xinwen Lianbo. Photo: CCTV screen grab

Some say that while Xi’s ruthless drives to bust graft and smother objections to his policies have cemented his power, they also brought together party princelings and cliques who are not enamored with his self-assertive rule.

Xi’s missteps and inaction to resolve a protracted trade row with the United States – he appeared to be at his wits’ end after Donald Trump threatened to slap tariffs on every export from China – have provoked a salvo of accusations from his opponents as one of the nation’s largest export markets is slamming its doors.

Fresh cracks were laid bare after White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow alleged that Xi was “holding the game up and doesn’t intend to follow through” on trade talks.

“Xi’s opponents made waves [by wiping Xi off the People’s Daily] when he is away on overseas visits and when a full-blown trade war is imminent, to remind people that the nation can operate just as well without Xi, but it’s too early to conclude that Xi has lost his grip on power,” Tung Li-wen, a Taipei-based commentator who also sits on the Taiwanese authorities’ Mainland Affairs Council, told Apple Daily Taiwan.   

Xi’s reticence in another evolving scandal is also conspicuous after revelations of millions of doses of rabies and DPT (diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus) vaccines made by a pharmaceutical firm in Changchun, Jilin province, had been produced with falsified quality supervision records, and it’s feared that millions of kids throughout China could have already been given the shots, since the practice had been going on for years.

It’s feared that millions of kids across China have received injections of problematic vaccines made by a company in Changchun, in the northeastern province of Jilin. Photo: Xinhua

Amid a groundswell of public clamor in a scandal that is the biggest public health crisis since the notorious melamine-in-baby-formula scare in 2008, Premier Li Keqiang – seen as a mere figurehead after Xi chipped away at his sway in the State Council – rushed to placate fuming parents last Saturday and instructed a “thorough” probe, while Xi himself was mum on the incident until Monday evening, who requested a “stringent approach” to look into the matter in a belated notice to the state drug administration and the Jilin authorities. Xi is now in South Africa, the fourth leg of his trip.

“What’s the point of Li’s instruction [about a vaccine investigation] when he has already been made a premier in name only [by Xi]? And will Xi’s ‘important notice’ be actually followed through?” said a post on China’s WeChat social networking platform.

Meanwhile, the propaganda apparatus has been ordered to resume the business of putting Xi back on the party’s pedestal, with Xinhua leading the coverage of his ongoing visits, while posts venting people’s grievances over the substandard vaccines have been swiftly pulled.

People’s Daily didn’t mention the scandal and Li’s pledge of truth in its Monday issue, whose front page is all about state events Xi attended in Africa over the past weekend.

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