Since he intervened in the Wuhan coronavirus crisis on January 22, ordering "all-out efforts" to contain its spread, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been personally directing the country's response.
As state media has repeatedly emphasized in recent days, all decision making has been centralized under the Communist Party's Standing Committee and the national State Council, both of which Xi heads. The military is also playing a major role in relief and containment efforts, under Xi's direction.
But while his hand is purportedly being felt in all aspects of the response, Xi's face has been weirdly missing. He has not appeared on state broadcaster CCTV's main newscast or on the front page of the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, in several days.
This is strange not only because a country's leader is normally front and center during a crisis, but because Xi is rarely missing from front pages and TV broadcasts during normal periods. Under Xi's rule, the People's Daily has become notorious for running multiple headlines about Xi and plastering not only the front page but several after it with nearly identical pictures of him meeting various officials.
So what's behind Xi's recent absence? The internal workings of the Chinese Communist Party can be a black box at the best of times, but speculation has been rife that Xi is retreating from the spotlight in order to set up other officials to take the inevitable blame for a crisis that -- even if the government maintains control over it -- is already causing major economic and societal misery.
Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, but he's also uniquely vulnerable due to the way he has centralized control -- absolute power brings with it absolute responsibility.
Officials in Wuhan are the most obvious fall guys for the crisis, and several have already offered to resign. But as the virus continues to spread across China and the world, they might not be a big enough scalp to allay public anger.
One figure who might be feeling nervous at the moment is Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Most analysts agree that Li has been majorly sidelined by Xi in recent years, stripped of many responsibilities and pushed into more of a ceremonial role. Yet he has suddenly been pushed to the fore of this crisis, helming a national response group and visiting Wuhan itself.
Chinese social media has been full of speculation over whether Li has been placed under quarantine since returning from the stricken city. That may turn out to be the least of his worries.