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IDSA COMMENT

Xi Jinping’s Mysterious Disappearance amidst Uncertain Political Environment

September 15, 2012

Xi Jinping, currently the Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is missing from action. Xi has not been seen at scheduled public events for quite some time and has skipped meetings with visiting dignitaries, including those with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, and Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. In addition, he has also skipped an important meeting of the Central Military Commission, of which he is the Deputy Chairman.

Xi’s absence could not have been more dramatic at this historic juncture as far as the Chinese political system is concerned. The 18th Party Congress is supposed to be held in October, 2012 where Xi is expected to become Party Secretary and President, taking over from Hu Jintao. There is also speculation about whether the Congress would be held on time since its dates remain unannounced as yet. Coupled with this, there is a silence on Xi’s whereabouts and the causes of his absence, adding to the rumours that have been doing rounds, all quoting “unnamed sources close to Xi”. One rumour is that Xi suffered backache during his routine swim, while another attributes the backache to a game of football. Yet another rumour is that he suffered a stroke and is undergoing treatment at a Military hospital located in Beijing; again, the extent of his illness is not known.

The wildest among all these— and one with the biggest ramification for the Chinese political system— is the rumour that Xi Jinping and another top party leader, He Guoqiang, member of the Politbureau Standing Committee (PBSC), have survived an assassination attempt. This was allegedly projected as a high speed car crash, masterminded by forces loyal to Bo Xilai, the Party Secretary of Chongqing, who was ousted after a corruption and murder case— also involving his wife Gu Kailai— came to light earlier this year. Not surprisingly, this rumour is similar to one in March about another assassination attempt on Xi in Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party. It is noteworthy that in the present case, He Guoqiang reappeared in public on September 12, after a mysterious and similar disappearance for 15 days. His absence further strengthened the rumours relating to the alleged assassination attempt.

The above discussion shows the extent of the spread of misinformation about Xi Jinping. Yet, instead of stopping the rumour mill by sharing accurate information, the Chinese government has chosen to restrict any discussions on him; for example, they have restricted searches on Weibo (a popular Chinese micro-blogging website like Twitter) on Xi Jinping. Even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson refused to discuss the whereabouts of the Vice President during the routine press conference in Beijing. Clearly, the Party chooses to keep quiet even if it leads to misinformation and confusion about an important political figure, lest dissemination of accurate information about him would threaten political stability, which is accorded prime importance in the Chinese political system.

On the other hand, the speculations that the 18th Party Congress may not take place in October 2012 have also reached its peak. As per the normal practice, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) advertises the dates for the Congress at least a month before it starts. With hardly a month to go for the October Congress, there has not been any such announcement so far. While the leadership transition appears to be a well-orchestrated move, and a scripted finale of the act that is often practiced behind close doors, experts are aware of the intense bargaining that goes on behind closed doors until the day of the Congress. This bargaining is not just about the membership of the future PBSC, but also about the future course of the country’s political economy that is reflected in the Party Secretary’s report to the Congress. Bo Xilai’s ouster has ignited a serious debate, hitherto unseen and unheard, inside China on the course of politics, economy and ideology in the country— especially the politics of the ideology, which drives the Chinese statecraft. It is highly likely that the delay in announcing the final dates of the Congress is due to the ongoing internal churning inside the CCP’s headquarters.

The 18th Party Congress is unique in the sense that this will be the first time that the power transition will take place in the absence of a paramount leader. The 15th and 16th Congresses, when the last of the generational power transitions took place, were largely scripted by Deng Xiaoping. This time round, China will surely miss the command position of a paramount leader as it scrambles to select its future political leaders. Consensus is a different ball game without a clear authority at the top. Add to it the suspense over the sudden and silent disappearance of the next generation leader of the Party, whose image as a national leader was being carefully cultivated over the last couple of years, and we find anenthralling political drama slowly unfolding in Beijing that resembles the climax of an action-packed thriller, even if Xi were to reappear very soon, as it is being reported in the media.

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