Xi Jinping resurfaces in media, but China’s elite face questions

Sep 13, 2012

The great wall of silence around Xi could cause problems for the Chinese leadership

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MISSING Chinese politician Xi Jinping has resurfaced, in the state media at least. Almost two weeks after anything was last heard of him, the 59-year-old, who is expected to become leader of the Communist Party later this year, was mentioned in state news reports about the death of a 102-year-old general.

The articles said that Xi had "expressed condolences on the death of old party comrade Huang Rong", who died on 6 September, the day after China's leader-in-waiting failed to attend a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Since his last public sighting, Xi has also missed talks with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and was not present at a meeting of the Central Military Commission, of which he is vice-chairman, on Sunday.

His reappearance in the media has not stopped speculation about his health, however. "Rumours about his absence continued on Thursday," said the Washington Post, adding that theories doing the rounds included "a back problem, heart attack, swimming injury, car crash, outright death [and] a studious desire to seclude himself to adequately prepare for the coming party meeting".

China analysts in the West are having a field day mulling over Xi's disappearance, and what it says about China's political elite.

Bonnie Glaser, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Post she favoured the heart attack theory. "The activity level of China's other leaders seems to be quite normal," she said. "I don’t know if they’d be doing that if something life-threatening had happened and they were facing a question of succession."

The reason for the silence is simple, Harvard's Anthony Saich told the same paper. The Communist Party "does not think that the public has a right to know about the affairs of leading personnel unless the message is carefully controlled and positive".

However, the silent approach is "even more reckless than controlling the message," according to Kellee Tsai, of Johns Hopkins University. She said that the lack of information about Xi was fuelling the rumour-mill. The Daily Telegraph also quoted former Australian diplomat Richard Rigby. "When it comes to the leadership, the old conspiratorial instincts of an underground party come to the fore."

"The Chinese leadership is worried about social stability," David Zweig of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology told CNN. "But nothing creates greater social instability than this kind of lack of information about the leadership."

Writing in the South China Morning Post, analyst Yun Tang warned the disappearance would "bolster calls for political reform, spurring a momentous backlash against the notorious media and cyber censorship, and sparking loud cries for democracy, rule of law and transparent governance".

The mystery could have global repercussions. "Beijing has yet to come to terms with its position as the world's second-largest economy and an emerging superpower," said Reuters. "The uncertainty has had no impact so far on Chinese or foreign markets, absorbed by Europe's debt crisis and China's own economic slowdown, but investors are now keeping a close eye on Xi in a year already notable for high political drama."

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