Sep 16, 2012

The Ides of September

Last Monday, the international press reported that Xi Jinping, the Chinese Vice President of China was missing. “Was missing” did not actually mean that nobody knew where he was. Such a high-level officer cannot just disappear. “Was missing” meant that he had not been seen in public since September 1st, a somewhat strange situation for a regime that relies in large measure on propaganda and on the visibility of government leaders. Speculation on his whereabouts included that he was resting from a sports injury to the back, that he had some more serious health problem which refrained him from showing up to work or that he was the new victim, even a fatal one, of an intrigue from the elite of the Communist Party. The issue is that he is expected to be appointed Secretary General of the Party and, consequently, to become the next President of China. Yesterday, finally, he reappeared in public at the activities celebrating the National Science Popularization Day at the Chinese Agricultural University in Beijing.

There were grounds to speculate on the situation of Mr. Xi. The Washington Post remembers what perhaps is the clearest parallel case to the disappearance of Mr. Xi: the airplane accident where Li Biao, appointed successor to Mao Zedong, died in 1971. Mr. Li was allegedly fleeing the country with his family after a coup to end with Mao did not work out (this is the official Chinese version; no credible proofs for or against it are known to exist). Similarly, the Chinese Government took at least three days to inform the Chinese public and the world of the death of Chairman Mao. As stated by diverse scholars, this hermitic attitude relies on the identification between the members of a party, between the party and government, and ultimately between all those elements and the state. Inadequate tissue, to follow the organic jargon, such as Mr. Li should be removed. If the head of the party, government and state was dead, information must be spread smoothly to avoid major instability in the regime.

Next to historical antecedents, media representatives based in Beijing had reasons to suspect something cold have happened with Mr. Xi. A search at the website of Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, of “Xi Jinping” is revealing. Before September 1st, almost daily references where Mr. Xi is the protagonist are found. The largest gap without information related to him spans five days. September 1st was the last day when an article on Mr. Xi was uploaded. Curiously, the headline reads “Xi urges Party cadres to enhance leadership level through learning”. For the next days, Xi is mentioned just marginally in four other entries (dated on September 2nd, 4th and 5th) by saying that, among other officers, he was scheduled to meet with the Prime Ministers of Denmark and Singapore as well as with State Secretary Clinton during their respective visits to China. None of these encounters took place, apparently without any further explanation. Then, complete silence until the 15th, when he reappeared at the Agricultural University.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese Government made absolutely no comments on the matter. During a regular press briefing, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismissed inquires on Mr. Xi with answers such as “I have no information to provide to you”, “I hope you will rise serious questions” or “I have already answered the question. Next question”. So, the government would not make statements on Mr. Xi, to ask for them was ridiculous, and that was it.

Even with the Chinese government minimizing it, the lack of information on Mr. Xi was evident. Not only for the international press, but also for the inhabitants of mainland China. A Chinese blogger, Fei Chang Dao, accounted that the local internet searcher Weibo had censored search results for “Jinping”, “back injury”, “injury Xi” and other related terms. Even more, the comments of some underground Chinese bloggers could have actually fueled the speculation on the political fall or physical impediments that reached Western media.

I seriously doubt we will ever know what was the cause that prevented Mr. Xi from appearing in the media for two weeks. In any case, the mere retraction of the Chinese Vice President from public attention, forcefully or voluntarily, along with all the credible speculation that sprouted, do not match very well with the prospects for change in China some have seen in his own statements such as “elite politics [is] not changing as fast as society is changing” or that “there’s a lack of transparency”. My answers are, for each observation, “evidently not” and “evidently yes”. Just go check with him.


1 Comment

  • I agree, Pablo. This is a very strange episode. It doesn’t send a very good sign that China is ready to be a global leader.

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