Where is? That was the million dollar question for the first fortnight of September. The person chosen to replace Hu Jintao as the most powerful man in the People’s Republic of China had vanished.
Chinese government officials offered no statement to the media about his whereabouts or condition. The rumor mills swirled, in China and around the globe, flinging out every kind of explanation, from car crash to heart attack, liver cancer to coup plot, even talk of an assassination attempt. What did the Communist Party do to curb such speculation? Nothing.
On Saturday, September 15, Xi finally reappeared touring a university in Beijing. Apparently a fit of back pain had caused him to miss meetings with the U.S. Secretary of State and the Prime Ministers of Denmark and Singapore. Afterward, Mr. Xi and his party carried on as though nothing had happened. Some China commentators said that the whole incident had simply been overblown.
But something did happen: the credibility of the Chinese Communist Party took a hit. Leaders of the world’s powerful states can’t just disappear. This is the 21st century. Within 24 hours, everyone with a computer knows that something is amiss. In today’s world, leaders must be active and visible. If they must retreat from the public eye, then they must provide an explanation. When they don’t, their reputation and reliability become suspect. The Communist Party is no exception to this. The days are gone when politicians could run off on short notice to hike the Appalachian Trail, as Governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford discovered. If you do, you had better send status updates and tweet about the beautiful views, because that is what people expect in today’s world. If you don’t give it to them, then you get caught with your pants down in Argentina.
How does this hurt the Communist Party? Through the inexplicable fact that none of them seemed to think there would be any kind of hoopla about the whole thing, this negatively impacts the perception on the awareness of communist government leadership. Though admittedly the Chinese government is not exactly the paragon of transparency, given the sensitivity of its current situation, one would expect a bit more prudence.
The Chinese Communist Party is about to endure something unprecedented. For the first time since the end of the Mao era, the leader of the Chinese government will not be hand-picked by Deng Xiaoping. If all goes according to plan, next month will be the first test of the deliberative, intra-party selection process which landed Xi Jinping in his current position as heir apparent. If it goes off without a hitch, it might well lend some credibility and legitimacy to a Communist Party which many feel is sorely lacking both.
It can’t be denied that a large chunk of those doubters live in the People’s Republic at the moment. The now disgraced Bo Xilai, who was slated along with Xi Jinping to become a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful policy-making institution in China, is suspected of helping protect his wife from investigation after she murdered a foreign national. The man suspected of being her accomplice, the chief of police in the city under Bo’s jurisdiction, is now accused of treason after he sought asylum at an American consulate in China. These events were a huge blow to the Party’s credibility and stoked fears that the leadership transition might not go off as smoothly as expected. In a system that is rife with political privilege and corruption, you might expect the Chinese people to be jaded to this kind of thing. If you do, I recommend you search the phrase “my father is Li Gang.”
In the international arena, Xi’s disappearance doesn’t help the party’s credibility. How might Japan have perceived it? After the Japanese government made a bid to buy the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands from a Japanese citizen at the end of August, the Chinese and Japanese authorities have been in a nationalist chest-thumping contest. Both nations claim the islands as their respective sovereign territory, both countries have committed to using any means to protect their claims, and it is a source of major contention and nationalist fervor on both sides.
A few days after the Japanese make an admittedly provocative move, the man who will be commanding the Chinese army and navy one month later suddenly vanishes. Where has he gone? What is he doing? The fact that such a prominent leader would not be publicly leading in such a situation must have introduced uncertainties into Japan’s strategic calculations. Uncertainties lead to miscalculations. Miscalculations can lead to catastrophes. Maybe I am just a nervous Nellie, but before you write this off and carry on about your day, remember that the Senkaku Islands are included in the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, so that if Japan were attacked over them, the U.S. could be compelled to respond.
After having spent some time studying China and its government, I have come to hold the opinion that the recent Communist Party leadership tend to be fairly rational, logical people. After such an inexplicable episode of ineptitude and insensitivity at this crucial time, I am less certain.