So… Where is Xi Jinping?

It’s getting to be more and more of a mystery every day, so today I’ll just pull a few of the pieces trying to get to the bottom of this mystery. First, from Malcolm Moore, allegations that Xi may have suffered a heart attack:

“Although people have said he suffered a back injury, he actually had a heart attack, a myocardial infarction,” said Li Weidong, a political commentator in Beijing and the former editor of China Reform.

The magazine is influential among Chinese policymakers and under the aegis of the National Development and Reform Commission.

Other unnamed sources have also suggested that Mr Xi, 59, suffered a heart attack, while Willy Lam, the former editor of the South China Morning Post, believes China’s president-in-waiting had a stroke and is currently unable to show his face in public.

For the second day in a row, almost all of China’s other top leaders were featured on the country’s evening news bulletins, but Mr Xi was absent.

Mr Li said that Mr Xi’s illness was not severe enough to disrupt the 18th Party Congress, at which China will unveil its first set of new leaders in ten years. The date of the Congress has not been announced, but most observers believe it will occur in mid-October.

“I heard the agenda for the Congress will not be changed, which means that Mr Xi will have recovered beforehand,” he said. Other sources have also indicated that, so far, plans for the Congress have not been affected.

From Bloomberg News, a contrast between the silence regarding Xi and the way China has handled announcements in the past:

The official Xinhua News Agency took less than a day in July 2011 to deny former President Jiang Zemin had died. Earlier this year, Xinhua published accounts of China’s top security official within days of a Financial Times report that he was under investigation. By comparison, state media haven’t reported on Xi for a week, or mentioned that he canceled meetings with foreign officials on Sept. 5.

The vacuum of news on Xi, weeks before the 59-year-old is forecast to be anointed China’s next president, may be a sign of the severity of his condition, or divisions over how to present his absence. The public remains uninformed even of the date for the congress where the new generation of leaders, including Xi, is set to be announced.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said last week that the cancellations were a “normal adjustment” and when asked today, said he had “no information” about Xi.

Chinese stocks have risen since Xi canceled his meeting with Clinton, suggesting no sign of investor unease. The Shanghai Composite Index has risen about 4 percent since Sept. 5. The cost of insuring Chinese sovereign bonds against default fell to the lowest in more than a year yesterday, according to data provider CMA.

From Tania Branigan of The Guardian:

The questions are increasingly numerous. The answer remains as elusive as their subject.

China’s foreign ministry has spent a third straight day batting away queries on the whereabouts and health of the country’s vice-president and heir apparent Xi Jinping.

Linda Jakobson, East Asia programme director at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, described the affair as “a debacle, not a crisis” for the party. “My hunch is that if this was a serious crisis we would see indications of it,” she said.

There is no sign of increased security in the Chinese capital and top leaders have continued to travel. Some have surmised that Xi must have a conspicuous injury or illness, so that releasing photographs or video of him would raise further questions.

Jakobson said that was possible. “But equally plausible would be that the people in charge of this issue are so set in their ways, and feel the state of the Chinese leaders is no one else’s business, that they feel there is no need to produce a photograph – even if it would put to rest all these questions,” she added. “From my experience, the senior officials in charge of propaganda and communications tend to be the most old-fashioned, conservative and hardline people within the bureaucracy.”

Experts said it was likely that some within the party would be pushing for an explanation of Xi’s absence from the public eye. Last year, state news agency Xinhua issued a terse statement denying that former president Jiang Zemin was dead after a Hong Kong broadcaster wrongly reported his demise.

From John Kennedy at SCMP, translations of an iSun article which claims that Xi is working hard on political reforms and is too busy to appear in public (lets go ahead and call ourselves somewhat skeptical of this one):

ISun Affairs has been able to confirm in this exclusive report, following direct and indirect contact with sources that include his family members, that Xi Jinping is and remains in perfect health, and is now busy working behind the scenes to orchestrate unprecedented political reforms set to be introduced during the upcoming 18th CCP national congress.

The explanation given for his absence throughout September at several diplomatic meetings is that Xi made the decision not to attend himself, although views on the matter remain mixed.

Between the replacement early this month of director of the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the official disclosure of information regarding Xi’s meeting with Hu, it is now believed that Xi Jinping has established overall control of the CCP Central Committee, and obtained the support of Party elders, offspring of past and present Party leaders (‘hongerdai’), intellectuals, and the current military leadership. Political reforms introduced at the upcoming 18th Party congress will be implemented faster than people can anticipate, and economic reforms expanded with more force than can be imagined.

Finally, from Evan Osnos:

Another theory, the most mundane, is that he is simply buried in work in the weeks ahead of the upcoming 18th Party Congress, China’s political bar mitzvah, in which Xi will be formally designated as the supreme ruler for the next ten years. While that might make sense to outsiders, I have some doubts, because it runs counter to the rules of Party stagecraft. In Chinese politics, the participants read every detail—the seating arrangements, the toasts, the time spent with each person and where—as a clue, so it seems unlikely that Xi would allow speculation to foment unless absolutely necessary.

Most plausible, for the moment, is that Xi’s people are managing the optics. If, in fact, he is hobbling around with a slipped disc, or had a mild heart attack, they will almost certainly prevent him from being shown in public looking frail. In modern Chinese history, physical robustness has always been used as a proxy for political health; when Chairman Mao was locked in battles with internal foes in late 1965, he sequestered himself for months of plotting and then burst back on to the scene to show his vigor by swimming the Yangtze. By then in his early seventies, Mao showed that he was very much alive and, to those who chose to see it that way, challenging old Confucian principles of physical modesty and humility.

But massaging the physical whereabouts of Chinese leaders has become considerably more difficult. Last year, Premier Wen Jiabao arrived at the scene of a train crash in Wenzhou to show his sympathy to the victims and survivors and to call for a thorough investigation. When people grumbled that he had waited too long to visit, he announced he had risen from eleven days in his sick bed in order to make the trip. But that claim was swiftly challenged by Chinese Web users, who found references to Wen attending a range of official meetings in previous days. Whatever the explanation, it wasn’t ideal: either he hadn’t been at the meetings where he was said to be or he hadn’t been in bed.

It’s hard to say exactly what the answer will turn out to be, but Osnos’ take seems very sensible to me.

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Filed under 2012 power transfer, Xi Jinping

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