Xi Jinping Disappears from View

Chinese vice president and heir apparent Xi Jinping has not made a public appearance since September 1, prompting intense speculation about his health and his political status. Following on the Bo Xilai scandal earlier this year, his absence is yet another unwelcome wrinkle in the leadership’s plans for a smooth succession at the 18th Party Congress this fall. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) long official silence on Xi’s whereabouts also seems an anachronistic response that is out of step with China’s increasing global economic and political significance and the realities of the information age.

Q1: What has happened to Xi?

A1: Given the regime’s refusal to clarify Xi’s situation and the absence of reliable information, it is perhaps easier to say with confidence what has not happened to him. His disappearance is almost certainly not political. The CCP has invested five years in creating the expectation that Xi will take over from current President Hu Jintao at the fall Party Congress. Despite continuing rumors and some visible indications of intense political infighting behind-the-scenes tied to the succession, there is no reason to conclude that Xi’s accession has been derailed. In the wake of the political intrigues surrounding the Bo Xilai affair, any dramatic shift in the carefully scripted leadership handover would be interpreted as a sign of persistent deep divisions within the leadership, an impression the Politburo is determined to avoid.

This leaves some sort of health problem as the most likely explanation. Though observing its strict official silence, the regime seems to be quietly putting out the message that Xi’s ailment is a minor one—such as a back injury—and that he will appear again in public very soon, perhaps as early as this weekend. But the length of Xi’s absence thus far makes this narrative hard to swallow. Given the need to project strength before assuming power, it seems more likely that he is suffering from a condition that makes him either unable or unwilling (due to some obvious sign of frailty) to appear at present. Whatever the cause, after nearly two weeks of speculation and uncertainty, either a physical appearance by Xi or a credible explanation from the regime is needed soon to allow the CCP to get back on message and move forward with the transition process.

Q2: Why has the CCP refused to provide any information on Xi’s whereabouts?

A2: Nothing in Chinese politics is more sensitive than information about the health of the top leadership. The authorities probably also calculate that there is little to be gained by acknowledging that Xi is having some sort of difficulty. Obsessed with stability and uncomfortable with transparency, they worry that any disclosure would only touch off additional rounds of speculation. This playbook has helped the regime navigate past difficulties, but there is mounting evidence that it is no longer effective in the information age. Rampant speculation about Xi’s condition on Chinese social media sites weakens the regime’s legitimacy by stoking perceptions among the populace that the leadership is hiding the truth. It also breeds cynicism about the regime’s claim that CCP rule is somehow superior to that of other, more transparent political systems. Most importantly, developments in China are impacting the global economy more than ever before, making the regime’s deafening silence on Xi’s status yet another worry for already jittery markets.

Q3: What impact is Xi’s disappearance having on the leadership succession?

A3: The primary short-term consequence of Xi’s extended absence has been a further delay in announcing the formal dates for convening the Party Congress. The leadership had been keen to start the Congress as early as possible to project an image of normalcy and unity following a year of scandal and intense political infighting. Already several weeks behind the timeline established for announcing dates at the last Party Congress in 2007, the original plan to open the conclave by mid-October now seems a longshot. This is because the leadership must first hold the final plenum of the current CCP Central Committee and then allow a reasonable interval (roughly a week) before assembling the Congress delegates. Political jockeying over the top jobs and disagreements over whether to formally try Bo Xilai reportedly were previously complicating agreement on moving forward, and the uncertainty over Xi’s status has only exacerbated the problem. Nevertheless, as long as the Congress is held before the end of the year, the leadership can claim that it is operating well within the bounds of precedent set by previous meetings.

The longer-term implications largely turn on the severity of Xi’s condition. If he is able to return to normal duties quickly, the impact should be minimal. If, however, his ailment is serious enough to raise questions about his ability to serve out the two five-year terms expected of him as China’s new top leader, it may require a complete rebalancing of the regime’s competing interest groups. Coming to agreement on a new top lineup under the crunch of severe time pressure would be very difficult under such circumstances, increasing the prospects for a muddled outcome that would reduce the likelihood that the leadership would embark on much needed reforms.

Q4: What does this episode say about the succession process in China?

A4: One of the great strengths of the regime’s deliberate efforts during the reform era to rationalize the succession process has been to reduce uncertainty, minimizing destabilizing power struggles similar to those of the Mao period. That said, the five-year coronation process now in place requires that the authority of the leader-in-waiting be steadily increased, to the exclusion of that of possible rivals. This leaves the process very vulnerable to unexpected shocks, as Xi’s disappearance clearly demonstrates. The absence of an established contingency plan to manage such uncertainties in turn risks having the process grind to a sudden halt, resulting in the very instability the regime has sought to preclude.

Christopher K. Johnson is a senior adviser and holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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