The 11-day disappearance of Xi Jinping (right), China’s presumptive heir to power, is raising speculation about a possible power struggle within the ruling Communist party and highlighting the tension between the country’s increasingly open, dynamic economy and its closed and secretive political elite.
China’s next leader has not been seen in public he suffered a heart attack, a Beijing source told London’s Daily Telegraph. Other observers believe his absence is due to political infighting within the ruling party’s upper echelons.
“A theory I have is that Xi Jinping is busy working out, figuring out, negotiating a solution to the Bo Xilai case,” Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan* told National Public Radio.
China’s rulers sparked an economic boom that lifted tens of millions out of poverty and elevated the country into the world’s second-largest economy, notes one analyst.
“However, its own ability to change has not kept up. Now in its seventh decade, it has yet to create a transparent system of governance for itself – a failure highlighted by fevered speculation about the disappearance of Xi Jinping,” writes the FT’s Kathrin Hille. “The party sticks to rigid Leninist structures increasingly at odds with the market economy and pluralist society it helped create.”
China’s social media community has speculated “about whether Mr. Xi will be a Deng Xiaoping figure who will open China’s authoritarian system, or a conservative ‘princeling’ (a privileged son of a party loyalist) who will protect his party’s privilege,” one observer notes, but now Xi’s disappearance threatens to “throw the entire transition into chaos,” analysts suggest.
The case illustrates one of the core contradictions of China’s Market-Leninist system – between an open economy and a closed, secretive party.
The ruling Communist elite simply “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,” said Harvard University China expert Anthony Saich.
The party’s secretive approach may prove counterproductive, observers say, if speculation fuels uncertainty.
“In most countries including in Asia, people are entitled to know the health of their leaders, but in China this is still regarded as state secrets,” said Willy Lam, a veteran China watcher who teaches at universities in Hong Kong and Japan.
“The Chinese leadership is worried about social stability,” echoed David Zweig, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “But nothing creates greater social instability than this kind of lack of information about the leadership.”
The affair also threatens to undermine the ruling party’s much-cherished reputation for efficient – if authoritarian – governance, the New York Times suggests.
“These are not signs that everything is going well,” said Bo Zhiyue, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore. “Negotiations seem to be going on.”
China’s political system has long been a black box, but its all-encompassing secrecy has begun to seem anachronistic as the country has become one of the world’s biggest economic, political and military powers. …. Smooth transitions are considered by many Chinese as a crucial test of the Communist Party’s longevity, and its leaders are eager to make the case that their authoritarian system can manage China better than a multiparty democracy could.
“Authorities are worried about anything that may tarnish the transition,” said Joseph Y. S. Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong. “But this concern is working against their interests; they should come out with a clear statement” about Mr. Xi’s whereabouts.
But some observers contend that that the affair will play into the hands of party reformers and democracy advocates.
“Xi’s disappearance will undoubtedly serve to 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,” writes analyst Yun Tang.
He is probably thinking of inner-party reformers like Lin Zhe, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing.
“We will definitely have fully competitive elections even for our top leaders including the party secretary-general eventually,” she asserts. “Democracy is a global trend nobody can stem. Officials will work harder and be more conscientious if they have to run for office.”
*Andrew Nathan is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.