China at crossroad: Xi Jinping rumours and “old man” politics

Xi Jinping

Reuters says in its report from Beijing today “Chinese Vice-Premier Xi Jinping‘s public absence put down to ailment”. (Xi is the vice-president,  not the vice-premier.)

Xi has been absent from the public scene for more than 10 days, unable to meet visiting foreign leaders and dignitaries including US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the leaders of Singapore and Denmark.”

China’s official source has declined to reveal the reason for Xi’s absence in keeping with its tradition of keeping secret every thing about the daily life of top leaders.

Media thirsty for sensational news certainly has spared no effort to get insider information, but has failed as different sources give different stories.

“A source close to the Beijing leadership said: ‘Xi injured his back when he went for his daily swim,’” Reuters says. “Another source, citing people close to Xi, said: ‘He’s unwell, but it’s not a big problem.’”

New York Times, however, says in its report today, “Some diplomats say they have heard that Mr. Xi suffered a pulled muscle while swimming or playing soccer. One media report, since retracted, had it that Mr. Xi was hurt in an auto accident when a military official tried to injure or kill him in a revenge plot. A well-connected political analyst in Beijing said in an interview that Mr. Xi might have had a mild heart attack.”

Which story is true? Perhaps, none of them is true. In fact, such absence of a top leader designated as Hu Jintao’s successor has a lot of possible indications:

1. Perhaps, the powerful elders find that Xi has failed in the 5-year test of his competence and decided to replace him with another. However, as he has not committed any serious error, direct public removal may be too harsh and unfair to Xi. Sickness is the best excuse.

2. Perhaps, Xi really has a serious health problem or an injury in an auto crash as the New York Times reports. He is thus unable to function satisfactorily as the party general secretary even for five years, let alone a decade; therefore, it would be wise to find a replacement now. That would be a very difficult decision, as various factions have quite different candidates. As Xi’s replacement has not been decided, the date of the 18th Party Congress cannot not yet be fixed.

3. Perhaps, Xi is really “unwell, but it’s not a big problem,” according to another Reuters’ source, but a “not big problem” may not cause such a long absence.

In fact, anything is possible, but as Xi has not taken over the top post nor built up his power base, whatever his problem, the impact on China may not be great.

The serious problem for China is the old age of the members of its decision making body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).

One has to climb the official ladder from county, city, prefecture, province up to central level, and then to the Politburo and finally to the PSC. It is a long journey that takes a lifetime. It has the advantage that those who have risen to the top have rich experience in administration, but the disadvantages are serious:

1. People are close to the age of 60 when they become PSC members (except chosen successors who do not have power). The top leader, the general secretary, has no designated successor until five years after he takes office. If he dies or is seriously ill (that is not impossible for a man that age) before he has a designated successor, China may be in chaos due to the fight for succession.

2. A talented statesman has to wait for decades before he has the opportunity to give full play to his talents. That is a serious waste of talents. In Chinese history, it was quite common for people at much younger age to become satisfactory prime ministers. A prominent example is Zhuge Liang, a well-known statesman in Chinese history. He became prime minister at the age of 30.

Editor’s Note: As would be expected, searches for the name “Xi Jinping” on Chinese search engines are blocked.

Categories: Politics & Law

Tags: , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. I like your concise decryption of the potential outcomes of Xi Jinping being absent.



  1. China’s Xi appears in public after 2-week absence « China Daily Mail
  2. China’s Xi Jinping appears in public after 2-week absence « China Daily Mail
  3. China inequality causes unease « China Daily Mail

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