If Xi Jinping is OK, let him show his face


China's Vice President Xi Jinping.


Jason Lee

If Xi Jinping is alive and well, he has yet to squash rumors otherwise.

All it would take is showing his face, but that is exactly what he hasn't done since Sept. 1. 

While that may not in and of itself be concerning, the fact that the presumptive Chinese president canceled at least four meetings with prominent foreign dignitaries (including Hillary Clinton) in that time, is definitely noteworthy.

The rumor mill is churning — ranging from a run-of-the-mill back ache after swimming, to an injury suffered from an assassination attempt.

The Chinese government hasn't quelled speculation. If anything, they've done otherwise, dodging questions and going full force censoring his name online. 

GlobalPost infographic: Xi Jinping has gone MIA   

In response to questions about whether Xi had been injured, Hong Lei, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, said Tuesday that he had no information on the matter.

When a foreign journalist pushed further, asking whether there was any instability in the Chinese government, Lei gave a most curious answer: "I hope you will raise serious questions."

As the Economist notes, it would appear that a serious question had indeed already been asked.

So, the question now is, why does a government that explicitly prioritizes stability above all else, not do so in this case? Assuming Xi is more or less fine, and that's all it would take to put the matter rather quickly to rest. 

GlobalPost reached out to Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations director of Asia studies, who said that the "unwillingness of the Chinese government to provide any explanation for Xi’s whereabouts speaks to at least two challenges the country’s political system has thus far failed to address."

More from Economy:

First, Beijing faces a continued challenge in recognizing the heightened need and demand for greater transparency now that the country is a global power. Stability and a smooth transition in China matter not only to the Chinese government but also to the Chinese people, the international community, and international markets. The importance of transparency is a lesson Beijing apparently must relearn on a daily basis as it deals with crises such as the Sichuan earthquake, the Wenzhou rail crash, and hundreds of thousands of protests annually.

Second, in the case of a serious mishap to China’s apparent president-elect, who will succeed him? In a system where leaders are selected from on-high for particular positions, there wouldn’t seem to be a clear second choice. In this case, the murky succession process could become the source of a fierce factional battle and a serious liability.

Michael Mazza, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, speculated that in Xi's absence Hu Jintao might get his way and see China's current vice premier, Li Keqiang, step into the presidency, though Mazza didn't think that would necessarily go smoothly.

Mazza wrote by email:

If Xi Jinping doesn't turn up, all bets are off on what the power transition looks like. ... If Xi really is out of the picture — and that’s a big “if” — the 18th Party Congress, and thus the leadership transition, likely gets delayed. Whether that’s a matter of weeks or months is anybody’s guess.

Even if the likeliest explanation is the simplest one — that Xi has some sort of resolvable health issue — there can be no doubt Xi's failure to show his face in more than a week comes at a crucial time for China. The Party Congress at which it is expected Xi will be crowned the next president of China is due to happen in October, but no official date has been set. By most accounts, the world's second largest economy is slowing down, and the embers of the Bo Xilai conflagration still smolder.

If "stability and a smooth transition" are China's priorities, as Economy wrote in her email, China isn't scoring very well.

Hu Xingdou, a professor from the Beijing Institute of Technology, put it succinctly when he spoke with the Telegraph: “Rumors die when you open up.”