September 11, 2012 7:31 pm

Chinese puzzle over leader’s fate

Xi Jinping’s disappearance raises questions about the party’s transition

For years it has been clear that Xi Jinping was being groomed to become the next general secretary of the Communist party and hence president of China. The only thing that remained was to set the date for the 18th party congress and anoint him. There is just one problem with this well-choreographed transition: Mr Xi has disappeared.

Mr Xi, 59, has not been seen for more than a week. His sudden absence adds a bizarre twist to a transition already thrown into a spin by the downfall of Bo Xilai, the Chongqing party chief who had been expected to join Mr Xi as a standing committee member.

Last Wednesday, meetings between Mr Xi and Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, and Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, were abruptly cancelled. US diplomats were told Mr Xi had injured his back. So sensitive is the topic that internet searches for “back injury” have been blocked. The mystery deepened on Monday when Mr Xi cancelled yet another meeting, this time with Denmark’s prime minister. Chinese authorities denied the meeting had ever been scheduled. “We have told everybody everything,” said the foreign ministry in an almost Orwellian reversal of the truth.

Predictably, the information vacuum has been filled with rumours: that Mr Xi has had a heart attack or been involved in a car crash. There may be an innocent explanation. Yet so opaque and anachronistic is the political system that people have nothing to fall back on but speculation. China’s leaders sometimes behave more like the imperial courts of old than guardians of a modern state.

Even if, as seems probable, Mr Xi reappears fit and ready to lead, it will be hard to claim the leadership transition has been smooth. That is perhaps not so surprising. Hu Jintao’s elevation a decade ago was the only time since 1949 that the Communist party has managed anything like an orderly handover.

The Bo Xilai scandal exposed a naked fight for power and a staggering level of corruption at the top of China’s political pyramid. Mr Xi himself warned cadres they risked falling into the “abyss of luxury and corruption”. The unseemly scramble for power coincides with an uncomfortably sharp economic slowdown.

These are difficult times for the Communist party. For the moment, we must assume that Mr Xi will take over next month as planned. But after the drama of the transition, he will have a hard time persuading the Chinese people that he heads a competent and meritocratic organisation.

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