Xi Jingpin

The mystery surrounding the disappearance of China’s president-in-waiting Xi Jinping remained on Thursday, as state media said he had sent condolences to the family of an old Communist revolutionary who died last week.

It was the first official signal in almost two weeks from the man expected to take the helm of the world’s most populous nation in just over a month.

But the brief official mention of Mr Xi sending his condolences “through various means” did little to quell speculation over his health and a string of cancelled appearances in the past 10 days.

The latest theory, put forward by a Hong Kong-based human rights group, is that he is recovering in a Beijing hospital after an operation to remove early-stage cancer cells from his liver.

Other reports have claimed he hurt his back swimming or even that he was the victim of an assassination attempt.

Even when the 59-year-old Mr Xi resurfaces, as he is likely to in the coming days, the rest of the world will almost certainly never know what happened to him in the time he was absent from public view.

In fact, the level of secrecy in China is so great that for most of its 1.34bn people, Mr Xi’s entire life can be summed up by a short official biography, scrubbed clean of almost all personal detail.

If they have cared to check, the average citizen will know he was born in 1953 and spent a bit of time in a rural area in northern China in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

He studied at the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing for a couple of years in the mid-1970s and then worked his way up through the Communist ranks in several provincial party posts.

But because of the ruling party’s amnesiac approach to China’s recent history, his official biography glosses over the fact that his time in the countryside was spent as a “sent-down educated youth” during the bloody Cultural Revolution.

It also ignores the fact that his father, Xi Zhongxun, a top revolutionary leader, was purged in the early 1960s and then rehabilitated in the 1980s to became one of the most powerful party elders.

The average citizen would have no idea that the young Jinping married the daughter of a former Chinese ambassador to the UK but divorced her after a few years, whereupon she moved to London.

He later married Peng Liyuan, a renowned singer, and the two had a daughter who currently studies at Harvard University in the US under an assumed name – a fact that is considered a state secret in China.

Looking through the scanty official record of his time as a provincial official in the 1980s and 1990s, it is impossible to divine his policy preferences.

In the absence of concrete facts about his life, many in China have developed their own theories as to the character of the man who is supposed to be their leader for the next decade.

The most tantalising idea circulating in Beijing political circles is that Mr Xi is a closet democrat – the Mikhail Gorbachev of China – just itching to unleash political liberalisation.

However, this theory is based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence and relies on assumptions about the character and proclivities, not of Mr Xi himself, but of people close to him.

Proponents of this argument point to his father’s relatively liberal reputation, his support for the reform-minded 1980s leader Hu Yaobang and his opposition to the 1989 crackdown on student-led democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square.

Even the tiniest details have been taken as evidence of Xi Jinping’s democratic yearning: the fact that his father for decades wore a watch that was given to him by a young Dalai Lama in the 1950s; that his mother sent a wreath from her and her children to the 2005 funeral of Zhao Ziyang, the liberal leader who was purged in 1989 for refusing to crush the democracy protests.

Stronger evidence that Mr Xi may harbour a secret desire for political reform can be found in the writing of his former PhD adviser, Professor Sun Liping of Tsinghua University.

Prof Sun has published some scathing essays on the need for braver political reforms and eventual democracy in China, most of which have been censored.

For those who think these scattered hints could add up to something more, it is worth recalling that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the outgoing president and premier respectively, were both seen as potential political reformers when they took power a decade ago.

Back then, much of the excitement centred on a photograph of a young Mr Wen standing right behind Zhao Ziyang as he addressed students in 1989 on Tiananmen Square, not long before the army launched its bloody crackdown.

In the next few months, however, Premier Wen will step down – with China no closer to being a liberal democracy than it was 10 years ago.

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