11 Sep 2012

Where is China’s ‘crown prince’, Xi Jinping?

Where is Xi Jinping? Why did he cancel his meeting with Hilary Clinton? Has he been hurt in a swimming accident? Does he have a football injury? Has he had a stroke? A heart attack? Or has someone harmed him?

I don’t normally report rumours, but when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party the rumours have become the story. Later this year Xi is expected to take over from Hu Jintao as CCP leader and therefore President of China. Three scheduled meetings with foreign dignitaries in the last 10 days were cancelled. He allegedly failed to show at an important internal party meeting. But the Chinese government has said not a single word about his absence.

I feel for Hong Lei, the Foreign Ministry spokesman. He is probably in the dark like nearly everyone else in China. Asked “Is Xi Jinping alive?” by a foreign journalist at the regular press conference in Beijing this morning, he replied: “I hope you can ask a serious question.” All further enquiries were met with “I have already answered that question” – which of course he hadn’t.

If you go onto the internet in China you won’t get very far – according to Reuters, the search term “Xi Jinping” has been blocked. People are referring to him as “Crown Prince” so they can exchange gossip and rumours without their comments being erased by the censors. Xi is what’s known as a “princeling” – Communist aristocracy, the son of Xi Zhongxun, a CCP leader of Mao’s generation. For decades, his big rival was Bo Xilai, another “princeling”.

Bo was disgraced earlier this year after his wife was accused of the murder of a British businessman, but few in China believe that his demise was about crime. It was part of a power struggle, which Bo lost. Some now speculate that Xi’s disappearence is somehow connected – Bo may be under house arrest or in prison (again, there’s no information on his whereabouts) but perhaps his henchmen are targeting Xi.

Every decade the Chinese Communist party changes leadership. It’s a deal done behind high walls, the aim a “smooth transition” – seamless, almost imperceptible. In the Forbidden City, from which the emperors used to rule, faceless apparatchiks meet to decide which of them will be elevated to the most senior positions. The Chinese people have no say in the matter. This time mystery, uncertainty and rumours of skulduggery are damaging the image of stability and harmony the Communist party likes to convey. We know a power struggle is underway. We thought that when Bo was disgraced, the struggle might have been resolved. But maybe not. The less the party functionaries say, the more the speculation and rumours run wild, and the less faith Chinese people have in the leadership of their country.

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