Beyond the Bubble

By Danny Zhang

During the last two weeks, curious netizens and concerned citizens in China speculated about the fate of that country’s presumptive president-in-waiting, as he failed to make a public appearance for 14 straight days.

Xi Jinping, aged 59, is currently China’s Vice President. He is set to take the reins of national leadership from current Communist Party Secretary General Hu Jintao in the upcoming Party Congress. Sometime in the next two years, Xi will also assume the titles of President of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

His rising profile in the world’s most populous nation in a year of tumultuous internal and external challenges made his disappearance from public view all the more intriguing and tense. Xi was photographed delivering a speech to a meeting of cadres from the Communist Party School on Sept. 1.

In the following week, Xi was scheduled to meet with several foreign dignitaries, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the prime ministers of Singapore and Denmark. The Chinese government canceled each of those meetings, giving no official explanation.

The absence of an official statement set the rumor mills in motion. Many claimed that Xi had injured his back while playing sports. Yet, some suggested more serious health issues, like a heart attack or a stroke, as the explanation. Others, in more flamboyant stories, speculated unresolved political disputes, with one wild proposition even suggesting that Xi was involved in an assassination attempt by car crash.

The Chinese government, in attempt to control the spread of such rumors, clenched its fists of censorship, deleting search engine results of the president-in-waiting’s name and even “back injury.”

This curious event occurred in a year that has been anything but the smooth generational transition it was supposed to be for the Chinese Community Party. In March of this year, the party purged one of its popular rising stars, Bo Xilai, from power after his deputy sneaked into the American consulate in Chengdu, claiming to possess evidence of his boss’ gross corruption and fearing for his own life.

Bo’s wife was later tried and convicted for poisoning a British businessman in Nov. 2011 with whom the family had close ties. The high-profile firing of Bo exposed to the Chinese people, in a very public and embarrassing way, to the corrupt and nepotistic nature of party politics. This incident was also said to have reflected internal party infighting between factions who were competing for power in the leadership transition.

Furthermore, the growth of the Chinese economy has shown signs of slowing down in recent months. On the foreign policy front, China is facing off against Japan in a bitter sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Against this tumultuous political backdrop, Xi made his first public appearance in two weeks last Saturday. State media reported on his visit to a university campus in Beijing, without reference to his public absence over the prior two weeks. The presumptive president seemed to be in fine health.

However, Xi’s reappearance did little to quell the wariness of many who are closely following the leadership transition. They cite the list of contentious political events this year as signs of increasing fissures within China’s ruling party and are concerned about the potential consequences of a shaky transition on the country’s internal stability and external policies.