Recent news reports having come in from all across the world (except China) reporting that presumptive resident to be and current Vice President Xi Jinping of China have “disappeared.” Vice President Xi has not been seen in public since September 1, and his office cancelled scheduled meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the last minute. Furthermore, anonymous sources within the Chinese Communist Party claim that Vice President Xi also failed to attend an important Communist Party meeting. As a result of these cancellations the rumor mill in China and overseas has kicked into overdrive and China’s state-run media controls have blocked internet searches in the country related to Xi’s disappearance.
The timing of all of this is especially ominous given the fact that next month 2,270 delegates will convene in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The exact date of which has yet to still be announced. The Congress date is normally announced sometime in August, but as of mid September there is still no word as to when this once in a decade meeting will take place.
It is at this congress that seven of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s (and by extension the country’s) top leadership committee, will step-down along with an estimated 80% of the Central Committee itself and be replaced by a new generation of Chinese leadership. The easiest analogy one could give for how huge a change this is would be if in the U.S., the day a new president came to power, 80% of Congress and the Senate were to retire and be replaced by their subordinates (without elections of course).
The Chinese government has issued no explanation for Xi’s disappearance and meeting cancellations. While it is not unheard of for a meeting with a senior government official like Clinton to be cancelled, it is extremely irregular for a meeting with a fellow head of government to be cancelled, let alone two heads of government. A scheduled press conference last week that international media were invited to attend, prior to the Xi-Clinton meeting, was also called off at the last minute with a Chinese government spokesperson claiming that the scheduling of the press conference never existed in the first place.
In private, many U.S. State Department staffers and Danish diplomats claim that their Chinese opposite numbers have told them that Xi’s cancellations were the result of "bad back." Singapore’s foreign ministry, normally very eager to shout about their "close" relationship with the PRC, has been noticeably tight lipped about the whole situation. So what is going on? Is there cause for concern? The rumors circulating include that Xi is ill, that he has suffered an automobile accident, a heart attack, or even more sensationalist, that he has been assassinated.
While anything at this point is nothing more then speculation, the mood from China points to something very serious. In the wake of the Bo Xilai scandal and murder conviction of Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, the Communist Party’s carefully laid plans on who will be taking over have been thrown into chaos. Though a single political party controls the Chinese government, there are factions within the party that are jockeying for influence and ultimate control. Some of the more important factions include the League Faction, the Shanghai Clique, and the Princelings.
The League Faction is China’s populist faction. Its members came to prominence after serving together in the Communist Youth League. Current Chinese President Hu Jintao is associated with this faction, as is the presumptive future Vice President, Li Keqiang. They tend to come from China’s poorer provinces and they see their main mission as evening out the distribution of China’s wealth under communist ideals. However, they are fervently nationalistic and many of their members are anti-West and against China’s growing upper middle class that they see as being corrupt. On a good day they’re European style socialists, on a bad day they could be as bad as Mugabe style nationalists.
In contrast to the Shanghai Clique, also known as the Elitists, they come from China’s richer coastal provinces and represents China’s growing middle class; the faction was headed by former President Jiang Zhemin. This group of politicians is seen as being the most engaging to the West, wanting to integrate China in the international system and promoting "capitalist" economic practices. However, they are also heavily associated with individual corruption and are sometimes seen as abusing their power for personal gain. Think of a group of Wall Street CEOs running the country in a Mayor Bloomberg slash Donald Trump sort of way.
Xi himself belongs to the latter faction, the Princelings, a group of Chinese politicians who are the children of China’s key revolutionary and Maoist leaders. The Princelings see their mission as being the continuation of Mao and their parent’s legacy and to see China continue to grow prosperous and remain under Communist party rule. The group is the biggest anti-reformists of the factions and are accused of cronyism and that their privileged upbringing is out of step with their parent’s humble beginnings (think the Chinese equivalent of the Bush and Kennedy legacies). They are however, seen as a powerful faction that is able to unite both populist and elitist factions with individual members of this faction sympathizing with one of the other two factions. Hence Xi, a member of this faction being chosen as the next president. He’s the safe choice.
With the removal of Bo Xilai from the game board a void has been left and it needs to be filled. Candidates from each faction would have been fighting to elevate their positions, and those under them would be doing the same all the way down to the very bottom of the Chinese political hierarchy. Something like this is unprecedented in modern Chinese history and there is a good chance that Xi Jinping has stepped away from the limelight to deal with this political feuding. Of which the first victim has been announced. Ling Jihua, a Hu Jintao populist ally and current central secretariat (the equivalent to say a chief of staff) was demoted earlier this month, another rare thing to happen in China. The reason was blamed on the political backlash associated to a supposed automobile incident involving his son driving a Ferrari, but other analysts suspect it is a reprimand for trying to position himself higher during the transition of power too aggressively.
If this is true, and Xi’s absence is merely associated with him trying to resolve political infighting or minor illness, we can expect Xi to make a public appearance soon in the coming week to quash rumors of his demise. Expect a Mao’s Yangzte River swim like photo op showing him to be in good health. However, at the same time if something more serious is going on and Xi Jinping is gravely ill or even dead the government silence could be attributed to the various factions scrambling even more to fill a potential Xi void and secure positions of power before announcing yet another change of plans to the world.
The next four weeks are going to be crucial for China, and for the world. Will Xi assume power? Or will someone else? If someone else will who would it be? Which faction will be in control? Only time will tell.