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International
6 November 2012

The strange disappearance of the most important man in China

Regular readers of the Deep End will have noticed that we often feature stories about China. This is fairly unusual for a non-specialist British blog. While the UK blogosphere concerns itself with every twist and turn of American politics, the internal affairs of the emerging superpower barely get a mention.

This is not surprising. In the absence of a shared language and without the thrilling unpredictability of a democratic system, Chinese politics appears to offer a British audience much less in the way of human drama.

But appearances can be deceptive – or, rather, disappearances.

Consider the case of Xi Jinping – who as we all know, or ought to know, is China’s leader in waiting. Mr Xi may seem a rather dull figure and yet, according to Mark Kitto’s report for Prospect magazine, his rise to power features a remarkable mystery:

  • “For almost a fortnight in early September, Xi Jinping disappeared. The next leader of China, due to be anointed at the Communist party’s 18th Congress (which starts on 8th November), could not be seen in public or in the official Chinese media. It was as if he had been airbrushed from the podium above the Tiananmen gate before he’d even stepped onto it.”

Imagine if, in March 2010, David Cameron had vanished from public view – without any explanation of any kind from the Conservative Party. Undoubtedly, every newspaper, blog and broadcaster would have been obsessed by the unexplained disappearance.

In China, of course, the news is controlled by the state, but that didn’t stop the rumours:

  • “It was a perfect example of what happens when the party doesn’t answer questions: the public made up the news and circulated it online. Xi had been assassinated; he had survived an assassination attempt (a staged car accident); he’d had a heart attack/a stroke; he had injured his back playing soccer or tennis.”

To this day, we can’t be sure what happened, but Mr Kitto – a China expert and long-term resident of the country – believes he has the explanation:

  • “In the first days of September, Xi attended a meeting between two of the prominent factions of the party’s old guard—the people who rule the country, or think they do. Such meetings take place regularly throughout the reign of whichever incumbent the old guard has picked as its public face. When that face is about to be replaced, the meetings become intense. There is conflict, sometimes physical. Certain people in the room really hate each other. Fifty years ago their fathers died in forced labour camps after similar arguments.”

This, by the way, is an unappreciated aspect of Chinese politics: the children of the men who did battle in the deadly power struggles of the Cultural Revolution are the ones now in power. It is in this context that the following allegedly took place:

  • “The meeting turned violent. They went at it hammer and sickle. Xi Jinping tried to calm them down. He put himself physically in the crossfire and unwittingly into the path of a chair as it was thrown across the room. It hit him in the back, seriously injuring him. Hence the absence, and the silence, and the rumours.”

To pursue the analogy to British politics, it’s as if David Cameron had been badly hurt in a violent altercation between Iain Duncan Smith and Francis Maude (to pick an entirely hypothetical example).

Of course, we don’t know whether the story concerning Xi Jinping is true or not. But perhaps the British ambassador should avoid any jokes about Chair-man Xi.

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