China’s absent princeling is a mystery not a crisis

September 12, 2012

By John Foley

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

China’s growth is slowing, and president-in-waiting Xi Jinping hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks. China-watchers are discussing little else. The former issue matters greatly to the world, while the latter is fascinating, but basically unimportant.

Xi hasn’t made an appearance since Sept. 1. He was not listed as having attended a meeting of the military commission, and cancelled sit-downs with U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the Danish prime minister. Reporters were chided for asking foreign ministry officials about his health. Rumours – all unsubstantiated – range from a mild heart attack to an assault by forces loyal to ousted Bo Xilai.

It’s not the first time China’s authoritarian public relations machine has left the public to fill in the gaps. Two decades ago, premier Li Peng disappeared from view for over six weeks. Rumours at the time included a heart attack, or a political ouster. He subsequently returned to serve for five more years.

China needs a president, of course. What’s less clear is how much it matters that it’s Xi. China’s one-party system relies ever less on individuals than in the era of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Technocratic president Hu Jintao and his premier Wen Jiabao represented a big step away from strongman politics. The Party’s standing committee is a study in homogeneity, right down to the haircuts.

Xi’s views are as much a mystery as his whereabouts. What gives him legitimacy isn’t his unremarkable track record, but the belief that he has the support of the Party and, crucially, the military. If Xi can ensure stability and growth, he should have public support – but so might anyone else who can deliver those things. It’s a far cry from the issues-based politics of the U.S. presidential race. And of course, ordinary Chinese don’t get to choose.

True, a missing crown prince shouldn’t be taken too lightly. An unexpected disruption to the leadership process that resulted in internecine struggles would be damaging both for economic and political stability. And the secrecy doesn’t bode well for future openness. But assuming order can be maintained, what counts most for China is “how”, not “who”.

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