Xi Jinping’s recent absence: back spasm or knee jerk?

Author: Ryan Manuel, ANU

Chinese heir-apparent Xi Jinping’s recent two-week absence from public appearances led to a flurry of articles about how opaque China’s government is and how little we know about the future leadership.

Some argued that it questioned the legitimacy of China’s communist regime.

Even at the time, this questioning seemed a little overblown. Xi’s absence was his third fortnight-long disappearance from the public eye this year. Although happy to guess at what ailed him, few Chinese commentators seemed concerned by Xi’s illness, whatever it may have been. And no one seems to think this incident will genuinely threaten the Chinese system.

That does not mean that questions about the opacity of China’s government are not still valid. We can’t say who will be in which positions in the Chinese senior leadership when they are unveiled to us on 8 November. We can’t say exactly how many people will be on the Politburo’s Standing Committee (PBSC), China’s top body.

Elements of the Chinese system will always appear opaque, and predictions about Chinese elite politics will always be difficult due to the sheer difficulty of getting across all that is involved. For the last full transition, the internal files of all the new top leaders were leaked — but incoming head of state Hu Jintao was still described as a ‘mystery’, and commentators still got the exact number of people on the PBSC wrong.

And how much does our ability to predict the exact makeup of the senior leadership matter? We rarely know the exact details of any political transition or reshuffle, no matter what the political system. The future Chinese leaders are not at all unknown to us. They’ve been senior leaders for the past decade. It is almost certain that all of the members of the next standing committee have been members of the 25-member Politburo running China for the past five years. All of these people have met Western leaders, businessmen and diplomats many times. Xi has been to Australia and met leaders many times. These senior leaders are the subjects of a number of biographies.

The recent hubbub over Xi’s disappearance says as much about our analysis of China as it does about the Chinese regime. It reminds one of the tradition of parsing new leaders intently to see if they are ‘reformers’ or ‘hardliners’, thinking a real reformer is right around the corner. Our hunt for the ‘next Gorbachev’ means we focus on how a new individual at the top could bring great change. But Beijing focuses intently on preventing another Gorbachev. And we inevitably end up disappointed.

This is worsened by our tendency to project habits onto incoming leaders. As an example, who is this a description of?

A brilliant young leader, chosen because he is ‘apparently acceptable to both wings of the Party leadership’, rises to the top of the Party, fresh from dazzling overseas observers with his ‘unscripted style’. He ‘remains a mystery in the West and even to much of China. But he is generally considered to be part of the group of Chinese leaders who favour liberalizing the country’s economy’.

Given that China’s current top leader Hu Jintao is now usually described as ‘wooden, and distant’, perhaps few readers would have identified the description above as how Hu Jintao was portrayed in 2001, a year before he took the top job.

This is a reflection of the fact that China is ruled by a collective leadership structure, and decision-making is based on consensus. Leaders are debate moderators, and final arbiters only in a stalemate. So decisions will never be made solely on what the leader remembers from that brilliant discussion they had in Canberra one afternoon. It’ll be based on a compromise between the different interests and opinions of the entire senior leadership, with further input coming from trusted advisors or Party insiders and ex-leaders.

Almost all the issues on which we might wish to shape Beijing’s thinking are not issues for Xi Jinping and the top leadership. They are issues that have to be dealt with ‘at the appropriate lower level’ (duikou guanli). So we need our engagement to either target this appropriate level, or the bosses of that level. But how often do we know what that appropriate level is?

Rectifying an inability to identify the right people to talk to is key to making the Chinese system less opaque and working with it effectively. But we’re not going to get answers about how to solve that problem through analysing how Xi Jinping is feeling from day to day. Rather we would be better occupied spending less time looking at Xi and more time looking at the xitong (the system).

Ryan Manuel is an Asian Century Graduate Fellow in the East Asian Bureau of Economic Research at the Crawford School of Public Policy School, and a doctoral candidate at Oxford.