As his title suggests, Mr Xi is no backbench politician. He is in fact due to be unveiled as the new President when the Communist Party holds its Congress in Beijing, which is expected to start in October.
Questions surrounding Mr Xi’s whereabouts began on 5th September after authorities cancelled the Vice President’s meeting with Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, citing “unexpected scheduling reasons”. He was not seen again publicly until 15th September when he attended an event to mark National Science Day and has since met for talks with US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in Beijing.
The Communist Party has completely failed to adequately explain Mr Xi’s disappearance. Before he returned to public life, rumours concerning his whereabouts were far ranging – one theory was that he hurt his back swimming, whilst others speculated that he had been assassinated. Chinese social media, such as Twitter-like micro-blogging site Sina Weibo, were awash with speculation over Mr Xi’s whereabouts, (dodging strict censorship that blocks Mr Xi’s name, by referring to him as ‘The Crown Prince’), throwing the Chinese political system into turmoil.
Hostility towards the Communist Party’s silence mushroomed across the internet, with typical comments along the lines of the following: “For all we know he could be just taking a holiday before the big day (Communist Party Congress, pencilled in for late October). We’d understand if they’d just tell us, but here we are, all conspiring.”
After Mr Xi’s reappearance a senior Communist Party official was quoted on CNN saying that Mr Xi has suffered a back injury from sport. However, the Chinese government did not issue an official statement which has promoted further speculation of a power struggle within the Communist Party. Rumours that he has had a stroke, emergency cancer surgery or a heart attack continue to rumble on.
One can only imagine the chaos that would ensue if a senior politician of Mr Xi’s stature went missing in the West. There is no way on earth that he or she could remain missing for over ten days and then mysteriously reappear without the state providing some indication of why they had not been seen. However, the Communist Party is not subject to anywhere near the same degree of scrutiny as political parties in the West, meaning that they could dismiss Mr Xi’s disappearance with an incredibly cursory “we have said enough on this issue.”
There is no textbook case study on what a government should do if a leader falls ill and is absent from public life. The closest modern example that can be applied is how the North Korean media kept Kim Jong-il’s death a complete secret for 48 hours after it happened, before releasing the plan for Kim Jong-un’s succession.
Now that Mr Xi has reappeared and is resuming his duties as normal it seems that the Chinese government are hoping his disappearance will simply be forgotten. However, in a world where information can be transmitted thousands of miles with a single click and speculation is difficult to control, it is doubtful whether the Communist Party can expect the world to overlook Mr Xi’s disappearance.
From a PR perspective, a shadow will be cast over the Chinese government if it fails to issue an official narrative on why Mr Xi disappeared.
China- a country with the largest population and second largest economy on earth- will have the eyes of the world upon it as the crucial Communist Party congress approaches -It certainly cannot afford any more cack handed news management.