Monday, September 17, 2012

Now you see him, now you don't

After two full weeks in limbo, Xi Jinping suddenly showed up in public again this weekend, with a walkabout at a children's science fair at the Agricultural University in Beijing. No, not exactly the most prestigious or high profile event - but a good way to avoid the pesky attentions of the foreign press. After such a mysterious and disturbing absence from public life since the end of last month, there is now inevitably some facetious speculation that the avuncular figure who strolled around the campus on Saturday beaming with good health was a body double. Or an animatronic mannequin. It's been announced that Xi will be representing the Chinese leadership at an ASEAN trade fair in south China at the end of of this week; a full international press corps there will be less easily convinced by a robot or an actor standing in for him.

As Reuters, Bloomberg, and the Wall Street Journal, among numerous others, have commented, the episode has been yet another PR disaster for China - precipitating wild speculation about what might be ailing Xi (heart attack, stroke, assassination attempt, slipped disc), along with renewed rumours of political infighting within the Party hierarchy (was Bo Xilai or one of his faction yet attempting to stage a comeback, a 'counter-coup'? was Xi falling out of favour with his peers for some other reason and in danger of being passed over as Hu Jintao's successor - a transfer of power that was to have been affirmed within the next month??). The old school Communist instinct to keep all aspects of the government's inner workings shrouded in secrecy is becoming more and more harmful. In this Information Age, the age of Weibo (China's equivalent of Twitter), attempting to restrict the flow of information about the Party leadership actually threatens to create instability rather than contain it. Xi is already one of the half dozen most powerful men in China, probably de facto the No. 2 by now, and is in the process of assuming the role of paramount leader over the coming year. You can't have someone that important just vanish off the face of the earth for two weeks - without unleashing a shitstorm. 

A few token official engagements aren't going to quickly undo the damage wrought by this disappearing act. After all, Zhou Yongkang, supposedly Bo Xilai's leading ally in the Politburo, has effectively been sidelined since May (at least, according to Jamil Anderlini, the China correspondent for the Financial Times) despite nominally retaining his various roles and titles; going through the motions of official business and making the occasional important-sounding pronouncement is not, in the Through-The-Looking-Glass world of the Chinese government, necessarily any guarantee that you are actually 'in power' any more. Uncertainties about the imminent leadership transition still abound, with the date of the next National Congress - at which the new Politburo line-up would be unveiled - still to be announced. It's usually some time in October, so they're leaving it rather late in the day to finalise the details of the event. And while this dithering continues, much else is up in the air too: major public events in Beijing are postponed or cancelled; the prospects for any large concerts or music festivals around the upcoming National Holiday week at the beginning of October seem grim; even the Beijing Marathon, originally scheduled for the 14th October, has now been put indefinitely on hold. It's a crazy, chaotic situation - something that tarnishes China's international image and gravely undermines the credibility of her leadership.

A Public Relations '101' for the Chinese Communist Party

A plausible lie is better than an implausible one.

But the truth is better than any lie. Even the most awkward truths can be 'spun' to limit the damage they may cause; lies will destroy your credibility if exposed, and may never be fully accepted anyway by an increasingly astute and sceptical populace.

And the worst thing of all is to SAY NOTHING.

Come on, chaps. It's really not that difficult.


Froog said...

Of the many conspiracy theories floating around regarding Xi's sudden loss of 'profile', I think the most temptingly plausible is that either he's ruffled too many feathers in fighting off the Bo Xilai challenge, and/or that a lot of dirt on him has emerged from the criminal investigations into Bo and his wife (Gu Kailai) and his henchman (Wang Lijun), making his status as leader-designate no longer tenable. Hence, all the other craziness - like failing to commit to a National Congress date - is caused by frantic last-minute negotiations over who might replace him.

I'd like to see Wang Qishan get the nod, much the most assured of the current crop of leaders. Unfortunately, he's a bit too old at 64. (The CCP seems to have painted itself into a bit of corner with its newfound insistence on leaders retiring when they pass 70, combined with an unwritten principle of 10-year term limits for the highest offices. This wouldn't be so bad if they could cast the net more widely during each promotion cycle, but they're still rather in thrall to the old school notion that someone isn't experienced enough to be considered for a top position until he's nearly sixty. Thus the two most promising candidates for Hu's position, Vice-Premier Wang Qishan and Guangdong Party Chief Wang Yang are arbitrarily excluded from consideration - the former too old, and the latter, at 57, still just a little too young. It's crazy.)

I've never warmed to Xi Jinping, but if he really is on the way out... I fear there will a worse come in his place.

Perhaps Wang Qishan can have a word with the chaps who forged He Kexin's passport...

John said...

Radio 4's Profile programme covered Xi Jinping the other day. Hopefully you can listen to it here . He comes over as a fairly decent chap although the generally held opinion is that he's not suitable for leadership. An engineering background, within the age bracket and hidden-from-view-nice yes but lacking other essential characteristics. Even charisma was touched upon as China moves further into the future. The one thing that does stand him out though is his family's wealth. Post Mao's little shindig (I jest / insult) he may be, along with the others, -- and he was made to live with the poor and such -- but like Hu Jintao he's loaded. Seems to be an important factor in China as well as on the US campaign trail.
As for PR gaffs, it really has been a record breaking year hasn't it. Not that, as in the Olympics, China's been competing well for that long.

Froog said...

Thanks for the link, John. Not sure when I'll have time to watch it.

Where have you been these past few months?

John said...

Haha, hi Froog. It's radio and only 15 minutes long. ;)

I lurk when I can, wish I could comment more. I only told a teeny, tiny white lie when I said I was going to stick around no matter where you ended up moving to! No but seriously, I only read your blog should I have time to read any at all and while I'm admittedly lagging behind now, as far as I'm concerned it's one of only a few blogs worth reading on a continual basis of all those I've ever seen. You're still my homepage sir! ;)

John said...

Oops, correction- "You're still my homepage good sir"
Made it sound like you were still teaching or something...

Ah, looks like I missed your other reply to me too (the post about marathons); sorry about that, I only just noticed. Mind you, it's nice to be missed all the same.