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.