Xi Jinping, China’s presumed next president, re-emerges after two-week disappearing act

The leadership of China is passing through what is normally a choreographed ballet of renewal and change which occurs once every ten years. But this year, the choreography seems to have had a few unexpected steps, as the succession of a new generation of leaders to be headed by Xi Jinping has run into a few obstacles. Ian Johnson of the New York Times has reported that no dates have as yet been set for the Communist Party Congress, which was originally expected to be held in mid-October. He writes,

One reason for the delay, the experts say, is what now appears to have been a contentious meeting in early August at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, China. According to the official script, this was to have been the final big meeting before the congress of leaders from the party’s various factions: the military, big state enterprises, descendants of revolutionary families, leaders of critical Communist Party organizations and others. The details of the congress were to be finalized at Beidaihe and the dates announced later in August.

Instead, according to information that is slowly leaking out, the Beidaihe meeting and other sessions beforehand in Beijing were especially tense. “The atmosphere was very bad, and the struggles were very intense,” said a political analyst with connections to the party’s nerve center, the General Office.

–Ian Johnson, “Off-Script Scramble for Power in a Chinese Leader’s Absence,” New York Times, September 13, 2012.

Xi Jinping, the heir apparent to current President Hu Jintao, disappeared from public view two weeks ago, giving rise to a variety of rumors, from one that said he had hurt his back swimming to others that suggested he might have had a heart attack or a stroke.

Now, he has finally surfaced, putting in an appearance at the China Agricultural University Saturday morning for activities marking this year’s National Science Popularization Day.

See Xinhuanet, September 15, 2012 (with photos).

Before he reappeared, John Garnaut, the China correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote that Xi planned to crack down on the security apparatus, including the removal from the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the position with the security portfolio, as part of a downsizing of the group from nine to seven members. Much remains up in the air, however.

See John Garnaut, “Xi plans to crack down on security,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 15, 2012.

Meanwhile, Malcolm Moore of the The Daily Telegraph provides intriguing details of the possible causes of Xi Jinping’s two-week absence and the delay in announcing the dates for the Party Congress. From Beijing, he writes,

“At the Beidaihe meeting, no decisions were made but the old gang criticised Xi harshly, especially Qiao Shi and Song Ping,” said the former editor, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Both Mr Qiao, 87, and Mr Song, 95, are strong supporters of Hu Jintao, the outgoing president.

The elders allegedly accused Mr Xi of not sticking to the rules by meeting twice with members of the Central Military Commission, which controls the People’s Liberation Army, while Mr Hu was visiting Hong Kong in early July.

One meeting occurred in Mr Xi’s house and the other at the commission’s compound.

“They called him unreliable and even brought up the idea of significantly delaying the party congress,” said the source. “The fight was so harsh that Jiang Zemin [the former president] had to mediate.”

With Hu Jintao preparing to step down from power, and hand over to Mr Xi, he faces the uncertainty of whether his successor will continue his legacy, or turn against him, a perennial fear for a Chinese politician.

A new rift appears to have emerged between the two main factions in the Communist Party: the “red” princelings, the up-and-coming children of Communist Party heroes, and the technocrats.

Mr Xi is a princeling, while Mr Hu is a technocrat, although Mr Xi has been successful at bridging the divide. “Song Ping and the other elders are suspicious of Mr Xi and the other princelings because they are not obedient. They saw these princelings grow up and know the difference between them and Mr Hu and Wen Jiabao [China’s premier], who are more polite and less personally ambitious”.

The pressure on Mr Xi, who is the focus of the world’s attention as he tries to grasp his chance to be president, may explain his mysterious absence.

–Malcom Moore (Beijing) “Xi Jinping ‘under huge pressure’ from inside the Communist party; Xi Jinping, China’s president-in-waiting, who has not been seen in public for two weeks, was under intense pressure from within the Communist party before he disappeared, the Daily Telegraph has been told,” The Daily Telegraph, September 14, 2012 (7:45 p.m. BST).

The Chinese succession is of tremendous importance not only to the citizens of China, but also to the rest of the world. The choreography is not going as planned. Stay tuned.

The Trenchant Observer

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"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.