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Strange case of Xi hints at a looming leadership crisis

Instead of projecting confidence and competence in the once-in-a-decade transition, China's leadership revealed its insecurity and clumsiness in handling such hand-overs.

Now that Xi Jinping, the presumptive next leader of China, has resurfaced after nearly two weeks away from public view, it is time to reflect on how this bizarre episode has served to illustrate the frailties of the regime astride the world's second-largest economy.

Even before Mr Xi's return to public life on Saturday in Beijing, when he appeared at the China Agricultural University, the handling of his unexplained absence had hurt the image of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Instead of projecting confidence and competence in the once-in-a-decade transition, China's leadership revealed its insecurity and clumsiness in handling such hand-overs.

China has maintained its usual secrecy and failed to reassure its own people and the international community on why Mr Xi was absent for so long, cancelling meetings with top officials from the US and elsewhere. As a result, lurid rumours and wild speculations about Mr Xi's whereabout, dominated the conversations about China and its political future.

What is worse is that Mr Xi's reappearance is unlikely to end such rumours, because the party has yet to explain what precisely prevented him from performing his official duties during the last two weeks.

Behind such secrecy lie more serious systemic factors that make China's one-party state so unusually brittle and ham-fisted, despite its ability to deliver impressive economic results for three decades.

One of the causes of such systemic weaknesses stems from the party's source of power and legitimacy. Unlike leaders elected through popular contestation, the highest officials of the Communist Party are self-appointed. They are not even elected by members of the party itself. Since the source of power resides at the very top of the regime, the system is designed not to respond to the concerns, let alone cater to the interests, that flow from below.

In the case of Mr Xi's disappearance, what the western press failed to notice is that the rank and file of the Communist Party (roughly 80 million people) were kept in the dark as well about what ailed their next leader.

This peculiar configuration of power and legitimacy in the Chinese system leads to poor crisis management because of another paradox: political power may reside at the very top, but it is also dispersed at the very top.

Since the end of the rule of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, China has been governed by a "dictatorship without dictators". Tough decisions during crisis require consensus among rival leaders representing different factions.

Thus, in a political crisis such as Mr Xi's presumed health problem, the top concerns of the other members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo are not how to calm the rank and file and the Chinese public (since they don't elect them anyway), but rather how to avoid making a wrong move that could hurt them politically.

For those who remember how China handled the Bo Xilai crisis (it took the party six weeks before suspending him from the Politburo) and the collision between a Chinese fighter jet and an American spy plane over the South China Sea in April 2001, Beijing's style of crisis management is typically marked by excessive caution at the early stages. Thus, Chinese leaders usually miss the best opportunity to prevent a minor incident from escalating.

Another cause of the regime's weakness in managing crisis is its lack of credibility. Autocratic regimes survive on secrecy and lies, but secrecy and lying are very pricey. The more a regime wants its people to believe, the more the propaganda falls on deaf ears. In the case of the apparent illness of a top leader, anything the Chinese government says will be either dismissed as fiction or subject to incessant questioning.

The final revelation of this episode is that, as in all autocracies, succession in contemporary China continues to be an uncertain and unpredictable process. Disclosure of Mr Xi's ailment, if he is indeed ailing, could well have opened another serious political crisis among factions competing for power.

For instance, the news might reopen negotiations regarding the allocation of leadership slots and policy portfolios that had already been agreed on. But without fixing China's succession system, crisis of confidence in the leadership of the Chinese state will continue to be a regular phenomenon, rather than the exception.

Although his unexplained two-week disappearance is unlikely to derail his assumption of power in the coming weeks, Mr Xi could very likely face a new political challenge once anointed. His political stock has been damaged. In the years ahead, his health problems (and speculation about them) will cast a dark shadow over his leadership. It is unfortunate that his pending coronation has to take place under such inauspicious circumstances.


Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

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