The operatic buzz among China watchers the last few days has been the latest rumor put forward to explain why Xi Jinping, the odds-on favorite to be elected as the next decadal CCP boss and head of China’s government next week, stealthily dropped from the radar on September 1st. Xi’s disappearance included the abrupt cancelation of all meetings a few days later, including one with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Xi’s evaporation gave rise to a host of whispers, which included assassination attempts, heart attacks, and a re-aggravated back injury. The credibility of all leakers anywhere in the world is always an issue. But in China there’s a longer and knottier history of dribbling out disinformation to advance or protect particular agendas. It’s part of the cultural DNA.
The ‘story’ making the rounds is one by Mark Kitto, in an article in Prospect entitled What really happened to Xi Jinping. Kitto identifies his source as “someone with access to the top level of the Chinese governing apparatus” who claims that Xi Jinping’s vanishing was the result of an injury after Xi was clobbered by a chair while trying to intercede in a particularly fractious meeting of the second-generation Communist royalty of which Xi is now the ranking member:
In the first days of September, Xi chaired a meeting of the “red second generation,” the sons and daughters of the party’s old guard. The second generation are in late middle age and exert disproportionate influence through their families’ political and commercial networks. It is considered prudent for the incoming leader to submit to them his plans for a tenure that will last, if all goes well, for the next ten years.
The second generation is split along factional and family lines. They hold grudges that go back decades. The recent Bo Xilai scandal is a good example of those hidden rivalries coming out into the open. When the second generation meet there is conflict, sometimes physical. Fifty years ago the battles between their parents might have ended with the loser being sent to a forced labour camp, or worse.
The meeting turned violent. They went at it hammer and sickle. Xi Jinping tried to calm them down. He put himself physically in the crossfire and unwittingly into the path of a chair as it was thrown across the room. It hit him in the back, injuring him. Hence the absence, and the silence, and the rumours.
There are, of course, many questioning this most recent explanation, as well they should. Rumors stay rumors until real evidence morphs them into something else. Sometimes that something else can even be labeled the truth. But let’s not forget the Jiang Zemin is Dead riff that played in the summer of 2011. Jiang is, in fact, still alive and singing. Or is that old guy who looks like him actually a double?
The notion that a meeting of China’s spoiled, wealthy elite could degenerate into violence is wholly believable. Anyone who has spent any real time in China – as opposed to being inside a highly controlled tourist funnel – has seen things go weirdly explosive in a flash, whether at a goushi guan(r) (‘greasy spoon’ to be polite), a five-start hotel, and any and all places in between. I am not suggesting that the Chinese have exclusive rights to public physical displays of anger – the parking lots of sporting venues in the US, and the streets of Europe after football matches are but two examples of venues where we’ve seen very public displays of brutality – though in fourteen years in Tianjin, Beijing, Qinghai and handfuls of other places throughout the country, I’ve seen my fair share of aggressive altercations, and I was not a late night barfly.
That a saloon brawl with flying chairs and injuries could and would happen at a secret meeting of the coddled Party aristocracy is one that I have no trouble accepting as a possibility. But as truth? Don’t ask me about truth. All the rumors I’ve read to explain Xi’s dematerialization are credible within a certain range. But are any of them the real story? Probably not. Somewhere in the basement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) is a team building the next decoy duck. It’s that Zhuge Liang thing that they’ve had going for awhile. And MOFA’s got a lot of axes to grind with more reporters and news orgs than there are days of the year.
Mark Kitto, a long-term and high profile figure in China’s foreign community, has been outspoken about his reasons for leaving China in the near future, which have not been flattering to the Communist Middle Kingdom. Have a look at this Reuters video on Kitto. Setting up another foreigner journalist with a rumor is just part of the disinformation game. Is Kitto right? Don’t ask me. Is it believable? Undoubtedly. In the future will it be proven wrong in an attempt to humiliate Kitto? It could, though I’m pretty sure if that were to happen Kitto would shrug it off, as he should.
For the record: I left China in June, 2012 after 14 years.