Never have activities commemorating China’s National Science Popularization Day taken on such significance. On Sept. 15, two weeks after China’s Vice President Xi Jinping — and presumptive leader-in-waiting — disappeared from public view, he apparently spent part of Saturday morning attending an educational event at China Agricultural University in Beijing.
China’s official news service, Xinhua, ran a one-sentence story recording Xi’s participation, an article presumably aimed at quelling intense speculation about the Vice President’s whereabouts after he cancelled several scheduled meetings with top foreign dignitaries, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The story was accompanied by a photo that showed a smiling Xi standing amid a clutch of dark-jacketed men on what was presumably the college campus. A rare blue sky shone overhead, unusual for a capital often swathed in smog. The caption for the photo was longer than the story itself.
Xi’s 14-day disappearance was the latest unforeseen event to shake China’s political establishment, which is set for a once-a-decade leadership transition that could take place as early as next month. No official explanation was given for his absence at a time when official media might have been expected to glorify the man set to soon assume leadership of the world’s second largest economy. Not surprisingly, rumors swirled about his absence. Health problems, ranging from an injured back to a minor heart attack, were mooted. Other sources whispered of a last-minute political putsch, perhaps organized by forces loyal to Bo Xilai, a once powerful politician whose downfall (along with his wife’s sentencing this summer for the murder of a British business consultant) had already thrown China’s leadership handover off-script earlier this year.
Last year, when rumors floated of the death of President Hu Jintao’s predecessor Jiang Zemin, the Chinese state media refuted the speculation within a day. Jiang appeared in public soon after. Why did it take so much longer for Xi to reappear? We will likely not know anytime soon. Perhaps he really had taken to bed with a bad back. Or he has since triumphed in some political battle. One thing is clear: the ruling Communist Party, even if it was compelled to eventually trot out Xi, was content to leave the world guessing for a fortnight.
Still, the business community seemed relatively unperturbed about the Vice President’s whereabouts. Even as the Xi rumors reached their most frenzied —including one wild story that he had been injured in a deliberate car crash orchestrated by a political enemy — the Chinese stock markets hummed along. The thinking among some foreign investors went like this: the Chinese bureaucracy is so entrenched and extensive that it hardly matters who’s at the top. Xi is already seen as a compromise choice for China’s next leader. The Standing Committee that collectively rules China will surely be composed of interests balanced between economic reformists and old-style leftists when its new membership is unveiled during the upcoming leadership shift.
But all this is just more speculation. China is a nation whose unprecedented rise has affected every country on earth. Yet whether we’re talking about foreign businesses that depend on China’s laborers and consumers or the 1.3 billion Chinese citizens themselves, we know almost nothing about what is happening in the cloistered confines of Zhongnanhai, China’s leadership compound. Our ignorance is deeply concerning. No cameo at a National Science Popularization Day event will change that troubling fact.