Chinese Puzzle: A Missing Heir Apparent and a Leadership Transfer Without a Timetable

A missing man, who holds unknown views on issues that will shape the global economy, will take over at an undesignated point in the near future. Or so we think

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Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping during a meeting with a foreign dignitary on Aug. 29, 2012, in Beijing

The reservations agent at the Beijing International Hotel, a 909-room behemoth on the Chinese capital’s Avenue of Eternal Peace, was apologetic. “I’m sorry we don’t have any rooms,” she said, referring to the period between Oct. 10 and 26. “During that time, the state has reserved everything.”

China is gearing up for a once-a-decade leadership shift, a power transfer whose global magnitude exceeds even that of the U.S. presidential race. Yet with possibly as little as a month to go, there has been no official announcement of when this landmark event will actually take place. Reports of fully booked hotels near China’s political heart at Tiananmen Square were among the only signs that something rather important might soon transpire. By mid-September, even the term 18th party congress — referring to the communist confab at which the handover from President Hu Jintao to Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to begin — was a banned search topic on Chinese social-media websites.

An orderly transition to Xi, a man who has made a career of smiling even as he remained a political cipher, was supposed to prove to the world that the Chinese Communist Party had it all figured out. The 59-year-old’s selection as Hu’s presumptive heir occurred five years ago, although the decision was never publicly aired. There were to be no surprises, for this was a party that had discarded the bloody, revolutionary fervor of its earlier years for a stable, technocratic mode of governance. Foreign journalists have resorted to the same words to describe the upcoming political transition: scripted, choreographed, peaceful. The particularly jaded among us even yawned — and announced they might skip town during the party’s congress because it wasn’t like news would actually happen. What was there to know?

(MORE: Hillary Clinton Visits Beijing, but China’s Likely Next Leader Is a No-Show)

The timing, for starters. Five years ago, when the last party congress occurred in October, the world was informed in August. Why the silence now? Even for those of us accustomed to life behind the bamboo curtain, the murkiness surrounding the leadership transition is mystifying and troubling. At a time when the Chinese economy is slowing and social unrest is proliferating, you would think that a little clarity would be deployed to assure the public that all is fine.

China has transformed in the decade under Hu. The economy has grown from the seventh largest in the world to second only to the U.S.; per capita income has nearly tripled. Yet there has been no commensurate political expansion over the past 10 years. This is a People’s Republic where the people are rarely consulted or informed about major political decisions. Just searching on local microblogs for Xi’s or Hu’s names can turn up a warning that “according to related laws, regulations and policies, search results cannot be displayed.” The rare occasions when we get to peek at the inner workings of the Communist Party, it’s not pretty. The explosive case of Bo Xilai — a bigwig whose demise earlier this year unfolded like a telenovela, replete with a murder, a deranged wife and an aide pleading for asylum from the Americans — exposed the rot within what was supposed to be an efficient authoritarian machine. So has another scandal believed to involve a crashed Ferrari, the son of a top Hu aide and scantily clad Tibetans engaging in sex games.

(PHOTOS: The Rise of Hu Jintao)

Then, there’s the small matter of Xi’s whereabouts. At a time when the Vice President’s expected assumption of power should have been prompting adulatory coverage in China’s state-controlled media, he disappeared from public view. Over a five-day period, Xi failed to attend three meetings initially scheduled with visiting VIPs: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Where was China’s President in waiting? Without any official explanation, rumors multiplied. A Western diplomat said Xi hurt his back playing soccer. Another source blamed the injury on overexertion in the pool. Further speculation from other informed individuals ascribed Xi’s absence to a clandestine southern China trip to meet with the leader of Hong Kong, where public anger over Beijing’s influence has boiled over. Someone told the New York Times that Xi might have suffered a “mild heart attack,” and exile websites spun lurid tales of a deliberate car accident and a last-minute purge in a riven Communist Party. (Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Chinese official media focused on Beijing’s decision to send a pair of surveillance ships to “defend sovereignty” of a sprinkling of disputed islands known in Chinese as the Diaoyu and in Japanese as the Senkaku — perhaps a classic case of diversionary news dissemination.)

It didn’t help that on Sept. 10, a Chinese paper splashed news of a speech Xi gave on its front page, only for readers to discover that the talk had occurred nine days before. Also on Monday, as the international press pushed for information on Xi, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei declared: “We have told everybody everything.” Right-o. A missing man, who holds unknown views on issues that will shape the global economy, will take over at an undesignated point in the near future. Or so we think. What could be clearer?

— With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang / Beijing

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