18th Party Congress

Silence over Xi Jinping does not befit a modern nation

Yun Tang says China can't behave as it did over a disappearance in 1971

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2012, 4:20pm

Forty-one years ago today, a Trident jet hurriedly left northern China's Shanhaiguan airport, and then crashed in Mongolia before reaching its supposed destination of the Soviet Union, killing all on board. One of the passengers was Marshal Lin Biao, then vice-chairman of the Communist Party and Mao Zedong's designated successor.

Today, rumours are swirling about the disappearance of Xi Jinping, the vice-president and same sole successor to supreme power. It would be flippant to draw comparisons with the Lin Biao case. But, even so, it's hard not to be reminded of Lin's sudden disappearance in 1971.

Rumours about Lin's fate surfaced following Beijing's cancellation of the National Day celebration, which Lin was due to attend, but Chinese officials maintained a stony silence. Around the end of the year, grass-root party members were told of Lin's death. He was branded a traitor. Even today, his name has not been officially restored.

Xi Jinping last appeared in public on September 1. Late on September 4, the foreign ministry unexpectedly cancelled his meeting with visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, citing an "adjustment of itinerary". Since then, he has not been seen and no official explanation has been given. This has focused worldwide attention on his whereabouts, triggering wild speculation. In addition to Xi, another standing committee member of the politburo, He Guoqiang, has also not been seen in public this month. He is in charge of personnel and discipline.

Back in 1971, Mao couldn't release the news of Lin's death because he knew the country couldn't bear the psychological shock that a man he had designated as vice-commander-in-chief had tried to flee to the Soviet Union, then the arch-enemy.

Today, Beijing is seemingly resolved to keep matters hidden. It seems Chinese leaders would rather watch scathing damage being done to China's international image than face the consequence of divulging what has really happened to Xi and He. Very possibly, they need time to investigate or ponder their next move.

Thus they would rather let the guessing game go on. If Xi really is ill, what about He? Why has he suddenly ceased all his official activities? Who ordered him to be kept away from the public and why?

The death of Lin Biao has never been thoroughly investigated; many mysteries still remain today. If Xi re-emerges healthily, what happened during his absence will probably never be known to the world.

Nevertheless, with the whole world watching closely, if it turns out that Xi did just have a minor back injury, or a heart attack, Beijing's silence would be seen as an insult to the international community. Mao would not have done this 41 years ago. Today, Beijing cannot afford to do so, and therefore such a possibility is probably very slim. One telling sign is that the foreign ministry spokesman has not said Xi has a health problem.

Secret politics secrete mysteries. Sadly, 41 years on from the Lin Biao episode, Chinese politics still carries a feudal flavour, though China is now the world's second-largest economy. The selection of a "successor" and the upcoming power transition looks like a dynastic succession, shrouded in secrecy and with the scent of a court conspiracy.

Lin Biao's death hit Mao like a bolt of lightning, destroying the altar of his personal cult. More significantly, it announced the bankruptcy of the Cultural Revolution and shattered many people's dreams for a communist paradise. The next year, when US president Richard Nixon visited China, history turned a new page, paving the way for the reform after Mao's death.

Xi's disappearance will undoubtedly serve to bolster calls for political reform, spurring a momentous backlash against the notorious media and cyber censorship, and sparking loud cries for democracy, rule of law and transparent governance.

Yun Tang is a commentator based in Washington. tangletters@gmail.com