PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2012, 3:24pm

Coming clean on Xi Jinping's health could have saved leaders major grief

China's leaders could have saved themselves major grief by doing away with the veil of secrecy over Vice-President Xi's health


Wang Xiangwei took up the role of Editor-in-Chief in February 2012, responsible for the editorial direction and newsroom operations. He started his 20-year career at the China Daily, before moving to the UK, where he gained valuable experience at a number of news organisations, including the BBC Chinese Service. In 1993, he moved to Hong Kong and worked at the Eastern Express before joining the South China Morning Post in 1996 as our China Business Reporter. He was subsequently promoted to China Editor in 2000 and Deputy Editor in 2007, a position he held for four years prior to being promoted to his current position. Mr. Wang has a Masters degree in Journalism, and a Bachelors degree in English.

The reappearance on Saturday of Vice-President Xi Jinping, the nation's presumed next leader after a two-week absence, has removed a political uncertainty facing the Communist Party currently wrapped up in intense preparations for a key leadership change next month.

But the recent rabid speculation over Xi's health, often bordering on the wild, has damaged the credibility and image of the country and its political system, highlighting once more that the excessive secrecy over the mainland leaders' health and private lives is unnecessary and counter-productive.

Mainland television footage on Saturday showed a healthy Xi smiling and walking as he attended a National Science Popularisation Day event at the China Agricultural University.

Interestingly, Xinhua reported Xi watching a group of students conduct an interactive scientific experiment called "where is Vc?", presumably about vitamin C. While Xi is widely addressed as the Vice-President, he is also known as the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Although the brief media report did not give any official explanation, it was clearly aimed at dispelling rumours about the state of Xi's health.

In another sign indicating his good health, Xinhua reported yesterday that Xi would attend the 9th China-Asean Expo's opening ceremony and other activities. The event begins on Friday in Nanning, Guangxi.

The reports show he has fully recovered from a mild ailment - a minor heart condition or a hurt back from swimming were two popular rumours.

In fact, mainland sources now say that Xi, while nursing his illness in hospital, was alert and even able to attend to the affairs of the state, including paying close attention to Hong Kong's Legislative Council election. He is the mainland's top official in charge of Hong Kong affairs.

If this was the case, the mainland leadership could have saved themselves major grief at such a politically sensitive time by simply making public Xi's illness as soon as possible. Instead, they remained silent, resulting in a flurry of media speculation on his health, triggering international concerns over the stability of the leadership succession.

Many analysts have raised legitimate questions about the mainland political system's lack of transparency, which is simply incompatible with the nation's status as the world's second-largest economy amid its rising influence on the global stage.

China may have come a long way from its old days of treating Chairman Mao Zedong as a god, but it has made scant progress in removing the opacity over the health and personal lives of its leaders.

State media reports almost daily about China's top leaders on inspection trips where they are seen telling ordinary mainlanders about their own humble roots, not unlike the what western politicians do.

But the state media persists in depicting the leaders as supermen who seemingly exist only to serve the people without any personal life of their own.

In particular, the authorities continue to treat the leaders' health conditions as state secrets. There were even instances in which top mainland officials tried to conceal their health issues for months. But in Xi's case, this proved all the more difficult as he had to miss meetings with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

We can only hope that the intense international scrutiny over the issue has taught the mainland leaders a lesson.


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