Rumors continue to circulate on the status of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who has not been seen in public since Sept. 1 and missed four meetings with foreign dignitaries. The rumors themselves, and the extended absence of a Chinese leader from the public spotlight are not entirely anomalous, and Xi may reappear just fine tomorrow, brushing aside all the speculation. But the timing — just before the Party Congress that will begin Xi's transition to the paramount Chinese leadership posts — raises significant question about the continuity of the Chinese political system.
The current Chinese political system is based on a strong desire for continuity — for removing the incentives for factionalization and avoiding the political chaos of the past. After Deng Xiaoping emerged as the leader of China, he not only launched a new economic system, but he also began building out a new political system, particularly after watching the crisis of leadership in other Communist Bloc states and the social instability and political paralysis of the Tiananmen Square incident.
Deng determined to move China away from a single strongman leadership, and identified a new dual core for Chinese power that brought together the head of the Party and government with the head of the Cabinet. This was Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji. But Deng also identified their successors, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, guaranteeing two decades of clear political lineage. This system was already being tested with the upcoming leadership transition, the first where the next core was not chosen by the elder statesman, but instead through the process of internal consensus selection. Thus, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang were identified, and placed in their respective vice positions five years ago, showing a clear path for further continuity of leadership.
But the system, so well-crafted to moderate extremes of ideas, to mollify factions and to ensure stability, has one major flaw. It is unable to act quickly. There is a clear process to handle the death or incapacitation of an existing president or vice president, and though somewhat disruptive, the system can mange that. There is not a clear process to replace the single chosen and groomed successor candidate on such short notice. That Xi would be the next president has been known for at least a decade, and since that time, no one else has been groomed as a first runner up.
The balance of power among the various elite has accepted Xi's future role, and adjusted around that. In order to reduce any potential factionalism, there is no alternative to Xi, as that would have undermined stability and Party unity. The very system that has allowed the Chinese leadership to manage internal differences, manage social and economic crises, deal with security problems both domestic and abroad, in this instance may instead constrict the options and capabilities of the leadership to quickly respond in a moment of crisis. It is not clear that the balances of interests among the elite can be readjusted in such short notice, particularly as it entails the positions of president, the Party general secretary and the concurrent role as chairman of the Central Military Commission. This is a lot of power for someone not yet groomed and someone who has not come about as the result of long-term consensus building. The system designed to guarantee continuity and consensus has served well for two decades, but its weakness (or its strength) is slow, deliberate action. An emergency situation such as this, with long-term consequences, is a crisis.