By Brian Klein, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Brian P. Klein is an economic consultant and former U.S. diplomat who was based in China. The views expressed are his own.
The China Central Television building in Beijing towers over everything around it. As a marvel of design, two sloping pillars meeting at an odd angle in mid-air, the construction seems to defy gravity. And yet, for all its external modernity, China’s main mouthpiece to the world – and the censorship regime that it helps underpin – remains lost in a backwater of a propagandist past.
Across the world, headlines in the free press have circulated about the whereabouts of China’s heir apparent, Xi Jinping. Premier Wen Jiabao counseled against speculation after Xi canceled a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton several days ago (on possibly her last visit to China as diplomat-in-chief). But how could there not be a raft of largely unsubstantiated stories circulating when Xi disappears from public view in the lead up to the most highly anticipated, internationally watched, single-party transfer of power in the world?
With the Bo Xilai scandal hardly behind them, China’s top officials have decided to shut the public out, either at the seaside Beidaihe retreat, or behind the imposing Imperial Walls of Zhongnanhai. The release of a recent picture of Xi addressing the Central Party School was meant to dampen concern, but that was taken on September 1, before the video silence began.
In the wake of an information blackout, rumors have grown from a simple sports injury to heart attack and even treacherous scenarios including a military assassination attempt. Back in March, troop movements and supposed gunshots in downtown Beijing triggered speculation about a military coup. It reportedly turned out to be parade preparations.
Rumors are the meat of China’s political pundits and the bane of official media. The incredible spread of micro blog Weibo, with its several hundred million users, have only magnified what for years were hushed conversations in the halls of elite think tanks and university political science departments.
Over a decade ago, front page China Daily stories focused on farm production numbers and steel output. All of the people’s factories seemed to exceed their quotas. It was a blast from the Soviet past. These days, actual criticism of economic, and sometimes even social, policies make it into the officially controlled press (all publications face censorship). But such limited change has yet to come for one area: the political leadership.
Attempts to cover up Xi’s absence mean that an information starved public may believe anything, and the unintended consequences of mass speculation turning into action would be extremely difficult to control. No amount of deleting the words “back injury” from behind the “Great Firewall” of China is going to quell the rumor mill.
As with any PR campaign, getting ahead of the story is half the battle, and the longer information remains suppressed the more wild the rumors will become. If Xi really did just hurt his back, then why can’t he make a simple private appearance amongst a select few (perhaps seated in a comfortable chair holding the morning edition of today’s China Daily). The longer he doesn’t appear, the wider the cracks in the facade of control become. China has been on the world stage for the greater part of the last decade. With that exposure, and access to the world’s markets, comes a level of scrutiny that can’t easily be ignored.
Uncertainty about the Chinese economy and its slow motion slide into lower growth are widely known about both outside and within China. Now the government’s ability to orchestrate political transitions as if they are merely a stage performance is showing signs of weakening as well. Who knows, maybe Xi was busy with parade preparations. Or perhaps not.