History Lessons

Xi Jinping’s disappearance

Absent leaders

The mysterious disappearance earlier this month of Xi Jinping, heir presumptive to the Chinese presidency, puzzled China’s chattering classes and grabbed worldwide attention.

Xi’s vanishing act – exactly two weeks long – ended on September 15, when he reappeared at an event to mark National Science Popularisation Day in Beijing.

So where was Xi? Had he been ill?

Last reported seen by the faithful People’s Daily on September 1 giving a speech at the Central Party School, Xi simply disappeared off the radar.

But politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Rumour and speculation soon abounded.

Xi had got injured playing football ran one explanation, apparently disseminated by senior editors at state-controlled newspapers.

But the New York Times speculated that Xi’s disappearance was linked to tension in elite circles, with political opponents sowing discord about the privileged background of someone widely expected to become the most powerful man in the country in the coming weeks.

Fortunately Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was also a storied revolutionary, making Xi a Communist Party blueblood.

Domestically in China, the silence was deafening. Speculation about Xi’s whereabouts was scrubbed from microblogs, while the traditional media stayed studiously silent.

The government steadfastly refused to explain where Xi had got to, with one spokesman, Hong Lei, at one point chiding a foreign reporter who had asked if Xi was still alive. “Ask a serious question,” Hong spat back.

Then, one fine morning Xi was back, looking none the worse for wear and calling earnestly for more science to be studied at China Agricultural University. Later in an interview with CNN, former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa gave the first official explanation of where Xi had been: he’d hurt his back while swimming and had been recuperating.

Xi’s vanishing act is not unprecedented in recent Chinese history. For example, Li Peng, a former premier, disappeared from public view for seven weeks in 1993.

But if we delve further back in Chinese history we can find the nation’s most notorious instance of a leader disappearing. In this case,the individual in question was the second Ming emperor, Zhu Yunwen (his reign is named Jianwen). And he vanished for considerably longer than a fortnight.

In 1402, the Zhu Yunwen disappeared during a power grab by his uncle, Zhu Di, who went on to become the third Ming emperor, Yongle (he’s famous for building the Forbidden City in Beijing and sending Admiral Zheng He on his exploratory sea voyages).

But what happened to the Jianwen Emperor remains a mystery. His reign lasted only four years and one theory is that he escaped after being toppled, spending the remainder of his life in seclusion, perhaps as a monk.

His grave has never been located.


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