Hey, Speaking of Soft Power Fails…

A couple days ago we looked at one way to fail at soft power, but while we were doing that, China’s highest levels of leadership were working on a way to fail way, way harder. In case any of you have been living under a rock, Xi Jinping — China’s presumptive next president — is M.I.A.

Now, before things get all Jiang Zemin-y up in here, plenty of sources seem to be suggesting that Xi has been out with minor injury and will likely be back in the public eye soon. But no one knows for sure because no one has actually seen Xi since September 1, and China’s government has refused to explain where Xi is.

Let’s just pause for a minute and think about the message this sends to the world. China is saying, “Trust us. Make the RMB your reserve currency. We are a stable, peaceful economic powerhouse and you have nothing to fear from investing in us. Oh, by the way, the guy who’s running our country may periodically just disappear for extended periods of time and no one will explain why. Don’t worry about it!”

I’m no economist, but I believe the sudden, unexplained disappearance of someone in charge of the world’s second largest economy is going to have an impact on the markets. It certainly doesn’t instill confidence. And things don’t improve when that disappearance drags on for weeks. Whether or not Xi was seriously ill or injured is almost beside the point now. What the hell did Chinese officials have to gain from all this? Because they sure lost a lot of points internationally, and having your impending next president disappear doesn’t play too well domestically either, no matter how hard you scrub the weibos.

I suppose whenever Xi reemerges from his cucoon underground bunker sex palace marble boat whatever, it may become clear what happened to him. If he had some sort of horrific visually-evident disease — flesh-eating bacteria or something? — then I could see why the government might want to hide him from the world. But short of that, I’m seriously at a loss for what the upside of “the president-to-be has disappeared” approach to governance is. I welcome your explanations in the comments.

Anyway, this is probably a good enough reason for plenty of countries to stick with the US dollar for now. Sure, our jackass bankers may have ruined the world economy, and sure, it turns out our strategy of invading random middle eastern countries, destroying them, and then leaving hasn’t been hugely popular with the locals. But say what you will about Barack Obama or Mitt Romney — it’s hard to imagine either one of them vanishing without a trace just a few months before the all-important power transition (or the all-important lack thereof).

The economic numbers aren’t everything, and even if China’s economy was looking as rosy as it was a few years ago, trust matters. It is time for China to start trusting its own people and the world to be able to handle news like “Xi Jinping has hurt his back and is going to skip some meetings on doctor’s orders.” Perhaps I’m off here, but I think most people’s response to that would be something like: “Oh. Hmm, I’ve got to remember to pick up some milk on the way home from work” and not “OMG, anarchy in the PRC!”

Leave it to China to take what seems like a pretty innocuous incident — an old guy hurting his back a bit — and turning it into one of this year’s more epic propaganda/soft power own goals.

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10 thoughts on “Hey, Speaking of Soft Power Fails…”

  1. The CCP often foams at the mouth regarding falsehoods and rumours that spread on the internet/weibo. Yet they’re the ones who constantly create/allow/foment such vacuums of information to invite people to move into that void. I’ve read speculation ranging from Xi throwing his back out while swimming to having a heart attack to having a stroke. Nobody knows because the people in the know aren’t telling anyone. To what end, is anyone’s guess.

    The CCP are a paternalistic lot, so maybe they are crazy enough to worry that a legitimate health issue with the king-in-waiting will cause a run on the banks or something bizarre. On the other hand, I imagine the international community trusts the CCP only as far as they can throw them, so this is all really just par for the course. It just so happens that “par for the course” for these guys is a perpetual face-plant, so if nothing else it’s good for a laugh…as the CCP often are.

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  2. A press release. All they need is a press release. And perhaps a picture or two of him smiling and waving from a hospitable bed, if the injury is even bad enough to warrant that.

    Is it possible that there is an element of saving face here? Some idea that the next leader being seen injured would make him appear weak? In America, at least, we generally care much more about mental faculties and would just want to know that the President was going to be ok in the case of a mild to moderate injury. I have no idea if that’s true for China as well.

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  3. It really seems that it’s just an old habit that dies very hard: the leadership in China regards their personal matters, including their health, whether they’re actually alive, etc., as strictly private. And they don’t bend from that rule in the least. It’s the same impulse that causes them to shut down the internet when something bad concerning their family (car crash for example) leaks out. It’s just nobody’s business, from their point of view. It’s a natural consequence of regarding the position of power as something very personal (like property) rather than something belonging to the public, the way we regard it in the West.

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  4. Remember, Xi isn’t just becoming the leader of the CCP, he’s ascending into godhood. After this transfer he becomes part of the pantheon, and the posters will all have his face up there next to Deng and Jiang and Hu. The CCP wants him to be bigger than just a man, they want him to be an avatar of their power.

    And god? God doesn’t get sick. God doesn’t have a bad back. God is above such things, and anyone who says Xi hurt his back is going against Party dogma about their leaders.

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  5. @ YoungIT: Yeah, because when the next leader of the world’s biggest country and it’s second biggest economy goes missing for weeks, official spokesmen dodge questions about his whereabouts, and he misses meetings with prominent world leaders including the US secretary of state for no stated reason, that’s definitely not news! Fucking journalists! Why would they even be covering a story like this when they could do a story about ethnic minorities dancing while they sing about how great the Party is?

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  6. Gee, Custer, I’d sure love to read some stories about singing ethnic minorities with “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad!” painted on their foreheads! Could you make your next film on that subject?

    Besides, it’s thanks to us Westerners that Xi is found back in public again: our constant barrage of questions and semi-mockery may have saved this man’s life! Without Western media raising the question of his whereabouts, his would-be captors might have kept him trapped indefinitely!

    Why, I believe that just three days ago he was still locked in a damp cellar, strapped to a chair with his eyes taped open and forced to watch replays of every Shanghai Shenhua game from last season. Cruel and unusual punishment!

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  7. It always amuses me when the apologists inadvertently ask great questions and lack the self-awareness to realize what they’ve said. The latest exhibit from young’n’dumb: “what soft power?” Indeed, when it comes to the CCP, it’s extremely soft, and not very powerful. THere’s really not much of it to speak of.

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