Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mystery over China's Xi Jinping sparks wild rumours

China's new leader in waiting has not been seen for more than a week, sparking rumours that he might be ill or have been involved in an accident. It is just the latest in a series of rumours and scandals that have circulated over the past week, and they have put the media and authorities in China on edge.

Social media storm

Social media in China has helped bolster the rumours. Increasingly used by many young people, social media websites in China have changed the way news is consumed by the public.

China is the world's biggest social media market, but with access to websites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube blocked by authorities, most people can only use domestic social media sites such as Weibo, Renren and YouKu.

Despite being strictly controlled such sites can be a source of news as well as a platform to to organise protests and disseminate views contrary to official reports [BBC].

Grinning officials & staged scripts

Following a recent crash in Shaanxi province there was uproar amongst Chinese netizens after a picture was circulated showing an official apparently smiling at the scene where 36 people died [BBC / see also tvnewswatch: China: Bus crash in Shaanxi province kills 36]. The official, Yang Dacai, claimed he had just been trying to cheer people up, but this did not impress netizens who dug up pictures of Yang wearing luxury watches and accused him of corruption [China News 24]

Only days before there was anger over state media's coverage of the Olympic games when it emerged that CCTV, China's state broadcaster, knew Chinese athlete Liu Xiang was not fit and scripted its whole coverage in advance.

The revelation was front-page news in the Oriental Guardian newspaper which ran with the headline, "Liu Xiang knew; Officials knew. Only the viewers foolishly waited for the moment of miracles."


The news was greeted with anger and disgust by netizens who filled forums and microblogs with critical commentary. "I feel truly disgusted. Is it worth the true feelings of so many people? Emotions and deceptions have been perfectly merged. Tears and courage have been downgraded to be worthless. Media that has no bottom line is a rotten entity without hope," wrote one user.

Others were even more blunt, posting comments like, "You lied to us, cheated our feelings. You guys are rubbish," and "Nothing is impossible in this world. We no longer want to be a public that doesn't know the truth."

China's government was also criticised. "This can only happen in China. Acting and fraud and many skills are learnt from the government," said one user. "The society has no trust. This original sin does not come from the people. Trust has to be built by a trustworthy government and media," wrote another [BBC].

Western interference

China has also issued its own fair share of criticism after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to calm the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea. She had said that while the US took no position on the claims, the Asean [Association of South East Asian Nations] should "work collaboratively to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation and certainly without the use of force" [BBC / FT / Washington Post].

Chinese state media hit out at US involvement in maritime disputes with its South East Asian neighbours accusing the US of "attempting to sow discord in order to fish for advantage".

Meanwhile Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said freedom of navigation in the sea was assured and there would not "ever be issues in that area in the future". Nonetheless he insisted that China's position on the South China Sea was clear cut. "China has sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters," he said.

The strong reaction to Clinton's visit came only days after an opinion led article appeared on the state run Xinhua News Agency website criticising what it called Western interference. The West was continually imposing its will, the article claimed, adding that some were too ready to "slander Beijing's development, squeeze its strategic space and challenge its main interests."

Economic concerns

But with signs that China's economy is slowing it is perhaps unsurprising that Western countries are raising concerns. China's manufacturing sector slowed in August, with the purchasing managers' index or PMI dropping to 49.2 in August, the lowest figure since November 2011.

A PMI reading below of below 50 indicates a contraction in manufacturing activity. And while the economy expanded at an annual rate of 7.6% in the three months to the end of June, it is the slowest pace in three years.

The figures could be considered positive news elsewhere in the world, but for China, an important manufacturing and trading hub upon which much of the world relies, the figures could mark a turning point which could seriously affect the global economy [BBC / Xinhua].

"It's quite clear we have a pretty rotten industrial cycle coming on. I don't see it getting a whole lot worse... but I don't expect them to get back for a long, long time," Arthur Kroeber, managing director of GK Dragonomics in Beijing told Reuters. "I see things bouncing along at the bottom of the cycle."

Hu remains positive

Meanwhile at the start of an Asia-Pacific summit in the Russian port city of Vladivostok the Chinese President Hu Jintao promised to maintain economic growth to support a global recovery. "The world economy today is recovering slowly, and there are still some destabilising factors and uncertainties," President Hu told businessmen in a speech before the summit. "The underlying impact of the international financial crisis is far from over," Hu added, but insisted China would implement policies to turn the situation around. "We will work to maintain the balance between keeping steady and robust growth, adjusting the economic structure and managing inflation expectations. We will boost domestic demand and maintain steady and robust growth as well as basic price stability." [BBC]

However, Hu is soon to be replaced as China reshuffles its leadership in less than a month. But there is some uncertainty as to how smooth this transition might be.

With the fallout concerning the downfall and ousting of top politician Bo Xilai still fresh in people's minds, there are now worries over the whether Xi Jinping will be able to take up the reins.

Where is Xi?

Mystery surrounds the whereabouts of the man touted as being China's next president after several cancellations and no official word on why he has not appeared in public for nearly two weeks.

Xi Jinping, 59, has not been seen in public since September 1, setting off rumours that he may be seriously ill or worse ahead of his unveiling at the Communist party's 18th Congress.

Rumours have filled microblogs prompting authorities to block searches of the Chinese politician and He Guoqiang, another a high-ranking official, with speculation they may have been involved in separate car accidents [Radio Free Asia]. There has even been wild rumours suggesting the two may been targeted for assassination [Market Oracle].

The truth may be more mundane. Some reports speculate that Xi may simply be suffering from back trouble after injuring himself during a daily swim according to Reuters.

With Xi having missed appointments with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and  Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt without explanation, the rumour mill is unlikely to die down anytime soon [BBC / Telegraph / NYT / WSJ].

The lack of transparency does not bode well for those trading and doing business with China. Concerns have often been expressed over the lack of information flowing from government, be it political or economic data. Despite China's declared openness, it appears the country has a long way to go before it shakes off the cobwebs from its paranoid past when all information had to be vetted before being released to the general public.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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