Saturday, 11 February 2017

Xiao Jianhua Didn't Read Between The Lines. Maybe Others Should Stop Too.

Chinese billionaire Xiao Jinhua [肖健华] is missing.

Despite numerous news reports to the contrary, that’s pretty much all anyone outside the State authorities here really knows.

Xiao Jinhua is a high-profile executive, reclusive in one sense (at least where he lives and how he’s protected) and, like so many people of means here in China, the holder of multiple passports. Some early accounts in Hong Kong even indicated that he was simply overseas, possibly undergoing a medical procedure of some sort.

Today the New York Times presents an account of how they think Xiao left his residence: in a wheelchair, under a blanket or covering of some sort, escorted by individuals who may well have been security agents from the mainland. That story reinforces the growing sense that Xiao was rendered back to the Chinese mainland for investigation (including interrogation), much like a number of Hong Kong booksellers whose publications apparently riled political authorities in Beijing.

All of that is both fascinating and disturbing. But what it means in terms of political import isn’t at all evident. Some have speculated that Xiao’s abduction is a sign of a deepening power struggle in the run-up to this year’s 19th Party Congress; that Chinese president Xi Jinping is attempting to cement total authority, possibly extend his tenure past the usual and legally-proscribed two terms; and that Xiao is “a pawn” in what it either an effort to discredit Xi’s rivals, or possibly an attempt to embarrass Xi himself, given alleged financial ties between his family and Xiao. Maybe, but then again perhaps nothing of the sort.

There’s a lot of fine investigative reporting that’s already been done on Xiao and his disappearance. No one really knows why Xiao was taken back to the mainland; the fact that it mirrors the snatching of Hong Kong booksellers might indicate—might indicate—that Xiao managed to anger some powerful people in Beijing about what he knew and with whom he might share it with. There may well be more to follow in the coming days about the kidnapping or disappearance (whichever it is, and there’s a difference), which could be helpful in determining just what’s going on with Xiao and what it all might mean. At this point—nothing about any political motive is clear, and everything connected to that is conjecture, guesswork, and gossip.

What’s also less than helpful—indeed, debilitating--is the assumption that there’s enough information available now to label the incident a move by Xi and his allies to work some sort of political magic for themselves. The Establishment Narrative when it comes to elite politics is that Chinese leaders struggle for power; that apparently they don't have enough of it already (even though conceptions of “power” slip-slide between status, authority, influence, domination, and everything in-between); and that pretty much everything that happens in China’s upper echelons is about one faction trying to subvert another to preserve positions.

Yet at the same time, the same Narrative intones that the process of political succession in China is more institutionalized, more predictable, less violent than before—that really what goes on beyond closed doors in Beijing isn’t all that unlike which happens in the great wide and often white open of Washington.

But Chinese politics cannot possibly be both—on the one hand, a vicious political cage-match; and on the other, negotiated by consensus in a conference room.

Indeed, it’s unfortunate, unfair and unhelpful to describe Chinese elites are motivated by just more of what they really have, and that every move they make is done to protect their political flanks and their families. That’s an inane caricature, one that’s very nearly colonial in character: It renders Chinese politics as so different, so Other to be less serious than politics elsewhere--to use “renders” in pretty much the same way as it’s traditionally presented, as “abducted”. What’s often missing is an attempt to cast Chinese politics, when it is a struggle, as a struggle for power over policy, over the direction of the political system, China’s economy, military doctrine, and the like, replete with debates and arguments about the same that demand attention, not dismissal every time a high-profile event intrudes. Anyone conversant with the Party media here should know that and be cautious about concluding what’s going on with Xiao, but perhaps it’s easier for some to just plug in the microphone jack and pontificate, rather than pause and ponder for a bit.

There’s almost certainly a larger story here, but at this moment, it’s opaque at best, and should be labeled as such. The only thing that's truly clear is that no one saw Xiao Jianhua’s disappearance coming, which says as much about the way Chinese politics is presented by far too many observers as the purported abduction itself. Each is disturbing in its own unhappy way.

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