Dude, Where’s my…Emperor?
How do you lose an heir apparent? I mean…it’s not a like he’s a pet puggle.
“Have you seen my once-in-a-decade-transition leader? If so, please send him home. You can’t imagine Hu’s missing him since Wen.”
Before China watchers get their tweed in a twist, it’s worth noting that Xi’s only been MIA for a little over a week. Mao took naps that lasted longer than that.
Sure it’s a different era with Weibo and an active foreign press corps speculating wildly about everything from an infected hang nail to alien abduction, but in the pantheon of Chinese leaders going AWOL, Xi blowing off the Prime Minister of Denmark isn’t even top ten. In the early 1990s Premier Li Peng went missing for months on account of the sniffles (Read: “heart attack”) and it barely registered. Of course, that may have been because Li Peng is a douche.
In 1966, Mao kick-started a Cultural Revolution then disappeared from Beijing only to re-emerge several weeks later in a bathing suit swimming the Yangtze River. If the rumors are true, and what the fuck let’s just assume that anything posted on Duowei and Boxun is the rough equivalent to Yahweh texting Moses, then Xi can’t even do one lap in a pool without throwing out his back. Mao dove into China’s longest river and surfaced with the blood stained fin of an endangered river porpoise in his teeth. (No, not really. I’m speaking metaphorically.) They can’t stick a couple of Vicodin down Xi’s throat and prop him up for an hour?
There’s also Lin Biao, who was Mao’s closest comrade at arms and heir apparent…at least until Lin died in a plane crash fleeing the PRC after maybe, possibly, trying to launch a coup against his boss. The CCP spent months working up the courage (and the cover story) to account for why Lin Biao dropped — sorry, couldn’t be helped — suddenly out of sight.
Chiang Kai-shek was rather famously kidnapped and held hostage for two weeks by his nominal ally, the warlord Zhang Xueliang. It took Madame Chiang, Zhou Enlai, and an agreement to ally with the CCP against the Japanese before the Generalissimo was allowed to taste fresh air again. Chiang, never a forgiving man, imprisoned Zhang Xueliang and held him captive for the next 55 years. He even packed him up and had him shipped to Taiwan where Zhang was held under virtual house arrest. (Shawshank Ending Alert: In 1993 the KMT finally let Zhang go. He moved to Hawaii and lived to be a 100.)
Nor are missing leaders a purely 20thcentury phenomenon. Zhu Qizhen (1427-1464) was a young monarch who came under the influence of the eunuch Wang Zhen. When a group of Mongols threatened Beijing, Wang Zhen convinced Zhu Qizhen to personally lead his troops against the enemy. Despite outnumbering the Mongols by something like 50-1, the Ming armies were completely routed after a series of strategic blunders so impossibly stupid they make General Custer look like Sun Bin. When the survivors finally bled their way back to Beijing, they looked around and noticed they were short an emperor.
The Mongols kept him around for fourteen months until they finally got sick of him and booted him back to China. Meanwhile the Ming court had gone ahead and enthroned Zhu Qizhen’s cousin as the new emperor which made his homecoming…a little awkward. A later member of the family, Zhu Yijun, who reigned as the Wanli Emperor from 1563-1620, would simply hole up in his bedroom for years at a time, abandoning any pretext of rule and refusing to see officials or visitor while the empire crumbled around him. Ladies and Gentlemen…YOUR Ming Dynasty!
Just in case the more lurid rumors about Xi Jinping’s absence turn out to be true, it’s worth noting that according to legend, officials in the Qin Dynasty tried to cover up the death of the Emperor Qin Shihuangdi by carting his body around, even changing the clothes on his corpse. When the smell got too strong to hide, they began carrying a few buckets of fish as well to explain away the distinctive odor of decay.
(The new cologne inspired by Chinese History. The scent of power. The musk of ancient wisdom. From Calvin Klein comes a new fragrance for men…Rotting Tyrant.)
Tibetan religious authorities tried something similar after the powerful 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lozang Gyatso died in 1682. His death was kept a secret until the 6th Dalai Lama had reached an age of maturity.
So while I know it is something of a deal when the leader-in-waiting of one of the world’s largest economies goes missing without so much as a peep from his government (although apparently yesterday the government did just that – it peeped) I’ll start worrying if and when Xi either a) is gone for longer than it takes milk to spoil b) Mongolia announces they have him or c) His Cadremobile starts being followed around by one of those sidewalk sushi carts.