The appearance of China's presumptive leader Vice President Xi Jinping in the state media Sep 15 relieved the tension among many in China and abroad. It meant the consensus on the leadership transition at the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still holds to a large extent barring something unexpected.
Xi vanished from public view Sep 1, with no official explanation. He missed two important meetings: with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Earlier in the year, Xi paid an extended tour to the US as an introductory trip for China's next top leader. The importance of the meeting with Clinton lay in that this may have been her last visit to China as Secretary.
While China has opened up in many sectors, the CCP has not yet dared to break out from some of the old fixations considered related to the party's security. The health of senior leaders remains a top state secret.
Former CCP chief Zhao Ziyang was charged with treason in 1989 for having discussed senior leader Deng Xiaoping's health with visiting Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev. Of course there were pressing ideological reasons to remove Zhao but Deng's health was equally important.
The CCP had reasons to keep the health of top leaders secret. During the Mao era there was a constant power struggle. They believed that the common people had no business with senior leaders' health; this was considered a state affair.
Under Mao's leadership top leaders were purged and vanished from public view without explanation. Marshal Peng Dehuai, one of China's 10 Marshals of the People's Liberation Party, was purged for opposing Mao in 1959, not to be heard again.
Mao's putative successor, Marshal Lin Biao, died in an air crash after falling out with his mentor in 1971. It took years for people to know about it. Even now the full details are not known.
Although the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) has been officially condemned as "wrong", the Chinese leadership does not want their people and the world to know about the follies of the Communist Party which led to the death of 30 million at least out of starvation. Many of Mao's excesses like the purge of Peng Dehuai are also taboo subjects, because Mao was assessed at 70 percent "good", 30 percent "bad" and remains relevant as the flag bearer of the revolution.
Each Chinese leader and especially members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo wield considerable power and have dedicated constituency and powerful patrons. At the top of the pyramid, each is a brick joined by compromise and consensus. If one brick falls or weakens, the edifice weakens. Any sign of weakening of this edifice, the CCP, is dangerous and threatening.
In the perception of CCP, if the party weakens or breaks up, China will disintegrate. The alternative to CCP is chaos. The Western system of multi-party democracy does not fit China. On this there is a consensus within China.
The importance of being Xi Jinping is that he is to succeed Hu Jintao in two months. Xi will lead China for the next 10 years as per the laid down norms. An ill leader is also a weak leader, and a weak leader does not inspire confidence among the people and the party.
Contrary to the Indian and other democratic systems, Chinese do look over their shoulders all the time to see who is about to stab him in the back. Hence Xi's absence from the spotlight created confusion, raised questions, and rumour mills had a field day. This was disturbing for the top authorities.
The transition of power to the fifth generation of leadership was expected to be smooth. They are the inheritors of China in a global world. But the transition process saw some hiccups with very high level scandals.
The top leadership is not one on economic policies, foreign policies and ideology. Xi and Hu belong to competitive camps, especially on domestic economic policies and politics. In the upcoming leadership, XI is expected to have greater say, since Hu's protege Li Keqiang had to be satisfied with the port of premier in the next leadership.
China's external interlocutors have a fair idea of Xi's policy agenda though he has been very careful not to openly give access to his mind. The concern in China and outside still remains how healthy Xi is.
Knowledgeable Chinese sources say he had a cardiac infarction - which ranges from a bypass to something much more serious that would need a retired life.
This is where the fragility of the Chinese system lies. Xi would eventually head the party, the state and the military. And they are confused about what to do if Xi had to withdraw from public life.
There would be another power struggle. How to deal with the people who have become internet active with their blogs rarely complimentary to the authorities? China has 5.5 million internet users. They have an equally strong internet censorship army. But the bloggers get past the censors somehow.
The case of Xi's "absence" should make for some interesting studies of Chinese politics and its durability. At the same time it would be naive to expect multi-party democracy to come to China any time soon.
(19.09.2012 - Bhaskar Roy is a China watcher. These views are personal, not of IANS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)