The world's eyes may be focused on the Nov. 6 showdown between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but in the larger scheme of things, the U.S. presidential election may not be the most decisive moment for the leadership of a major nation taking place this autumn.
That became abundantly clear when it emerged this week that the man widely believed to the next leader of China, Vice-President Xi Jinping, has not been seen for more than 10 days, during which he has missed important meetings with such figures as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He has not been seen in public since Sept. 1.
Mr. Xi's disappearance provoked some unpersuasive responses on Tuesday from Beijing officials, who told reporters that the heir apparent had hurt his back while swimming. On China's lively social-media service, Weibo, there were darker suggestions that he was seriously ill or had been shunted aside in a power struggle – although most experienced observers doubted these suggestions.
But it also drew attention to the magnitude and potential global significance of the once-in-a-decade leadership change that is expected to thrust Mr. Xi into power some time next month.
The exact date of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, when the party leadership will be handed over for only the fifth time since Mao Zedong assumed power, is being kept secret along with all other details of the power transition. As a result, this historic power transfer had received scant attention outside circles of professional China watchers.
Suddenly, Mr. Xi's disappearance on the eve of his ascension has cast an international light on this historic power transfer in Beijing and its potential to change the shape of the world's economy, its trade relations and its military and political balance of power.
The timing could not be more significant, as China this week is in the midst of a set of challenges and conflicts whose outcome could be affected dramatically by a change of leadership.
THE MILITARY CHALLENGE
This week's increasingly heated showdowns between Japan, South Korea and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea – which on Tuesday led China to send military patrol ships to the islands – showed that China's military and strategic role is changing fast.
Behind such increasingly frequent eruptions of conflict – as well as a sharp militarization of the South China Sea – – lies a precarious balance of power between Beijing's political and military leaders, the latter of whom have been showing signs of resistance to political liberalization and closer relations with the West. Some observers believe that a weak or divided Communist Party leadership could lead to a far stronger role for the military and more hostile relations with neighbouring countries and Western powers.
THE ECONOMIC CHALLENGE
At the same time, China's decade-long export boom is suffering a dangerous slump, just as Beijing is struggling to stimulate domestic growth enough to create a self-sustaining domestic economy. A power vacuum at the top could send both internal and foreign trade markets spiralling down, potentially jeopardizing the recovery from the worldwide downturn and triggering a new global crisis. An economic misstep caused by poor leadership could jeopardize China's economic development, throwing millions back into poverty and triggering political instability.
THE REFORM CHALLENGE
When Chongqing premier Bo Xilai was expelled from office in a corruption scandal earlier this year, some observers hoped that it was a sign from the top that Mr. Bo's traditionally communist, Mao-inspired style was no longer acceptable in Beijing – and that perhaps the next leader would more aggressively pursue political liberalization. But signals of a political warming have been mixed. Protests have been tolerated somewhat more on the municipal level but crackdowns on national-level dissidents have remained intense.
There has been intense speculation on Weibo about whether Mr. Xi will be a Deng Xiaoping figure who will open China's authoritarian system, or a conservative "princeling" (a privileged son of a party loyalist) who will protect his party's privilege. Now that his vanishing act has put his status as heir apparent in doubt, China's future direction is increasingly unknown.