What if Mitt Romney disappeared?

The question isn’t the fantasy (or the nightmare) of the Obama campaign. It is a direct analog to the situation in China, where Vice President Xi Jinping, the man everyone expects to become Communist Party leader next month and president next year, hasn’t been seen since Sept. 1.

Xi’s absence is totally unexplained by government spokesmen, though the official Guangxi Daily reported that the vice president was among the top officials who sent condolences to the family of a party member who died on Sept. 6. That won’t dispel the rumors. The most credible ones suggest he had a heart attack. But other ailments have been floated, including a stroke (explaining why he can’t be seen in public) and a sports-related back injury.

More fancifully, it has been suggested that Xi was hit by a car driven by a frustrated general who was trying to assassinate him. And inevitably, some have speculated that a kind of political difficulty has arisen to block Xi’s succession: In essence, that the president-to-be of China has been purged.

How costly are these rumors to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party? Someone must be judging that, however damaging the silence, the truth would be worse. But this assessment seems increasingly mistaken with every passing day.

Succession Process

The problem isn’t the uncertainty. After all, someone will be in charge when the party congress meets, whether in October as planned or later. That person will presumably be the next president -- even if that someone is the current leader, Hu Jintao. And there is no particular reason to expect a radical change in policy from that person.

What’s at stake here is legitimacy. Twice now, in 1992 and 2002, party congresses have met and inaugurated a new generation of leadership in a regular and predictable fashion. Until now you would have bet on the October transition taking place with almost the same certainty as the U.S. presidential election.

These orderly transitions have been hugely important. They demonstrate that while China is no democracy, it also isn’t a dictatorship. Dictatorships don’t have regular, planned transitions. Just ask Gamal Mubarak, the son of the former president of Egypt who some expected would inherit the job.

Of course, the way China’s senior leaders are chosen is very far from transparent. Imagine the largest smoke-filled room in the world, with decisions made via a complex network of connections, reputations and rewards.

But the opacity doesn’t much matter provided the public sees a consensus-driven result and believes that merit had at least something to do with the selection process. When Bo Xilai, a candidate for the Politburo standing committee, was purged after his wife’s murder of a British businessman, the message for the public wasn’t only that some senior leaders were corrupt, but that they could lose their positions as a result.

The great danger to the Chinese Communist Party posed by Xi’s disappearance is that it calls into question the regularity and predictability of the transition. The speculation about Xi’s whereabouts is harmful not primarily because of its content, but because it reminds the Chinese public that the transition may not be smooth, after all.

The censors have blocked Internet searches for Xi’s name in China. But apart from workarounds by Chinese bloggers, sooner or later even people with better things to do than follow politics will notice the absence of the most important man in the country.

News Blackout

When they do, it won’t matter to the public that, a generation ago, Chinese leaders disappeared with some frequency. Premier Li Peng disappeared after an apparent heart attack in 1993, and the public was in the dark for two months in 1971 when Lin Biao, then the country’s No. 2, was killed in a plane crash.

These disappearances took place before the party introduced regular transitions, when the entire process of leadership-selection was highly volatile. Mao Zedong himself was in and out of power; and during the era of the Cultural Revolution, factions such as the Gang of Four rose and fell with the changing political climate. From the standpoint of contemporary Chinese governments, those were the bad old days.

Not by coincidence, those selection practices changed with the market reforms that have led to China’s extraordinary economic growth. Regularity and predictability in government are important for creating regularity and predictability in the economy.

Today’s party has built its legitimacy on economic growth, not on communist ideology, which has been largely abandoned. Pragmatism has been its chief virtue, and its most important claim to be acting on behalf of the people.

Deriving legitimacy from pragmatism and growth has largely worked. But in the long run, legitimacy will require showing that the rule of the party is better than the alternatives. Democracy has many well-known flaws, but it has the benefit of being very good at transitions. The party’s efforts to invent a nondemocratic system that provides regular transitions has been impressive. Now it needs to prove this transition will happen.

There is some play in the joints. The U.S. survived the Bush v. Gore fight of 2000, which itself cast doubt on democracy’s promise of regularity. If Xi surfaces soon, and the party congress takes place in October as has long been expected, it may actually be evidence of the success of China’s system in creating stable expectations.

But the party is playing with fire. Its next leader had better come out of the closet soon -- or the system he inherits will be substantially less legitimate than it was before Sept. 1.

(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Today’s highlights: the editors on the tax spat in France, on Egypt’s dance around the U.S. embassy breach and on the disingenuousness of last year’s debt-ceiling debate; Jonathan Alter on Romney’s “No Apology” foreign policy; Stephen Carter on the need for politics to stop at the water’s edge; Ezra Klein on a carbon-tax fantasy; Willie Pesek on China’s missing No. 2 man; Jonathan Weil on banks that admit their balance sheets are awful; Alex Marshall on why capitalism and government are friends after all.

To contact the writer of this article: Noah Feldman at noah_feldman@harvard.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.