What a potential successor’s fate says about Xi Jinping’s ambitions
Steve Tsang says placing Sun Zhengcai under investigation may signal the Chinese leader is strengthening his hand in the lead-up to the 19th party congress and beyond. Is Xi positioning to stay in power in 2022?
A thick fog of politics has engulfed Beijing, and it will not lift until October or early November, when the 19th Congress of the Communist Party has concluded. But occasional events and patterns from the past give us scope to peep through gaps in the murk, and identify some pointers of what to expect at the 19th congress.
The placing under investigation of Sun Zhengcai (孫政才), a Politburo member and Chongqing (重慶) party secretary, is one such occasion. This is a landmark development, as only three other serving Politburo members – the late Chen Xitong (陳希同) in 1995, Chen Liangyu ( 陳良宇 ) in 2006 and Bo Xilai ( 薄熙來 ) in 2012 – have fallen from grace since 1990, and Sun was previously a rising star.
What will happen to Sun is not yet known. But he could not have been put under investigation without President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) approving it or, more likely, ordering it. Unless Sun can persuade Xi that he will now cooperate fully and make himself exceedingly useful, he is – politically speaking – already a dead man walking.
Sun will almost certainly be charged, most likely for violating party discipline or corruption.
The official reasons for his downfall will be interesting and potentially significant. The top leadership’s choice of narrative will reveal the message it prefers to project to the wider party and the country.
But whatever Sun’s formal charges may be, the timing suggests that this is probably related to political positioning and signalling ahead of the 19th congress. Unlike odd-number congresses since the 1990s, the 19th will be a particularly important one, even though there will not be a succession in leadership.
Indeed, the biggest issue will be whether generational successors will be named and put on a five-year apprenticeship, as has become the norm after the death of Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ). Xi has shown no wish to have an apprentice successor to himself as general secretary named. If none is named, it suggests Xi will have succeeded in positioning himself to stay in power at the 20th congress, scheduled for 2022.
That this is Xi’s ambition is widely suspected. It looks to have been reaffirmed by Wang Qishan (王岐山), Xi’s right-hand man for party rectification, publicly called the anti-corruption campaign. Just after news of the investigation of Sun was released, Wang published a long article in the People’s Daily. According to Wang, the great achievements of the party since the 18th congress (2012) could only have been achieved by Xi insisting on and exercising strong leadership, particularly by imposing strong discipline on the party.
Wang portrays Xi not only as the core of the leadership but also as the leader who took decisive and bold actions to reverse a deepening trend of drift. Xi is credited with having put the party on a course to greatness not seen for a while.
Neither Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) nor Jiang Zemin (江澤民) is named by Wang, but the message is clear. In Wang’s portrait, Xi stands above his immediate predecessors.
However, powerful elements in the establishment still clearly prefer to adhere to the post-Deng convention, by which a leadership serves two five-year terms. If there had not been significant resistance to whatever plan Xi has for the 19th congress, a clearer picture of what to expect would have been presented, and Sun could perhaps be spared.
Well before the 15th congress, it was widely known that Hu Jintao would succeed Jiang Zemin. At the same stage prior to the 17th congress, two potential names had already been clearly floated, though the final outcome proved to be a surprise, with Xi, rather than Li Keqiang (李克強), chosen as heir apparent to Hu Jintao, despite Hu’s preference for Li.
Sun is one of the few of the appropriate seniority and age group who could be elevated at the 19th congress, at least to Politburo Standing Committee status, if not as one of the two front runners for the “sixth generation” leadership.
By placing Sun under investigation, Xi has sent a powerful signal. Those top-echelon leaders who are not with Xi at the 19th party congress, and have outsized ambitions, are against him, and need to watch out. Can they be sure that what is befalling Sun cannot happen to them? With Wang’s loyalty publicly reaffirmed, can anyone not see his instrument of party inspection or anti-corruption action remains readily available to Xi?
The pattern of past party congresses shows that for a historically important event, like the 19th congress, final decisions on the key issues were usually not settled until the congress itself.
It is still much too early to conclude Xi will be able to decide on the agenda and direct the 19th congress as he pleases. But there is little doubt that Xi is steadily strengthening his hand in the run-up to it.
Will Xi get his way at the 19th congress? The prospect that he will largely do so is getting ever stronger, but Xi is asking for a lot. He wants to establish himself as the supreme leader whose term of office should not be limited by the norm, and to have his authority reaffirmed to lead China to national rejuvenation as he defines it. Few, if any, in the party establishment reject national rejuvenation, but how strongly Xi should be allowed to entrench himself, and what protection for the interests and welfare of other leaders are in place, is a different matter.
Surprise is not the monopoly of an electoral democracy. Even Xi cannot be sure of the eventual outcome of the 19th congress at this stage. He is riding high but the game is not over yet.
Steve Tsang is director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London, and, with Honghua Men, editor of China in the Xi Jinping Era