Why Xi Jinping must ensure China has a viable political succession model
Andrei Lungu says after upending the old rules at the recent party congress, China’s most powerful leader in recent decades must now create a new system that will ensure transfer of power at the top remains peaceful and stable
It really is a new era. As members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee walked onto the stage to greet the press, it became clear that no successor to President Xi Jinping has been anointed. Instead, three politicians born in the 1960s – Hu Chunhua, Chen Miner and Ding Xuexiang – have become members of the wider Politburo. The old succession model created by Deng Xiaoping, in which the successor was groomed for at least five years on the Standing Committee, is now history.
Sources who correctly predicted the new line-up had told the Post that this should not necessarily be read as a sign that Xi wants to remain in power after 2022, but that he is unhappy with the current system of succession. Whether this is true, we will probably find out five years from now. One sign might come a little earlier, in March 2018, when Chen Miner or Hu Chunhua might become vice-president or one of the vice-premiers.
Another important outcome of the congress is the composition of the Politburo and its Standing Committee. If we take a look at the previous Politburo, only three members could have been considered Xi’s allies: Wang Qishan, Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji. In the meantime, Wang Huning, who worked under both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, has also become very close to Xi.
In contrast, the new Politburo and the Standing Committee look very different. Wang Qishan might have retired, but the other three Xi allies who were Politburo members have all joined the Standing Committee. This was by no means a given: in the past two decades, older Politburo members were prioritised over younger ones when it came to such promotions. The logic was simple: the younger members had another chance five years later. This way, more Politburo members had the opportunity to serve a single term on the Standing Committee.
This model of promotion has also been abandoned. In 2022, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Wang Yang (in addition to Li Keqiang) will all be under 68, meaning they could serve another term. Thus, three of the five new additions might become two-term Standing Committee members. In the past 30 years, with the exception of the two leaders of each generation, only five people, out of 22, managed this feat. On the other hand, older politicians like Li Yuanchao, Liu Qibao or Zhang Chunxian, who were below retirement age, have not even retained their Politburo seats, let alone advanced.
Just as impressive is the composition of the new Politburo: at least nine of the 15 new members seem to be old Xi allies, most of them having worked with him in the provinces. Xi seems to have assured himself a majority in both the Politburo and its Standing Committee. If Xi managed to accumulate so much power in the past five years with just a few allies, he now firmly dominates the party.
Government exhibition ties China’s achievements to Xi Jinping
At this point, Xi seems to be in a position to change much of the Chinese political system, if he so desires. His second term might focus on the economy and foreign and military affairs, but Xi will need to solve a central dilemma: creating a new succession mechanism. The old one, created by Deng, might not have been perfect, but it enabled two successful transfers of power. How Xi designs the new succession mechanism and whether it will be effective will be an important part of his legacy.
As China will probably become the world’s largest economy in the next decade, it will need stability. But both Mao and Deng had problems with succession and this played a role in the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen. Whether Xi peacefully transfers power or mishandles his succession might define his legacy.
Together with this succession mechanism, Xi could also think about engineering a new system of promotions. In the past three decades, the main factor in deciding who goes up the ranks has been relations with important leaders. This also seems to be the case today, as many politicians who have served under Xi in the provinces have received important promotions, including to the Politburo. But in parallel to the rise of this “New Zhijiang Army”, as it has been called, there has been another, less publicised, development: the promotion of technocrats from China’s space programme. Five people associated with this programme have become governors or party secretaries of Chinese provinces in the past few years.
This opens up an important possibility: the power Xi will accumulate over the next five years will make it possible for him to transform the internal mechanics of Chinese politics. For three decades, affiliation with leaders and the balance of power between competing networks, or factions, have dominated the system. While promotions at the lower and middle levels might have been based on merit, the most prominent factor at the higher levels was one’s relations with important politicians.
To consolidate his power, Xi has promoted numerous allies. But one day, both he and his allies will need to retire. The question is what comes next: the perpetuation of the same system based on personal ties, or a new, truly meritocratic system, maybe even with written rules, that would encourage the promotion of the politicians with the best results, who tried to implement bold, reformist ideas? The temptation to promote the politicians who profess their loyalty the loudest will be strong, but China would be better served if Xi promotes those most deserving.
‘Xi Jinping Thought’ enshrined in the party charter
With his eponymous political thought enshrined in the party constitution and his allies already in important positions, in the next five years. Xi will have the power and authority to create a new mechanism for promotions and succession, one that creates competition, encourages innovation and dynamism and rewards those most deserving. Creating written rules would ensure stability, predictability and fairness, and would prevent a return of the factional dynamics and relations-based promotions of the past.
Thanks to the power he has accumulated, Xi is the first politician since Deng who has the authority to create such a system. In official discourse and throughout Chinese history, a merit-based system has been seen as the highest ideal. As China is entering a new era, one can only hope that such a meritocracy could become a reality.
Andrei Lungu is president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific