China's President Xi Jinping mulling over new succession system to pick heir

BEIJING – For centuries, succession politics have plagued China, and it wasn’t uncommon in ancient times for an emperor to depose an erring or errant designated heir and name a new crown prince.

But it was often a last resort and politically destabilising to any dynasty.

Things have changed little since the Communist Party of China (CPC) swept to power in its 1949 revolution.

Chairman Mao Zedong anointed three heirs. The first, state president Liu Shaoqi, died in prison in 1969 after being purged for being a “capitalist roader”.

The second, CPC vice-chairman Lin Biao, was accused of plotting to assassinate Mao and died in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia in 1971.

The third, Hua Guofeng, who held the three most powerful positions then – CPC chairman, premier and Central Military Commission (CMC) chairman – was outmanoeuvred by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 after just two years in power.

Paramount leader Deng’s first designated heir, CPC general secretary Hu Yaobang, was toppled by the old guard in 1987 for being too liberal, while the second and third, Zhao Ziyang and Hu Qili, were sacked by Deng himself for opposing the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

In the first peaceful transition of power since 1949, Mr Jiang Zemin, himself picked by Deng, passed on his top-ranked seat in the party’s Politburo Standing Committee – the pinnacle of power in the country – and the CPC general secretary job to Mr Hu Jintao at the 16th party congress in 2002.

He later handed over the presidency to Mr Hu in 2003, and the CMC chairmanship in 2004.

But Mr Jiang had no say in who his successor would be. That decision was also made by Deng, the power behind the throne until a few years before his death in 1997.

When it was Mr Hu’s turn to retire in 2012 after two five-year terms, he did not get to call the shots either. If he had had it his way, his successor would have been Mr Li Keqiang, the current Premier.

In keeping with the tradition initiated by Deng, in which an incumbent leader’s successor is named by the leader’s predecessor, Mr Jiang wanted Mr Xi Jinping to take over.

The succession stand-off was resolved after informal backroom straw polls – known in Chinese as “democratic recommendation” – to sound out the party elite during a meeting of the 200-odd members of the Central Committee and party elders ahead of the 17th congress in 2007.

Mr Xi beat Mr Li in the straw polls, leaving Mr Hu with no choice but to hand over the top job in the party and military to Mr Xi in 2012, and the presidency in 2013.

Mr Hu was merely the first among equals in the Politburo Standing Committee, ruling for a decade in Mr Jiang’s shadow. Collective leadership – another of Deng’s mechanisms to place a check on power – coupled with Mr Hu’s political weakness, spawned many problems, including poor policy coordination and chronic corruption, during Mr Hu’s presidency.

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Xi-style succession system 

Since assuming leadership, President Xi has swiftly consolidated his power, intensifying a crackdown on corruption and vowing to restore China to its past glory after its “century of humiliation” from 1839 to 1949, when the country was invaded and carved up by foreign powers.

He has yet to name a successor, departing from the political succession system and collective leadership model introduced by Deng.

Instead, Mr Xi is mulling over a new succession system that could become one of his most important political legacies.

“For Xi, the old succession system was not reasonable. No other country in the world has a similar system,” a party insider told The Straits Times, requesting anonymity.

His new succession plan is driven by his reluctance to have either Mr Jiang, 95, or Mr Hu, who turns 80 in December, or both of them, decide his successor.

With about a year to go before the 20th party congress, it is unclear if the CPC will once again resort to straw polls to decide the next generation of leaders.

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At the last party congress in 2017, President Xi had already taken a firmer hand in deciding the leadership line-up, interviewing Cabinet ministers with his Standing Committee peers, while the CMC surveyed military officers.

“Xi broke the old succession system. He will have to erect a new one,” the insider said. “The new system will be Xi’s most important contribution to reforming the political system.”

Dr Ling Li, who studies Chinese domestic politics at the University of Vienna, describes Deng’s succession practices, such as picking two successors down the line, as an “unprecedented overreach” of his power, and a “significant corrosion of the power of all future heads of the party, because they would be deprived of the privilege to pick their own immediate successors – an integral part of the power of any ruling autocrat”.

“More importantly, this practice necessarily creates two competing seats of absolute power in the same temporal space whose origins of legitimacy come from two different reigns, a situation that makes the best incubator for power struggles, deposing and dethroning until the supremacy and singularity of absolute power is restored,” she told ST.

Change may come soon. The leadership has hammered out behind closed doors a framework for political succession, sources say.

It will be finalised in the run-up to the 20th congress in the autumn of next year, although it may not necessarily be unveiled then.

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Revival of party chairmanship? 

By overturning Deng’s principles on term limits, collective leadership and heir appointments, President Xi is charting a new course that could see him defy another of Deng’s rules.

Party insiders say Mr Xi, 68, could resurrect and assume the party chairmanship at next year’s conclave, fully consolidating power. The chairmanship was scrapped in 1982 by Deng to avoid Mao’s political excesses.

But, according Dr Li, the China scholar, there are clear reasons for the President to make himself Chairman Xi, after Chairman Mao.

The legacy of the position gives it greater legitimacy than a newly created one, and would offer a solution to the succession issue, said Dr Li.

There is no term limit to party chairmanship. Mao was chairman from 1945 to 1976, wielding absolute power over the party and the country for decades.

“The reactivation of the party chairmanship would seem to provide the best solution for Xi, as it would allow him to achieve two goals simultaneously: to continue to rule and to micromanage the succession process,” argued Dr Li in an op-ed earlier this week outlining why President Xi is likely to make this move.

“The successor could be coronated at a pace and in a manner that Xi finds most comfortable, thanks to the many options the reactivated office would open to him.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping (in grey) and other leaders pictured in July above a portrait of late Chinese chairman Mao Zedong on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, as they arrive for an event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China. PHOTO: REUTERS

That includes relinquishing the role of party general secretary to someone he wishes to groom to take over.

When the party’s top leaders meet next week for a crucial political meeting, the sixth plenary session of its Central Committee, before next year’s party congress, they will pass a historical resolution that is expected to solidify President Xi’s supremacy and pave the way for his continued leadership.

After this happens, the revival of party chairmanship will seem even more likely.

But such a change would be just symbolic, argued Associate Professor Victor Shih, who studies Chinese elite politics at the University of California San Diego.

“In reality, he already has the power and stature that Mao had. He dominates the party, the military, the state. A lot of policies that previously were made by the State Council are now made by the leading groups, which he chairs,” said Prof Shih.

The State Council is China’s leading administrative body, headed by Premier Li, while leading small groups are the primary policy decision-making and coordinating bodies within the CPC.

“If he were to change the title (to party chairman), I don’t think there would be a lot of pushback. I think that the rumbling was probably stronger when he changed the Constitution,” added Prof Shih.

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At the minimum, Mr Xi is likely to seek an unprecedented third five-year term as general secretary, as is widely expected after Parliament amended the Constitution in 2018, abolishing the two-term limit on the presidency.

Mr Xi, insiders say, has an unfinished mission: reunification with Taiwan, which Beijing has claimed as its own since 1949. Two five-year terms as general secretary and state president would not be enough to accomplish this.

“China needs a political strongman now to face a slew of new challenges, including reunification with Taiwan, dealing with an increasingly hostile US, tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and (continuing with) developing the economy,” one of the party insiders said.

Mr Xi declared in 2019 that self-ruled, democratic Taiwan “must be and will be” returned to the motherland, although he has never set a timeline.

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Next-generation leaders 

Under his succession framework, he will not necessarily name an heir but, instead, is likely to promote more than one next-generation leader to the Standing Committee at next year’s congress to test their loyalty, competency and political acumen.

Candidates tipped to join the committee either this or next round include Chongqing party secretary Chen Min’er, 61; director of the General Office of the party’s Central Committee Ding Xuexiang, 59; Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua, 58; Shanghai party secretary Li Qiang, 62; and Guangdong party secretary Li Xi, 65.

All five men sit on the 25-member Politburo, one notch below the Standing Committee.

(Clockwise from top left) Chongqing party secretary Chen Min’er, director of the General Office of the party’s Central Committee Ding Xuexiang, Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua, Shanghai party secretary Li Qiang, and Guangdong party secretary Li Xi. PHOTOS: LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE, MCI, EPA-EFE, REUTERS

With the exception of Mr Hu Chunhua, who is a political ally of Premier Li, the other four are all President Xi’s allies, whom he had helped install in the Politburo at the last leadership reshuffle in 2017.

Even so, Mr Xi needs to balance and accommodate various political factions to avert any irreparable rift at the top, the sources said.

But having other colleagues of similar ages with him in the Standing Committee, instead of pulling in younger leaders, may have the advantage of “lessening the complaint that Xi’s the only one violating the retirement norm”, said Prof Shih.

An informal retirement rule now dictates that those aged 68 and above should retire.

Besides Mr Xi, the current Standing Committee members are Premier Li, 66; Mr Li Zhanshu, 71; Mr Wang Yang, 66; Mr Wang Huning, 66; Mr Zhao Leji, 64; and executive Vice-Premier Han Zheng, 67.

These older colleagues are also less likely to challenge his authority as their “time horizons are shorter”, argued Prof Shih.

Whatever the outcome of the political horse-trading in the run-up to the 20th congress, there is one prerequisite.

“Whoever becomes the next generation of leaders should not dig the party’s grave,” said one of the sources, adding that liberal multi-party democracy could spell the end of CPC rule.

The logo of the Communist Party of China on a skyscraper in Shanghai. PHOTO: AFP

Risk of elite defection 

All these moves made by President Xi are unprecedented in post-Mao China, said political scientist Lynette Ong of the University of Toronto.

“If there’s anything we have learnt from studying authoritarian regimes around the world – not just China – it is over-concentration of power, deinstitutionalisation, particularly around the issue of succession, (which) introduce an element of unpredictability to the system,” said Associate Professor Ong.

That could shake people’s confidence in the system, promoting speculation.

“The biggest challenge to Xi’s insistence on abolishing the norms governing succession comes from within elite politics, how that unfolds will not be transparent to most observers.

“Nevertheless, it increases the risks of elite defection when there are cracks in the society. When elites defect, regime sustainability becomes a question.”

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Will Xi promote next-generation leaders?

With Chinese President Xi Jinping, 68, almost surely seeking a third term and at least two of the other six members of the country’s apex Politburo Standing Committee expected to retire, the question is whether Mr Xi will push up his younger political allies as part of his succession plan.

The stalwarts

Li Keqiang, 66

An economist by training, Mr Li belongs to the Communist Youth League faction and is a political ally of former president Hu Jintao. He will be stepping down as Premier after two terms, but is tipped to stay on in the Politburo Standing Committee.

Wang Yang, 66


Currently the fourth-ranked member of the Standing Committee and the chairman of China’s top advisory body to Parliament, Mr Wang was also from the Communist Youth League – led by Mr Hu – and has a reputation for being a reformer. He could take over from Mr Li as the next premier.

Han Zheng, 67

The No. 1 Vice-Premier, Mr Han was the mayor of Shanghai for a decade and party chief for five years. While he was aligned with the Shanghai clique led by former president Jiang Zemin, he had worked with Mr Xi when the latter served briefly in Shanghai as party secretary. If Mr Xi scraps the unwritten retirement age of 68 for top leaders, Mr Han could be a candidate for the premiership.

Liu He, 69


The fourth-ranked Vice-Premier is one of President Xi’s most trusted confidants and economic advisers, and was tasked by the Chinese leader to lead testy trade negotiations with the United States’ Trump administration. He is a dark horse for the next premiership because of Mr Xi’s deep trust in him.

The next generation

Hu Chunhua, 58


A rising political star for years, Mr Hu belongs to the youth league faction and was appointed third-ranked Vice-Premier at the last party congress, overseeing agriculture, commerce and tourism. A prodigy of former president Hu Jintao, he had been expected to rise to the Standing Committee at the previous reshuffle and was seen as a potential successor to President Xi. 

Chen Min’er, 61


The current party secretary of Chongqing, Mr Chen has been associated with the New Zhijiang Army faction led by President Xi, who was governor and party secretary of Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007. Mr Chen worked under Mr Xi as vice-governor of the province, and has been widely tipped to be a potential heir of the President.  

Li Qiang, 62


Another of Mr Xi’s allies, Mr Li is currently party secretary of Shanghai and previously cut his teeth as Zhejiang governor and Jiangsu party secretary. When Mr Li was part of the provincial party standing committee in Zhejiang, he served under
Mr Xi.  

Ding Xuexiang, 59


Currently the director of the Communist Party of China’s powerful General Office overseeing a wide range of party affairs, Mr Ding is considered Mr Xi’s chief of staff and his top aide. He earned the President’s trust when he served as political secretary to Mr Xi during the latter’s stint as party secretary of Shanghai.

Li Xi, 65


The current party boss of economic powerhouse Guangdong, Mr Li is a Xi loyalist and has shared experience with the President as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution. He is also associated with Mr Xi’s Shaanxi clique, comprising officials who served in the President’s home province.

Mr Li was previously party chief of the revolutionary base of Yan’an in Shaanxi.

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