A few years ago I was told by a Chinese government official in Beijing that the usual precedent for handover of power from one generation of leaders to the next in China is that the leader before the last would have the say on who should be chosen. So Deng Xiaoping chose Hu Jintao, and Jiang Zemin got to chose Xi Jinping. The logic of this process dictates that Hu Jintao’s man be in pole position for 2022, when Xi Jinping is expected to step down.
Like most of these neat theories about China, this one raises more questions than it answers (for example, did Jiang really chose Xi?). But it does help to think a bit about the sort of leader that Xi Jinping is and how he compares to his predecessors. There were certainly favored people around Jiang and Hu — Zeng Qinghong in Jiang’s case, for instance, or Ling Jihua for Hu. But neither of these figures seem to have really prospered. Zeng lasted one term in the Standing Committee, and Ling has been sidelined, with rumors swirling around him being the next big target in the anti-corruption campaign. Perhaps Xi has concluded that the worst thing you can do to someone’s career in China is make it look like they are your closest confidante. So far, while Xi has said supportive things of Liu He the economist, and made use of Wang Qishan as his chief enforcer, there is no one linked to him with the sort of intimacy that Zeng had with Jiang, or Ling with Hu.
Two years into Xi’s reign, one of the intriguing issues regarding who might receive his support for future leadership bids is the fact that in 2017, if precedents are maintained, five of seven members on the current Politburo Standing Committee reach retirement age and therefore are expected to go. This means that presumably at least five, and perhaps even more (previously, the standing committee had 9 members), new faces need to appear, two of whom will immediately attract attention as possible future party secretaries or premiers.
The idea of Xi’s predecessor Hu having much say in this seems to grow more remote with each passing day, as Xi appears more and more dominant. It goes against political, let alone psychological, logic to think that Xi might, for mere form’s sake, bow to Hu in his choice. So figures that were eagerly talked about in the past, like Hu Chunhua or Zhou Qiang, seem to be left in the shade now. They were too evidently Hu’s men, married to the low-profile, administrative, and technocratic leadership style so favored by him.
But who else is on the radar? This notion of looking at who is close to Xi becomes a vexed one, because it is not clear at the moment that, amongst the provincial leaders, there is anyone he is particularly linked to. Are we looking therefore in the wrong place? In the past, the road to Beijing more often than not lay through provincial leadership as a training ground. But maybe now it is the central ministries where leaders of the future can be found.
In an opaque system like that which China currently enjoys, it is always nigh impossible to do anything but speculate about what the future might hold, particularly in terms of elite leadership. Even so, it’s interesting that Jiang and Hu were so clearly linked to patronage networks and had people who were seen as “their people” in ways that Xi doesn’t. In this sense, at least, Xi is a more modern style leader. He doesn’t seem to be grooming a discrete network of sympathizers and allies around him, but might be looking at more institutional ways of seeing who might work out as future senior leaders. Nearly halfway through his first five year term as leader, therefore, in the area of leadership promotion and possible future successors, Xi is showing he is a different sort of leader than his two previous predecessors. That is one theory.
But there might be a less reassuring explanation for this haziness about emerging leaders. Like successful politicians in the west, perhaps Xi dislikes potential successors and the competition they bring. He might even be showing signs he wants to continue beyond 2022. Secure leaders can rewrite constitutions and electoral terms, even in democracies, so the fact that there are rules in the place to limit terms at the moment means little. If this is what is actually happening, then we are indeed looking at an emerging demagogue. In 2017, we will know if this is the case. If the standing committee roster that emerges in 2017 doesn’t contain any leaders that we can really see as future party secretaries, then Xi will be clearing his way for a longer stay than anyone had ever expected.