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China’s Succession Games

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China Power

China’s Succession Games

Speculating about China’s next leaders distracts from the real issues: the Party’s policy debates.

China’s Succession Games
Credit: United Nations photo

Over the next year, one prediction is certain to be fulfilled. From the time of the Communist Party Plenum in Beijing a little later this month, no matter how much talk there is subsequently about policy, ideas, and new initiatives in China, a huge amount of time and effort will be spent on working out what clues there will be to what leadership succession will look like under Xi Jinping and which figures might be involved.

Leadership succession speculation has become a favorite game inside and outside China over the last two decades. In the 1990s, there was the fun of seeing if Hu Jintao, Deng’s supposed choice, was likely to actually be elevated. In 2002, it came to pass – after a fashion. In the period from 2006 onwards, attention swung to who would replace Hu. From that time, Xi occupied pole position. And since 2012, he has indeed been the key person in elite leadership in the People’s Republic.

One less noted side effect of this fixation on succession is just how much attention it draws away from discussion of policy and competing political ideas within China. It serves as the ultimate distraction. Because, at the end of the day, despite not being a multiparty democracy, ideas still have a role to play in domestic politics in China. It is not all about personalities and factions. There are, for instance, arguments for and against marketization, with the vast spectrum of opinion in between. This fault line has been there since the 1980s when figures like the hardline leftist Deng Liqun slogged it out with Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun. The issue has evidently never really been resolved.

Perhaps commentators are distracted by the fact that in terms of evidence of convictions and ideas, Xi seems somewhat aloof.  For instance, he supports marketization, for sure – that was made clear at the 2013 Plenum, the first under his leadership. But he also supports the absolute unchallenged position of the one party system and its decisive role in the economy. This seemingly contradictory posture betrays an interest in tactics, rather than a lack of commitment to ideas. Like many leaders, his chosen position is one of studied ambiguity. Across a whole raft of other policy areas, it would be hard to map out clearly what his real beliefs are.

Politicians in any environment have to be pragmatic. Why tie themselves to any particular course of action until they have to? That doesn’t mean that ideas don’t matter to the politics Xi is practicing. His resolute, almost fanatical, attempt to defend the Communist Party from all possible detractors after all serves as a core idea – the only one he has so far chosen to be wholly open about his commitment to.

This makes it hard to make real sense of talk about “Xi’s people” or “Xi’s allies” being elevated next year. Presumably members of this supposed group will first and foremost need to be allies for Xi’s vision of the Party and its future. The most we can say about that vision at the moment is that it involves making sure the Party survives and is sustainable into the future. What senior leader would dissent from that? This potentially makes everyone in the super elite in China Xi’s people – hardly a very informative conclusion to reach.

Speculation about succession often ends up sounding like using arcane language to talk about a modern phenomenon. In multiparty democracies, we know that leaders currently in power often have favorites, and sometimes even chosen successors. But we also know that their succession is seldom if ever smooth, and more often than not fails to go ahead. The very odd thing about the Chinese system in the last two decades has been how predictable, rather than unpredictable, it has proven. Hu and Xi were the clear favorites years before they were finally elevated. In this respect, China has a better record than any major democracy at delivering predictable top leadership outcomes.

If the whole Xi project is truly about making the Party robust, modernized, sustainable, and stable, then in the end that makes having a clear potential successor next year less likely. It isn’t needed. The Party has bought in to a vision of modernity which means that it does not see itself as the creature of one particular elite figure or their patronage networks. It can survive on its own. This would mark a normalization of politics in China – a moment when it comes a step closer to the way other systems run, where no one would expect a clear figure to emerge five years prior to their elevation.

So for all the very likely feverish worry about whether a particular person appears as a contender later next year at the full Party Congress, whether Xi’s person or not, or, if someone obvious does not appear, whether this gives clear evidence we are looking at a perpetual Xi presidency, in the end, the best outcome is that no clear successor does emerge. That would be normal politics. And the normalization of politics in China is what, in the end, serves everyone, inside and outside, best.