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China's Next President: Reading the Tea Leaves of Chinese Politics, Part 2

 
 

Is there any evidence behind the pervasive rumors about Xi Jinping’s desire to remain in charge after 2022, when he is supposed to step down? Out of the five signs that one would expect to see if this were the case, the first two, analyzed in a previous article, indicated otherwise. But what about the last three signs?

No Promotions for Old Men

When it comes to the third sign — breaking retirement precedent — this is where Wang Qishan is supposed to come into play. If Xi wants to remain in charge after 2022, he needs somebody to break the 68 retirement precedent. That’s how the thinking goes. But if that’s the case, shouldn’t he also have had to break a lower-lever precedent beforehand? By, say, keeping his ally Xia Baolong, 64, in play for the Politburo? Some sources said Xia will become China’s internal security tsar, but he ended up as vice chairman of the Environmental Protection and Resources Conservation Committee of China’s powerless legislature, as is normal for somebody his age and rank. Or how about promoting his childhood friend Liu Yuan to the Central Military Commission (CMC) at the 19th Party Congress? Liu was Wang Qishan’s equivalent in the military, an advocate of tough anti-corruption rules. In 2014, anonymous sources with ties to the party leadership were saying Xi will put Liu on the CMC before the 19th Congress. Where is he now? Retired (at 64, as it is normal for officials of his rank).

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Why hasn’t Xi managed to keep even one ally who was facing retirement norms? He’s supposed to be powerful enough, right? Maybe he’s just not that interested in breaking retirement precedent or it’s just too difficult to do so?

What are the rumors about Wang Qishan’s second PSC term based on? Again, on simple speculation. Was there any propaganda campaign to highlight Wang’s unique skills and his vital importance to the party? Yes, there was. In the Financial Times. If Xi wanted Wang to stay, it would have been in the People’s Daily.

The only public sign regarding the retirement age was the answer a party official gave in October 2016 about the importance of the 67 up, 68 down “retirement rule.” Deng Maosheng, an official at the Central Policy Research Office, said that there is no specific retirement age and the party has flexibility. In the Western press, it was seen as a sign of Xi’s intention to keep Wang. But if it was so, why hasn’t this quote appeared all over the front pages of Chinese newspapers? Or why wasn’t the point been repeated in the year since? Deng was probably stating a simple truth: there is no such rule and the party has other considerations as well, meaning you might retire at 66 or 67, perhaps.

This is natural. A lot has been written about Xi’s three terms. But nobody seems to care about Li Keqiang’s third term. Li will be 67 in 2022. Under the so-called “rule,” he should serve one more term. Maybe as President and General Secretary? (this is an irony) There is a precedent for the premier remaining one more term, like Li Peng did in 1997, as head of China’s parliament. But no, Li will probably step down in 2022, regardless of age, because retirement isn’t judged based solely on age, but also on generation of leadership.

The traditional argument for the retirement age claims that it was set at 70 in 1997, when Qiao Shi retired, and was lowered by Jiang Zemin in 2002 to 68, to force Li Ruihuan to retire. But Li Ruihuan wasn’t the only one who retired that year. In fact the entire PSC, except for Hu Jintao, retired (the Politburo had 16 new members, out of a total of 24). And a certain Li Tieying, age 66 and three-term Politburo member, retired instead of being promoted to the PSC or at least remaining on the larger Politburo.

Li Tieying was pretty much a rising star in the 1980s. In 1987, at 51, he joined the Politburo. Li remained on the Politburo for three full terms, until 2002, when he was 66 years old. Based on the 67 up, 68 down “rule,” Li should have at least joined the PSC in 2002. But this didn’t happen. Why? Because the 2002 mass-retirement wasn’t so much based on age, but based on the entire third-generation retiring, leaving the fourth-generation in charge. Li Tieying, like Li Ruihuan, was part of the third-generation and it made sense that both of them retire as well.

This means that the 68 retirement precedent has been implemented for only 10 years, since 2007, making it easier to break. If Xi or the party leadership wanted Wang to stay, it could be done, accepting him as a full member of the fifth-generation. Yet there has been no clear sign in this direction during the past three years. On the other hand, if Xi were to remain after 2022, then Li Keqiang will also have to stay, as head of China’s legislature. Xi would also have to keep Wang Yang on the PSC, maybe as premier. This doesn’t sound like Xi’s dream PSC.

Over the past three years, there hasn’t been any campaign against retirement at the age of 68, nor any campaign to highlight why Wang Qishan should serve another term. The only campaign has been the one praising Xi Jinping, but without hinting that he should rule for more than 10 years.

When it comes to the last of the five signs, regarding Xi’s consolidation of power that might enable him to break all precedents, the evidence is lacking as well. Except for Sun Zhengcai, no other member of the Politburo was purged. Xi didn’t modify the current distribution of power within the higher ranks of the party, he simply hunted wounded or retired tigers. Up to this point, Xi didn’t signal that he wants to put the entire leadership under his control.

So, out of five signs that we would normally expect to see if Xi wanted to extend his power beyond 2022, we only saw half of one: Xi taking down Sun Zhengcai. But Xi groomed Chen Min’er in his place and didn’t break retirement precedent when it came to some of his allies who reached the traditional retirement age. Further, there has been no public campaign against the 68 retirement precedent, nor any campaign to promote Wang Qishan as irreplaceable. All the signs that Xi wants to remain in power don’t exist. All we have are anonymous sources.

Smoke and Mirrors

But these sourced rumors also have a problem. Hong Kong bookseller Lam Wing-kee, who was kidnapped in 2015 and forcefully brought to China, managed to come back to Hong Kong and tell his story. He said that a special task force wanted to learn the identity of the sources quoted in a book about Xi Jinping’s desire to rule for 20 years. Why was this subject judged important enough by the party leadership in order to take the unprecedented step of forcefully bringing Hong Kong citizens to mainland China?

Remember that fourth point, about a public campaign? If Xi wanted to remain in power, it would be logical to ask his allies to spread this rumor, but also to justify and defend such an action. Call it a positive spin campaign (Jiang Zemin tried it in 2002, when it seemed he didn’t want to retire). But the Hong Kong episode seems to indicate that other sources were responsible for the rumors and the leadership considered it a smear campaign, thus wanting to know their identity.

This brings up a very different possibility: what if the entire speculation was started not by Xi’s allies, a case in which there would be no need to search for the sources, but was planted by his enemies as a negative campaign to sabotage Xi? What if they started these rumors which propagated inside the party and later made it into the Western press and became the default narrative regarding Xi Jinping? Such an explanation is far more likely than the othes: that Xi told a lot of people about his plans, or that Xi told only a very select few, who then leaked this information throughout the party, against Xi’s wishes.

So here we are, basing our analysis of the future of China’s political system on simple speculation fueled by some sources with ties to the party. But the real signs point to something else: for five years Xi has been grooming his ally, Chen Min’er, to succeed him. The use of the anti-corruption campaign against Sun Zhengcai only made this trend more clear, as Chen’s promotion was similar to Xi’s Shanghai 2007 promotion, which heralded Xi’s ascent on the PSC.

Chen is most likely China’s next president, with Hu Chunhua the next premier. But there is still a possibility that the roles might be reversed, as Hu already has a Politburo term under his belt and he might also have more support within the party leadership than Chen does, who is not very well known. What this means is that both Chen and Hu will almost certainly join the PSC at the 19th Congress (if Xi cannot live with Hu as his successor, he might try to buy some time, keeping both out of the PSC, until Chen has eclipsed Hu, in 2-3 years time).

The Best Thing Possible

When Hu Jintao set another precedent at the 18th Party Congress, abandoning all his titles at the same time, including that of chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Xi Jinping had this to say: “The decision also embodies his exemplary conduct and nobility of character.” If Xi was already thinking about a third term, it wasn’t a wise thing to say.

What the speculation about Xi’s intentions seems to ignore are China’s particularities. Self-promotion isn’t a quality that is treasured in China. Modesty and propriety, on the other hand, are what great leaders are made of. Breaking precedent to cling to power for five more years isn’t the best way to go down in history.

Xi is probably interested in retaining some power after retiring in 2022. But reviving the chairman position, remaining general secretary while somebody else becomes president (breaking the vital link between the party and the state), or changing the constitution are complicated, self-seeking behaviors. On the other hand, Xi has a handy precedent, that one can only wonder why he wouldn’t follow: Deng Xiaoping, whose power he has a chance of equaling.

Like Deng, Xi could choose his successor, installing Chen Min’er as party general secretary and president of China, while retaining the chairmanship of the CMC for a few years. He could stack the PSC and the Politburo with his allies, who would implement his vision after his retirement. And he can lead from behind the scenes, as a respected, modest leader, who observed the precedent set by others and was interested not in his own power, but in pursuing China’s greater good, for which he will always be remembered. This is probably the best thing a powerful Chinese leader could wish for.

Andrei Lungu is president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP). This is the second article in a four-part series about China’s political system and the 19th Party Congress.

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