Why leadership succession may be a problem for China: NPR
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BEIJING — Chinese leader Xi Jinping is now without equal.
At a Communist Party convention that ended over the weekend, he extended his rule beyond the 10-year norm, ousted opponents and stacked leadership with allies.
What the 69-year-old strongman hasn’t done is anoint a successor.
Analysts say it’s likely an effort to retain as much power as possible to carry out an ambitious political agenda – but it raises the political stakes and jeopardizes China’s hard-won stability.
“History shows very clearly that the problem of succession creates political instability,” said Jorgen Moller, a succession expert at Aarhus University in Denmark.
Most attempts failed
Most attempts at leadership succession in China since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 have failed.
Founder Mao Zedong’s first anointed successor, Liu Shaoqi, was eventually purged during the Cultural Revolution and died in prison in 1969. His next choice, Defense Minister Lin Biao, perished in a mysterious plane crash while that he was trying to flee the country in 1971, possibly after attempting a coup.
When Mao died five years later, his last choice, Hua Guofeng, took over. Hua managed to hold on to power for a few years, but was eventually pushed aside by Deng Xiaoping.
Deng, too, had inheritance issues. Reform party leader Hu Yaobang was ousted by hardliners. Zhao Ziyang, who was following him, was deported and spent his final years under house arrest for siding with the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989.
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But then things calmed down.
Deng managed to get other party power brokers on board for an unwritten system that sets somewhat flexible retirement ages, limits leaders to 10 years at the helm, and promotes and grooms potential successors several years longer. late.
Benjamin Kang Lim, journalist in Beijing with Singapore’s Straits time who has covered every party congress since 1997, says the first big test was the 16th party congress – and the party passed.
“2002 was the first orderly transfer of power since 1949,” he said. “There was a logic, right? There were the rules of retirement, seniority.”
Certainly, when Jiang Zemin handed over the party reins to Hu Jintao that year, he retained his role as chairman of the Central Military Commission, effectively commander-in-chief – an example of the flexibility of the so-called rules of succession. .
Nevertheless, two years later, the full transition was completed when Jiang gave up the military post.
Countering historical trends
According to Moller, China was going against historical trends. He says authoritarian regimes have generally stumbled with succession because institutions are unable to constrain rulers; laws are supposed to exist to serve the regime.
“The Chinese case was then used as an example in the literature on authoritarian systems that sometimes you can actually have institutions that seem to do the job,” he said.
Although Deng’s rules have often been bent, Xi Jinping seems to have completely abandoned them.
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Xi has cashiered two men who years ago were promoted to positions that analysts said made them likely successors, eventually pushing one aside at the just-concluded party convention. It abolished the standard on term limits. And he has concentrated, personalized power to a degree not seen since the Mao era.
“And so when Xi Jinping at some point has to retire, there’s no clear model of how that will happen,” Moller said.
It’s potentially dangerous for the world’s second-largest economy and a fledgling superpower with a growing nuclear arsenal. If the elites don’t know what to expect after Xi, analysts say, they stand to lose when the leader dies or moves on – and that raises the stakes.
“In historical terms, that could be a really big deal,” Moller said. “It could cost the elites their land. It could even cost them their lives.” Or lead to war.
The new composition of the seven most powerful men comes at a precarious time for Xi and his country. China’s economy is expected to grow at its slowest in decades, tensions with the United States are high and the rhetoric of escalation over Taiwan has become strident.
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“He’s Going Nowhere”
Rana Mitter, a historian at Oxford University, says none of this is lost on Xi.
“Xi Jinping wants to make it very clear that he’s not going anywhere and people shouldn’t spend time speculating on who’s coming next,” Mitter said.
Xi rejected collective leadership and espoused “the idea that he personally is very much associated with the next phase of development”, he said.
At the party congress, Xi’s ruling ideology and political priorities won wholehearted support. Mitter says Xi has consolidated his power and does not want it to be diluted while pursuing these goals.
Benjamin Kang Lim, the reporter, says he expects Xi to eventually put in place a new succession system. Not yet.
“Political succession, of course, is important,” Lim said. “But I think it takes a step back from where this leader or future leaders will take this country.”