Who will succeed President Xi Jinping?

February 16, 2016 16:04
It is said that President Xi wants to follow the example of "Czar Putin" of Russia and build his own political dynasty in China. Photo: Xinhua

There seems to be no end to President Xi Jinping’s lust for power.

Just three years after he assumed office, Xi is now basically in complete control of the Communist Party, the government, the military, the judiciary, the law enforcement apparatus, the economy and the diplomacy of his country.

Since the beginning of this year, chief officials of a dozen key provinces and autonomous regions -- such as Anhui, Sichuan, Hubei, Shaanxi, Guangxi, Inner Mongolia and Tianjin -- have openly pledged allegiance to Xi one after another and hailed him as the “core” of the Communist Party.

Since China’s economic reforms kicked off in 1978, none of Xi’s predecessors -- including the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, his handpicked successors Hu Yaobang, Zhao Zhiyang and even former president Hu Jintao -- have ever been hailed as the “core” of the party.

And Xi seems to enjoy that kind of flattery very much.

It is said that shortly after Xi came to power in 2012, he told his chief advisers and his party peers that he wanted to follow the example of “Czar Putin” of Russia and remain in office at least until 2027, when the Chinese Communist Party is scheduled to hold its 22nd National Congress, because he wanted to have more time to cultivate his own successors, often known as the “sixth-generation” leadership.

In fact, the race for places in the “sixth-generation” leadership is already underway in full swing among senior party stalwarts after Xi consolidated his absolute power.

Up to this point, the front-runners in this heated race include Ding Xuexiang, 54, deputy director of the General Office of the party's Central Committee; Zhong Shaojun, 48, deputy director of the General Office of the party's Central Military Commission; and Li Shulei, 52, secretary of the Commission for Discipline Inspection of the party's Beijing Municipal Committee.

Ding served as Xi's chief of staff in 2007 when Xi briefly assumed the office of party secretary in Shanghai and is widely considered as one of the president’s most trusted and loyal subordinates.

It is believed that Ding is very likely to succeed Li Zhanshu, his boss, as the director of the General Office of the party's Central Committee, the Chinese equivalent of the White House chief of staff, next year.

Zhong was Xi’s right-hand man when Xi served as the party secretary of Zhejiang province between 2002 and 2007.

Zhong was appointed to his present post in 2013 and was promoted to the rank of major general the following year.

It is believed that the reason Zhong was given that job is that Xi needed somebody he trusted to oversee the day-to-day operations of the Central Military Commission's General Office, a newly established body entrusted with enormous power after the massive restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army that Xi initiated.

In the meantime, Li Shulei, often dubbed the “child prodigy”, was appointed deputy principal of the Central Party School at the age of 44, the youngest person ever appointed to this important position.

He is one of Xi’s favorite lieutenants and his No. 1 “wordsmith”.

Other hopefuls for the “sixth-generation” leadership include Chen Miner, 56, party secretary of Guizhou province, whose ties with Xi date back a very long time, and Li Qiang, 57, governor of Zhejiang province.

The people mentioned above form the backbone of Xi’s party elite squadron, and their absolute loyalty to him is beyond question.

However, a clear problem is that these people, other than their close relationships with Xi, have little to show for themselves in terms of a contribution to China’s reforms or economic performance.

One of the weakest links in China’s political system remains that it still doesn’t have a sustainable top leadership succession mechanism.

Isn’t it ironic that while the tiny island of Taiwan, a renegade province, has just undergone another smooth regime change through a completely free and genuine election, mainland China, the Celestial Empire, still very much relies on a Stalinist model of government in the 21st century?

Doesn’t that represent a major regression in the 5,000-year-old Chinese civilization?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 04.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Adjunct Professor, History Department, The Chinese University of Hong Kong