Xi Jinping, a senior Chinese Communist Party apparatchik with a handful of posts, was elevated to a key position in the military on Oct. 18, formalizing an under-the-table deal that had been known about for some years: his accession to position of Party chief after the incumbent Hu Jintao.
The decision to make Xi vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission was the result of a factional compromise that underscores the CCP’s attenuated confidence and authority in the face of mounting social, economic, and political crises, experts say.
“In the succession of Communist Party leadership, they think he’s the only figure that’s acceptable to different political forces within the Politburo,” said Cheng Xiaonong, former advisor to ousted premier Zhao Ziyang and, later, chief editor of Modern China Studies, in a telephone interview.
“The goal of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is to safely get off the boat … they would like to leave all the trouble and problems to the next generation of leaders,” he said.
The decision was made public at the end of the CCP’s 12th “Five Year Plan” meeting, a ceremony typical to communist parties that has been held in China since 1953, after the CCP took power.
There is an emerging consensus among many China experts that the CCP’s “reform” model—of state corporatism (resulting in entrenched corruption) at home, and mercantilist trade and export policies abroad—after 30 years, has reached the end of its useful life, and that the only way forward now lies in a reconfiguration of the economic and political structures.
Unbalanced and unsustainable development has resulted in enormous wealth disparities and lurking economic, environmental, demographic, and social crises.
It has also fostered a class of interest groups in and around the CCP who are only able to maintain their wealth by maintaining the status quo. Networks of CCP officials, often through state resource and market monopolies, have dominated and manipulated China’s economy, leading to a distorted profile of income distribution and myriad other problems.
“It is not only that most of the national wealth is occupied by vested interest groups of the CCP, but that the central government also takes too much of the fiscal income for itself,” says Cheng Xiaonong. “That’s the real reason why income distribution can’t be improved and why the economic structure can’t be changed or adjusted.”
Action would require political reform, essentially reducing and restraining the power of the Communist Party and its cadre corps. “That is exactly what they cannot do,” he says.
Xi was seen as the best choice in a field of not very good choices, primarily because he will be able to maintain the status quo and hopefully hold back the contradiction that lies at the heart of the ruling clique’s grip on power.
“He’s someone that people don’t oppose, and who can protect all these interest groups,” says Li Tianxiao, senior political analyst with New Tang Dynasty Television.
A Reluctant Candidate
Given the difficulties, Xi did not even really want to take the top job, according to Cheng.
“The easiest tasks which could be done by the Chinese leadership have already been used and employed. The tough issues, the problems that cannot be easily solved, have been left over for the next generation.”
This is why several years ago, according to insiders known to Cheng, Xi sent a letter to the Politburo, the country’s chief power organ, requesting that he be removed from the list of candidates for vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.
But, as in leadership successions in the former Soviet Union, where candidates simply could not get out of difficult political accessions “if other people push them into it, they have to do it. That’s called ‘collective leadership,’” Cheng said.
Li Keqiang, next in line to take over the premiership from Wen Jiabao, is in the same quandary. “Now, this is not a good job for anyone. In China, the economic problems are no longer an easy job for the prime minister,” Cheng said.
Apart from the growing economic and social contradictions, which some scholars have predicted will result in a “trapped transition,” the CCP’s stubborn interest groups and factions that have moved the economy and the society to the brink will compound the difficulty of Xi’s rule as general secretary.
“They can’t just give up their vested interests and change the way things work, it’s not feasible,” says Li Tianxiao, the political analyst. “For example, the issue of high-level officials disclosing their wages and property has been raised again and again, and vetoed again and again—every high level official has a lot interests wrapped up here.”
This is particularly the case where, as a new leader, Xi’s legitimacy will largely be decided by his performance, rather than a network of patronage in the Party.
“Hu was anointed by Deng [Xiaoping], so he was a little bit solid, but Xi Jinping does not have that kind of authority,” Cheng says. “It is very likely that they’re not going to have good performance, and that will certainly damage their legitimacy.”
By all accounts, Xi was not anyone’s first choice. “Everyone knows that Hu Jintao wanted Li Keqiang to take over,” says Hu Ping, chief editor of Beijing Spring, the flagship pro-democracy journal, in a telephone conversation, “but the Jiang Zemin faction didn’t want him, so they came up with someone else.”
Xi is not thought to be highly capable, either. “The special thing about these new CCP leaders is that there’s nothing special about them,” Hu Ping says.
Xi rose up through the ranks quickly, built relationships with a range of leaders in the system, as a “princeling” has a good political background (meaning he is the son of a revolutionary from Chinese communism’s early years), and has made no major mistakes—though, according to Hu Ping, “of course he hasn’t done anything good either.”
For Li Tianxiao, the choice of Xi was the best way to maintain the status quo. “They can’t reverse the collapse of the CCP, but he’s the only person that everyone can accept.”
Already, according to Li, Xi’s rhetoric raises contradictions: “Xi Jinping has said that ‘the power comes from the people,’ and everyone thinks he’s talking along the lines of political reform. But if Xi really wishes this, he needs to firstly stop the CCP’s persecutions of the people.”
Difficult decisions of that order are unlikely to come. “The job of the next tenure of the leadership is much tougher than the previous leadership,” Cheng Xiaonong says. “And the quality of the next generation leadership is weaker than before.”