China Uncensored: Who Will Win China’s Game of Thrones?

By Chris Chappell
Chris Chappell
Chris Chappell
September 3, 2016 Updated: September 3, 2016

Summer is coming to a close, which means China’s Communist Party leaders are just getting back from their annual vacation getaway at the beach resort town of Beidaihe – a tradition that dates back to the 1950s. But Beidaihe is more than just a beach where Party leaders can kick back and check out how high Xi Jinping’s swim trunks are. It’s the classic smoke-filled beach, the beach where it happens, full of closed-door wheeling and dealing about the future of the Party.

You might even call it a Game of Thrones.

Like the Lannisters and the Starks, Communist Party Chairman and self-appointed president Xi Jinping is locked in battle with another faction inside the Party—to see who can get and keep his own people in the highest positions of power. The leadership of the Party theoretically changes every 5 years. And decisions are already being made now about who will be left standing after the shake-up coming in the fall of 2017. According to precedent, five of the seven youthful, raven-haired bureaucrats that make up China’s ruling Politburo Standing Committee will step down from office. And one of the new guys will be Xi Jinping’s successor. That’s right, according to precedent again, Xi should only serve two terms. In other words, he’s supposed to step down in 2022. Except that some analysts are now saying that Xi may try to hang onto his job for just a tiny bit longer than that, and avoid naming a successor.

BEIJING, CHINA - NOVEMBER 15:  Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (Front), one of the members of new seven-seat Politburo Standing Committee, delivers a speech as (L-R) Zhang Gaoli, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Dejiang, Li Keqiang, Yu Zhengsheng and Wang Qishan standing at the Great Hall of the People on November 15, 2012 in Beijing, China. China's ruling Communist Party today revealed the new Politburo Standing Committee after its 18th congress.  (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (Front), one of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members.

Not that he wants to be ruler for life or anything crazy like that. According to Chinese politics expert Willy Wo-Lap Lam, Xi might just “retain control of the army and police” once he’s stepped down as president in 2022.

I think he could just stay as head of the Central Military Commission and the Central National Security Commission. Then he controls both the army and the police.
— Willy Wo-Lap Lam

You know, it’s important to have hobbies after retirement.

Actually, Xi Jinping is probably worried because he’s already made a lot of enemies with his intense so-called anti-corruption campaign. He’s used it to take away power from once-mighty factions like the Communist Youth League and the “Shanghai Gang” of former Party leader Jiang Zemin. And Jiang Zemin has now become Xi Jinping’s arch rival.

Most of the big names that Xi has taken down with his anti-corruption campaign were tied closely to Jiang—who continued to have a huge amount of control over the Party even after he supposedly stepped down in 2002. So even though Xi has been in charge of the Party for four years, he still hasn’t managed to sit on the Iron Throne. First, he’s got to get rid of the threat from the House of Jiang.

That came to a head this past week with Jiang’s 90th birthday, which was notable mainly because state-run media completely ignored it. Which shows that Xi is indeed gaining the upper hand. But it was celebrated by hordes of zombie-like followers in the wastes of the Chinese internet, who mashed keys to declare their support for and allegiance to “the toad.”

No, that’s not me slandering him. That’s Jiang’s actual “affectionate” nickname. And according to the BBC, “his ‘worshippers’ have flocked to send him birthday wishes and ‘one more second’, a moment of their lives to extend his.” Let’s take a moment to just acknowledge how weird and creepy that is.

This show of support is a bit baffling when you consider that Jiang Zemin’s reign from 1989 through the early 2000s began with the Tiananmen massacre and only got more bloody from there—Crackdowns on religious groups, organ harvesting, and of course, massive corruption and cronyism.

But hey, he’s just so darn quirky, so all is forgiven.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin together with his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin (L) inspect a guard-of-honour during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing 10 November. Yeltsin and Jiang will later hold their fifth Sino-Russian summit before signing a border treaty and witnessing a framework accord on a gas pipeline from Siberia to northern China. AFP PHOTO GOH Chai Hin
Russian President Boris Yeltsin together with his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin (L)

But whether it’s genuine toad fandom or just something cooked up by Jiang’s faction to try and build him an underground following, either way there’s a growing display of subtle opposition to Xi Jinping’s administration. Even though many of the activities of “toad”-worshippers are censored, it’s not clear the Great Firewall of China can keep them out of the Seven Kingdoms forever.

So what can Xi Jinping do? Well, he’s counting on allies like Wang Qishan, who’s been running his anti-corruption campaign as its Grand Inquisitor. Wang Qishan is generally known as the one of the most intimidating and Machiavellian figures in the Party. One official even said he’d rather “see the devil” than be investigated by Wang. And he’s been as loyal to Xi as a Hand of the King, even though he was previously seen as part of Jiang’s faction. Perhaps at some point Jiang did something to get on Wang Qishan’s bad side. Which was a stupid move, because a Qishannister always pays his debts (sorry.)

But while Xi vs Jiang might be the Starks vs the Lannisters, is there another House out there, coming from across the sea, who also has a claim to the Throne? Maybe with some cute baby dragons? I guess we’ll have to wait for season seven to see.

So what do you think of China’s Game of Thrones? Leave your comments below.