A lasting legacy

Andrei Lungu | 3 November 2017

It really is a new era. As members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee walked onto the stage to greet the press, it became clear that no successor to President Xi Jinping has been anointed. Instead, three politicians born in the 1960s – Hu Chunhua, Chen Miner and Ding Xuexiang – have become members of the wider Politburo. The old succession model created by Deng Xiaoping, in which the successor was groomed for at least five years on the Standing Committee, is now history.

Sources who correctly predicted the new line-up had told the Post that this should not necessarily be read as a sign that Xi wants to remain in power after 2022, but that he is unhappy with the current system of succession. Whether this is true, we will probably find out five years from now. One sign might come a little earlier, in March 2018, when Chen Miner or Hu Chunhua might become vice-president or one of the vice-premiers.

Another important outcome of the congress is the composition of the Politburo and its Standing Committee. If we take a look at the previous Politburo, only three members could have been considered Xi’s allies: Wang Qishan, Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji. In the meantime, Wang Huning, who worked under both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, has also become very close to Xi.

In contrast, the new Politburo and the Standing Committee look very different. Wang Qishan might have retired, but the other three Xi allies who were Politburo members have all joined the Standing Committee. This was by no means a given: in the past two decades, older Politburo members were prioritised over younger ones when it came to such promotions. The logic was simple: the younger members had another chance five years later. This way, more Politburo members had the opportunity to serve a single term on the Standing Committee.

This model of promotion has also been abandoned. In 2022, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Wang Yang (in addition to Li Keqiang) will all be under 68, meaning they could serve another term. Thus, three of the five new additions might become two-term Standing Committee members. In the past 30 years, with the exception of the two leaders of each generation, only five people, out of 22, managed this feat. On the other hand, older politicians like Li Yuanchao, Liu Qibao or Zhang Chunxian, who were below retirement age, have not even retained their Politburo seats, let alone advanced.

Just as impressive is the composition of the new Politburo: at least nine of the 15 new members seem to be old Xi allies, most of them having worked with him in the provinces. Xi seems to have assured himself a majority in both the Politburo and its Standing Committee. If Xi managed to accumulate so much power in the past five years with just a few allies, he now firmly dominates the party.

At this point, Xi seems to be in a position to change much of the Chinese political system, if he so desires. His second term might focus on the economy and foreign and military affairs, but Xi will need to solve a central dilemma: creating a new succession mechanism.

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This article has been published by Andrei Lungu, President of RISAP, in the South China Morning Post. You can read the full article on the South China Morning Post website.

Photo Credits: Chinese President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in Xiamen, in September 2017 (Flickr/Palácio do Planalto)

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Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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