China’s Next President: Reading the Tea Leaves of Chinese Politics

Andrei Lungu | 4 October 2017

Over the past three years, a narrative about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s desire to remain at China’s helm for another five or ten years after 2022 has steadily taken hold. Together with this “Xi Forever” narrative, there has been growing speculation that, in order to break a precedent that requires leaders to retire at 68, Xi will try to keep his ally Wang Qishan on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) after the 19th Party Congress. These rumors have grown in intensity, developing in tandem with the mistaken narrative about Xi’s power being equal to that of Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping.

But what is this Xi Forever narrative based on? It’s based on nothing more than rumors and Western press reports quoting anonymous sources. The problem is that it isn’t clear at all how these sources could have learned, years ago, such an intimate piece of information about what Xi wants to do years from now in 2022. Has Xi told every acquaintance that he intends to prolong his rule? Highly doubtful. Reading the press attribution of sources, we encounter “party insiders” who are “close to senior officials” — not Politburo members who might have first-hand information from Xi, but people who happen to know people and have heard something.

It might be possible that Xi confessed his intentions to some very close allies, but how this information trickled down from PSC or Politburo politicians to lower-level officials or acquaintances who could be used as sources is difficult to imagine. It’s far more probable that those sources are not in possession of first-hand information from Xi or his closest allies, but they’ve simply heard speculation that is pervasive both inside and outside the party. When it comes to what Xi Jinping might intend to do eight years in the future (the sources started talking in 2015) it should be obvious that nobody has any real information. Everything is speculation.

The articles about Xi’s desire to remain in power also talk about “the signs” of this intent, like how, unlike his predecessors, Xi hasn’t shown his interest in stepping down or grooming a successor. But what successor did Hu Jintao name in 2005? And how did Hu communicate his desire to step down after two terms, only three years into his presidency? Did he organize a press conference?

Reading the Tea Leaves

Let’s assume that deep inside, Xi wants to prolong his rule. How would this desire manifest externally?

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This article has been published by Andrei Lungu, President of RISAP, in The Diplomat. You can read the first part and the second part of the article in The Diplomat.

Photo Credits:  Xi Jinping at the 2017 BRICS Summit, in Xiamen (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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