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

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

It’s time to push back against the “Xi Forever” narrative and take a deep dive into political maneuvering in China.

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

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the 86th INTERPOL General Assembly at Beijing National Convention Center on September 26, 2017 in Beijing, China.

Credit: REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool

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?

Because Xi already inherited two sixth-generation politicians on the Politburo, who were groomed to succeed him, he would try to purge them or sabotage their careers.

Secondly, he would avoid grooming any other sixth-generation leader who could succeed him.

Thirdly, he would start breaking the retirement precedents, as often as possible.

Fourthly, there would be a public campaign to promote such an extended rule and against retirement norms, like there was a campaign to promote the term “core” before Xi officially received the title. Similarly, there would be a campaign to highlight why some politicians, like Wang Qishan, should stay on, regardless of age.

And lastly, in order to get the party leadership on board with his plan, Xi would probably have to purge some party leaders in order to make it clear it’s his way or the highway.

This is what one would expect if Xi were interested in a third or fourth term. Now let’s examine these signs.

The Rise of Chen Min’er

At first, there seems to be some truth to the rumors. Sun Zhengcai, the party secretary of Chongqing, born in 1963 and thus eligible to be reelected in 2027 (making him a sixth-generation leader who could serve two terms between 2022-2032), was put under investigation for corruption in July 2017. Indeed, it was this sign that prompted the Economist Intelligence Unit, which until now has avoided falling for the Xi Forever speculation, to declare that Xi might grab a third term.

But there’s a huge catch. Who replaced Sun as party secretary of Chongqing? Out of dozens of potential candidates and out of half a dozen eligible Xi allies, it was Chen Min’er, Xi’s only sixth-generation ally that could have been promoted to such a position (three other Xi allies born in the 1960s are too junior to be directly promoted to Chongqing party chief).

Let’s be clear: if Xi wanted to serve another term, it made zero sense to replace one of the two groomed sixth-generation leaders with his sixth-generation ally. Xi might have checked box number one, but he clearly broke requirement number two: he groomed Chen Min’er, born in 1960, the oldest possible age to lead the sixth-generation, under current retirement precedent.

In case this doesn’t look like grooming Chen, but as a simple coincidence, let’s go back a little further. Chen worked under Xi when the latter was party secretary of Zhejiang, helping write Xi’s weekly columns for the provincial party newspaper. Chen became vice governor of Zhejiang in May 2007. He languished in this position for almost five years, finally being named deputy party secretary of Guizhou in January 2012, the year Xi was preparing to take the reins of the party. After the 18th Party Congress that year, Chen became a member of the party’s Central Committee and was named governor of Guizhou.

Two and a half years later, the anti-corruption campaign targeted Zhou Benshun, the party secretary of Hebei and a Zhou Yongkang ally. Who was picked to replace Zhou? Out of over two dozen eligible politicians, it was the party secretary of Guizhou, who vacated his seat to take over Hebei. Then Chen Min’er was promoted to party secretary of Guizhou.

In April 2017, Xi was elected a delegate to the 19th Party Congress. Xi was born in Beijing, where he has been living for 10 years. He has family roots in Shaanxi. He served for 17 years in Fujian, where he recently organized the BRICS summit. In 2007 and 2012, he was elected a delegate from Shanghai. Xi had a special connection to Shanghai: he was sent there as party secretary in March 2007, just 7 months before the Party Congress which groomed him as China’s future leader. This promotion was made possible by a corruption investigation against the former party chief of Shanghai, who was also a Politburo member (like Sun Zhengcai).

So which province will Xi represent at the 19th Party Congress? Of course, it is Guizhou. What is Xi’s only connection to this province? Chen Min’er, who was sent to one of China’s poorest provinces, while one of Xi’s main goals is to eradicate extreme poverty until 2020. Xi had allies in numerous other provinces, yet, he decided to signal his support for Chen, his only ally that is in a position to succeed him in 2022.

Dusting Off the Old Shanghai Playbook

Three months after Xi publicly signaled his support for Chen, in July 2017, Sun Zhengcai became the only member of the current Politburo to be targeted by the anti-corruption campaign. Who was sent to replace him? Chen Min’er, who again benefited from a seat left open by the anti-corruption campaign. This is not coincidence, this is design. Careful observers have noted Chen’s bright prospects since 2015. Yet, much of the Western press has been very slow to read the tea leaves. Ever since the beginning of the year, there have been a few reports naming Chen “a dark horse” candidate for the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). But, at first, Chen’s promotion in Chongqing was read as a sign that he was assured of a simple Politburo seat. Today, there seems to be agreement that Chen is probably heading to the PSC, but very few have the temerity to call him China’s next president.

Let’s go back to 2007. Just seven months before the party congress, Xi was named party secretary of Shanghai. At the congress, he joined the PSC and was then named vice president of China. The rest is history. Today, Chen has been named party secretary of Chongqing (like Shanghai, a direct-controlled municipality), three months before the congress. If this isn’t the 2007 Shanghai playbook, then what is?

Why wasn’t Chen sent to Shanghai? Because Shanghai wasn’t led by a sixth-generation leader. If there would have been three potential successors (Chen, Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua), Chen would have been the odd-one out: less experience, not even a Politburo member. By taking down Sun and replacing him with Chen, Xi left only two potential successors, simplifying the choice: Hu Chunhua, Hu Jintao’s ally, and Chen.

Everybody who claims Xi wants to have a third term needs to explain why Chen was repeatedly promoted, especially to Chongqing, when Xi could have promoted any other ally. Also, why hasn’t Xi purged or demoted Hu Chunhua? There are only five provincial party chiefs who have remained in the position they received after the 18th Congress and Hu is one of them. If his lack of promotion seems like a bad omen, remember that there aren’t many places where you can go once you’re party secretary of Guangdong. If Xi wanted Hu out, he could have sent him to Qinghai or Anhui or somewhere else. Not only did Hu remain untouched, but Xi praised him in April (and Hu returned the favor).

As things stand now, they are very similar to 2007. Two politicians young enough to lead the next generation of Chinese leaders are provincial party chiefs. One of them has remained in the same position for a few years (Li Keqiang in 2007 and Hu Chunhua today). The other one has recently experienced an important promotion thanks to a corruption investigation (Xi Jinping in 2007 and Chen Min’er today). But instead of talking about Chen and Hu, the entire discussion is centered on Xi’s apparent desire to remain in charge after 2022. Maybe the last three signs could provide some support for this theory? We’ll find out in the second installment of this series.

Andrei Lungu is president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP). This is the first article in a four-part series about China’s political system and the 19th Party Congress.