Beijing's Secret Succession Battle

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SEPTEMBER 24, 2009, 2:46 P.M. ET

Beijing's Secret Succession Battle
Xi Jinping may be the next Hu Jintao—just not yet.


As Beijing ramps up for next week's celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, the Communist Party leadership is keen to present a stable, united front to the outside world. That show will be deceptive. Quite apart from the economic, political and social stresses affecting the country as a whole, the Party itself faces its own internal divisions and infighting. Look no further than the just-concluded plenary session of the Party's Central Committee.

The plenum was watched closely for signs of who might succeed President and Commander-in-Chief Hu Jintao when he steps down in 2012. One of the front-runners is Vice President Xi Jinping, the son of former Vice-Premier Xi Zhongxun. Yet Mr. Xi and the rest of the world got hit with a surprise over the weekend: He was not appointed to the Central Military Commission, China's highest military policy-making organ. This had been viewed as a critical step in cementing Mr. Xi's leadership credentials ahead of 2012.

This is not necessarily a sign that Mr. Xi is out of favor. According to arrangements made at the 17th Party Congress in 2007, Mr. Xi, who is the highest-ranked Politburo Standing Committee member from among the fifth, or younger, generation of Chinese leaders, will replace Mr. Hu as Party boss in late 2012 and president soon after. Mr. Xi's heir-apparent status was affirmed by the fact that he and Mr. Hu were the only two leaders who gave major addresses at the plenum last week.

But the non-move is a sign that China's succession politics are not growing significantly more transparent with the passage of time. Just consider all the calculations that appear to have gone into Mr. Xi's surprise.

For one, Mr. Hu is starting to appear reluctant to relinquish power fully at the 18th Party Congress in October 2012, when he will be a couple months shy of his 70th birthday. That's hardly old these days, and his busy, globe-trotting schedule attests to his sterling health. It seems likely that he wants to maintain some standing within the government, and he could do so by keeping a grip on the military.

That's what his presidential predecessor, Jiang Zemin, did in 2002. Mr. Jiang then retired from the Politburo and the Party Central Committee and handed Mr. Hu the posts of president and Party general-secretary. But Mr. Jiang surprised colleagues by refusing to retire from his Central Military Commission chairmanship. Only in 2004 was Mr. Hu able to force Mr. Jiang out of that post, with the help of the generals. Mr. Hu is believed to want to go Mr. Jiang one better by serving out a full five-year term as chairman after 2012. He also seems keen to emulate his good friend Vladimir Putin, who has stayed in Russia's political limelight in the premiership even after stepping aside from the presidency.

Mr. Hu also has to engage in Machiavellian factional politics. The president leads a faction built around the Communist Youth League, the largest within the Party. Mr. Hu has since the mid-1990s elevated dozens of associates from the league to key jobs in Beijing and at the regional level. Two of these are Wang Lequan and Zhang Qingli, put in charge of Xinjiang and Tibet, respectively. Yet the degree to which youth-league stalwarts have been snatching plum jobs spurred a groundswell of opposition even before the 2007 Party congress.

It doesn't help that since early 2008, both Tibet and Xinjiang have seen the worst rioting in three decades. After the recent outbreak of violence in Xinjiang, calls for Mr. Wang's sacking have been made in and out of the Party. Yet Mr. Hu has refused to penalize either Mr. Wang or Mr. Zhang, or similarly ineffective youth league-affiliated officials in provinces including Guizhou, Shanxi and Sichuan. In the face of general intra-Party discontent with the youth league faction and the haplessness of some of its leading lights, Mr. Hu must be concerned about his ability to continue sheltering his protégés within the grouping. Holding onto the Central Military Commission chairmanship for five more years is Mr. Hu's best shot.

Mr. Hu is also mindful that while the youth league faction is poorly represented in the army, the military is a stronghold of the so-called gang of princelings—children of Communist Party leaders. Mr. Xi happens to be the leader of that "gang," and a few dozen of Mr. Xi's childhood friends, also the offspring of Party elders, just happen to be generals. If Mr. Hu were to elevate Mr. Xi too early to the military leadership, it might be dangerous for the youth-league faction.

All of this makes for high political drama and entertaining theater for outsiders. But especially with the People's Republic's 60th anniversary looming—and this being the 21st century—it's worth asking: What kind of country still picks its leaders this way?

Mr. Lam is professor of China Studies at Akita International University, Japan, and adjunct professor of History at Chinese University of Hong Kong.