Speculation Continues on the Future of Xi’s Leadership

The Nikkei Asian Review’s Katsuji Nakazawa reports on signs that Xi Jinping is attempting to counter opposition ahead of next year’s 19th Party Congress by demonstrating support from within the Party and military. A major restructuring of top Party leadership is expected at the 2017 congress, when five of the current seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee are expected to step down. Reports of intra-Party factional politicking have been plentiful amid a shuffling of provincial leaders as the event approaches. Nakazawa writes that:

Xi cannot afford to let his guard down ahead of the ’s next congress as he faces bureaucratic inertia, growing economic uncertainty and outspoken party elders, among other challenges. Xi’s recent visits to the military units seem to reflect his desire to shore up his position in the face of these difficulties.

[…] One incident illustrates the bureaucratic opposition to Xi: A prominent Chinese scholar on international politics made a splash recently by frankly analyzing the country’s domestic politics during a lecture he gave to a small audience. Based on the lecture, a writer published a sensational article titled “ is facing soft resistance.” The article quickly went viral on official Chinese websites.

According to the article, Xi won the hearts and minds of many ordinary citizens by launching a fierce anti-corruption crusade after coming to power in 2012. Xi was so popular that disgruntled bureaucrats had no choice but to come to heel, the article said.

But the situation changed drastically in 2015. Xi’s directives, including those related to his anti-corruption campaign, now fall on deaf ears. As the bureaucrats slack off, the Chinese economy continues to deteriorate, the article said.

Within hours of its publication, the article was deleted by Chinese authorities monitoring the internet and social media. The authorities took the action, apparently fearing that Xi’s political difficulties might become widely known to the public. [Source]

Xi’s early consolidation of power won him praise from U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a 2013 speech recently published by WikiLeaks. Clinton told a Goldman Sachs conference that Xi is a “more sophisticated, more effective public leader than Hu Jintao was,” and “understands the different levers and the constituencies that he has to work with internally and externally.”

While some emphasize the purported insecurity of Xi’s current position, there has been mounting speculation that he is aiming to extend his control of the nation and Party past 2022, beyond the conventional 10-year term. The congress, marking the start of Xi’s second term, would traditionally see the unveiling of his likely successor. Last week at the New York Times, Chris Buckley reported that theories about a possible attempt to delay naming his heir continue to swirl:

The delay would buy Mr. Xi more time to promote and test favored candidates and prevent his influence from ebbing away to a leader-in-waiting, experts and political insiders said. But the price could be years of friction while a pack of aspiring cadres vie for the top job, as well as unnerving uncertainty over whether Mr. Xi wants to stay in power beyond the usual two terms as party leader.

Although Mr. Xi’s decision will not be known until late 2017, the suggestion that he intends to break with precedent and begin his second term without a probable successor is magnifying uncertainties about who will rise and who will fall in the expected shake-up, including questions about the fate of the premier, Li Keqiang.

[…] “Having played the strongman politics since coming to power, Xi would be the least likely person to feel constrained by these unspoken rules” of succession, said Warren Sun, a researcher on Chinese Communist Party history at Monash University in Australia.

[…] The risk of elite infighting, as well as demands from other senior officials and retired leaders, could still force Mr. Xi to signal his successor next year, several experts said. […] [Source]

A more recent article from the Financial Times’ Tom Mitchell looks to speculation that Xi may attempt to ignore the unwritten “seven-up, eight-down” rule that all leaders aged 68 or older must retire at a Party congress. According to the article, this would be “the strongest signal to date that Mr Xi could ignore a similar unwritten rule on term limits that would require him to step down from his current position as party leader in 2022.”

Factional rivalries appeared to spill into the Hong Kong press last week. The Hong Kong Free Press reported on October 8 that the pro-Beijing newspaper Sing Pao had received threats after it ran anonymous commentaries attacking Xi rivals operating in the city. More recently, HKFP added that Sing Pao ran an “advertisement” apparently aimed at China Liaison Director Zhang Xiaoming, demanding he “explain himself to Beijing” or see his connections there evaporate.

Meanwhile, the South China Morning Post’s Choi Chi-yuk examines the continued rise of Wu Zhenglong, a survivor of the biggest intra-Party clash to hit China in decades:

A survivor of political storms in Chongqing and Shanxi has been appointed the deputy Communist Party chief of China’s affluent eastern province of Jiangsu as well as the top party official of its capital, Nanjing.

[…] A source in Shanxi said Wu’s move would pave the way for the rest of his career.

Wu is one of the few direct subordinates of disgraced Chongqing party boss to survive the political aftermath of Bo’s downfall and move up the political ladder. Many of his former Chongqing colleagues were purged in the fallout. [Source]