After years of speculation, the composition of the core of China’s fifth-generation leadership became quite clear on Monday with the naming of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) as vice chairman on the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Although the move was not unexpected, it did serve to validate most experts’ assessments that Xi will succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) as paramount leader after he steps down as head of the CCP, most likely in 2012. Hu is expected to give up the presidency in 2013 and chairmanship of the CMC sometime in between 2013 and 2015.
The naming of Xi as vice chairman came during the closing day of the Fifth Plenary Session of the 17th CCP Central Committee. Most experts agreed that Xi was already on track to succeed Hu. The only question was whether Xi, who already holds key top-ranking positions within the party and state leadership, would assume the military post as well.
The importance of the CMC vice chairmanship is demonstrated by the late career of reformist and modernizer Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平). During his time as the paramount leader of China, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Deng held no formal party or government posts. However, his personal prestige as well as his control of the CMC assured that the party would control the gun and that Deng himself controlled both.
The rise of Xi is important for reasons beyond simply knowing who will rule China for the next 10 years. First, Xi’s rise is similar to that of his predecessor and current president Hu in that Xi and Hu are both professional bureaucrats who rose in connection with the Communist Youth League, gained experience from provincial leadership and were former party school presidents. Both Xi’s and Hu’s fathers were denounced during the Cultural Revolution, leaving deep impressions on both leaders.
Second, the similar backgrounds and career trajectories of Hu and Xi serve to further institutionalize party, government and military leadership transitions in China. It remains to be seen whether the actual handing over of the reins of power from Hu to Xi, a transition which will probably take place over a period of two to three years, will indeed be smooth. However, what is certain is that party, state and military leadership is being prepared for the transition.
Third, when Xi does assume control, he will be the first leader since Deng not to be chosen directly by Deng. During the party struggles of the 1980s, Deng personally chose Jiang Zemin (江澤民) as his successor and by most authoritative accounts also chose Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao. The ascension of Xi to the Chinese throne, if it occurs without major controversy, will further solidify party transition norms; this time, however, there will be no direction from a preeminent party elder.
Fourth, Xi’s leadership will be the third generation of party, state and military leadership which is civilian. Long gone are the days when a party member from the Long March generation rules by personal charisma and military stature. Although the continued civilianization of China’s core leadership, particularly within the military, may have a stabilizing effect on its relations with other nations, it may also prove risky.
For example, in her 2008 book China: Fragile Superpower, Susan Shirk writes that civilian leadership in China can be destabilizing and dangerous. During the Deng period, China’s paramount leader could rule behind the scenes and use his prestige with the military to keep People’s Liberation Army (PLA) budgets low. It was no accident that military modernization was the last of Deng’s “Four Modernizations.”
With the decline and death of Deng in the middle of the 1990s, Deng’s successor, Jiang, went to work consolidating his power within the party, state and military. However, Jiang, a career technocrat with no military experience, needed to secure his personal control over the military. This proved problematic for the insecure Jiang, who rose to leadership as the mayor and party boss of Shanghai.
As Shirk argues, the -acceleration in China’s military spending over the past 15 to 20 years can, in part, be tied to Jiang’s desire to win favor within the military apparatus. Other factors, such as the realization after the first Gulf War that China was far behind the US technologically as well as the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis (which nearly pitted the PLA against the superior firepower of the US Navy), also played a role. However, the continuation of civilian leadership of the party, state and military has witnessed increased Chinese military spending even though China’s periphery has been relatively peaceful for a prolonged period of time.
As Shirk argues, the reciprocal relationship between the party and the military, which has developed since the time of Jiang and continues today, is one of the party controlling the gun and the party providing the resources to ensure PLA protection. When combined with a continued rise in Chinese nationalism and changing official rhetoric regarding China’s maritime periphery, improving capabilities and pressure from the military may persuade Chinese leaders, sensitive to such pressure and worried about their positions, to use force.
And with the future leadership of Xi all but finalized, there is little reason for this situation to change, at least for the time being.
Nathan Novak studies China and the Asia-Pacific region with a particular focus on cross-strait relations at National Sun Yatsen University.
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