Tue, Oct 11, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Xi Jinping might delay call on a successor, defying script

The Chinese Communist Party’s succession quandary is shaping up to be a defining test of the power and ambition of Xi Jinping

By Chris Buckley  /  NY Times News Service, BEIJING

Illustration: Yusha

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) appears prepared to defy the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) established script for transferring power and delay the designation of his successor until after a party congress next year, unsettling the party elite and stirring speculation that he wants to prolong his tenure.

The delay would buy 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.

However, 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 Xi wants to stay in power beyond the usual two terms as party leader.

Although Xi’s decision would not be known until late next year, the suggestion that he intends to break with precedent and begin his second term without a probable successor is magnifying uncertainties about who would rise and who would fall in the expected shake-up, including questions about the fate of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強).

“It is a very delicate issue,” said a member of the party establishment who regularly speaks with senior officials.

He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the party’s ban on discussing sensitive internal decisions.

“I do not think Xi wants to decide until the people he favors have more experience, more testing,” he said.

In interviews, three other party insiders close to senior officials and their families said Xi appeared likely to delay picking a successor.

The succession quandary is shaping up as a defining test of the power and ambition of Xi, already China’s most dominant leader in decades. When and how his heir is chosen, and who is picked, will offer a measure of how much further Xi can bend the party’s ideas of collective rule that evolved after the upheavals of Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) last years.

The system for succession, developed after a long period of political turmoil, was devised to help ensure a predictable, stable transition of power in the one-party state. Any effort by Xi to alter that compact might increase his considerable authority, but it could also inject instability into the delicately balanced system.

Making predictions about Chinese leadership handovers is always perilous. The discussions are secret. Key decisions often come together late in the deliberations. And the ascendancy of Xi, opaque even by the standards of party leaders, makes forecasts even harder.

“Xi Jinping has unleashed forces that open up a wide range of political futures, and each has its dangers,” David Lampton, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said by e-mail. “The central policy reality is that the United States, and the next president, must be prepared to deal with a wider range of possibilities in China.”

The drama would probably begin in earnest this month, when the CCP Central Committee, about 200 senior officials who sign off on major decisions, meets in Beijing. That meeting is likely to set in motion plans for the congress, which is to meet late next year to endorse a new top line-up.

While it is a given that the congress would back Xi for another five-year term as party leader, nearly everything else is up for grabs, giving Xi great sway to shape the new leadership.

Five of the seven members of the powerful Central Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP must step down because of age, assuming the informal retirement age of 68 holds. That leaves only Xi, 63, and Li, 61, to return.

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