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  Opinion   Columnists  14 Jun 2023  Claude Arpi | China in suspense as Xi, 70, has junked succession plan

Claude Arpi | China in suspense as Xi, 70, has junked succession plan

The writer is based in South India for the past 40 years. He writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.
Published : Jun 15, 2023, 12:10 am IST
Updated : Jun 15, 2023, 12:10 am IST

What will happen if the supreme boss goes?

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
 Chinese President Xi Jinping. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

After Xi Jinping was accorded a third five-year term as China’s President in March 2023, the Associated Press commented that he was “on track to stay in power for life at a time of severe economic challenges and rising tensions with the United States and others. The endorsement of Xi’s appointment by the ceremonial National People’s Congress was a foregone conclusion for a leader who has sidelined potential rivals and filled the top ranks of the ruling Communist Party with his supporters since taking power in 2012”.

While a number of analysts like to make predictions about the succession of the Dalai Lama and its immediate implications, very few think about a sudden departure of the “core leader” of the Communist Party of China (CPC). However, in a book entitled Party of OneWall Street Journal reporter Chun Han Wong has documented what could happen in case of President Xi’s sudden death or purge.

But before analysing Wong’s conclusion, let us have a look at the death of Zhou Enlai, who should have succeeded Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsman, if it was not in China. By the end of 1975, both were suffering from cancer, but Mao was keen to see his Premier to leave this world before him as the Premier was more “popular” than him with the masses.

Dr Li Zhisui, Mao’s private physician, recalled that as Zhou Enlai was dying, Mao never went to see him in the hospital. On November 29, 1975, when Dr Li visited the Premier, Zhou was too weak to even lift his hand: “That was the last time I saw him. Zhou Enlai died on January 8, 1976,” noted Dr Li.

The doctor remembered that there was hardly any reaction in Group One, Mao’s close guard: “Many of the doctors on Mao’s medical team had also treated Zhou, and they wanted to visit the 305 Hospital (in Beijing) to pay their last respects. When I presented their request to Zhang Yaoci (the commander of the Central Garrison Corps), his response was swift and stern. The doctors were not permitted to go, and no one was to wear the black armband of mourning.” Mao was jealous of Zhou’s popularity.

Dr Li continued: “As the Chinese New Year approached, Zhang Yufeng (Mao’s secretary and female companion) wanted to celebrate. She suggested that Zhang Yaoci set off firecrackers outside Mao’s residence. Zhang was happy to please her… the area suddenly swarmed with guards and soldiers from the Central Garrison Corps. Zhongnanhai had long had a ban against firecrackers… (at the same time) a rumour began circulating that the Chairman was celebrating Zhou’s death with firecrackers.”

This shows that succession is always simple in China.

In Axios China, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian analysed: “After the death of Chinese dictator Mao Zedong in 1976, that resulted in years of instability at the party’s highest levels, party leaders eventually developed a relatively stable model of succession in which each top leader served for two five-year terms, with a clear successor already waiting in the wings… But Xi dismantled that system by abolishing term limits, not designating a successor and assuming a third term.”

That is a serious issue for China today.

Wong believes that a drama looms once again: “Xi confronts a timeless conundrum that scholars call the ‘Successor’s Dilemma’. Dictators prefer to choose their own successors, but Xi has so far avoided this path.”

The WSJ correspondent further elaborated: “As the designated successor tries to build power, the political elite will naturally start realigning their loyalties… a process that can undermine the incumbent leader, who may come to fear that the heir apparent is plotting to usurp power.” This had happened with Mao’s once heir-apparent, Lin Biao, who disappeared in a mysterious plane accident.

It is also probably why the one-time heir apparent Hu Chunhua was dropped during the last party congress.

Wong’s conclusion: “By remaking the party around himself, Xi may have become the weakest link in his quest to build a Chinese superpower.”

On June 15, President Xi will be 70 years old. According to Wong: “The uncertainty over his succession plans keeps the party elite on their toes… But keeping the suspense for too long could backfire, alienating protégés and antagonising enemies enough to undermine the leader or even sow the seeds for a coup d’état.”

The Wall Street Journal reporter has a point.

Today, China is a country with the world’s second-largest population (behind India) and the second-largest economy (behind the United States). Further, it has one of the most powerful militaries which could be tempted to grab power in Beijing in case of a crisis.

In a 2010 study, political scientists Alexandre Debs and H.E. Goemans looked at the fate of some 1,800 political leaders worldwide: “From the late 1910s to the early 2000s. Some 41 per cent of the 1,059 autocrats suffered exile, imprisonment or death within a year of leaving office, compared with just seven per cent of 763 democratic leaders,” they noted.

On May 26, Wang Junzheng, party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region, delivered a speech in Lhasa. Wang asked all cadres to study and implement Xi Jinping’s important instructions on Tibet… and defend the “two establishments”, resolutely enhance the “four consciousnesses”, and firmly stand by the “four self-confidence”, achieve “two safeguards”, … and promote the strict governance of the Party, in order to vigorously promote the “four creations” and strive to achieve the “four leading positions” and the “four in the forefront”. All this to bring peace and stability on the snowy plateau.

You may not understand this type of Communist Party jargon, but it hides a real problem, what will happen if the supreme boss goes; this nobody knows.

Ko Wen-je, nominee of the Taiwan’s People’s Party (TPP) for the next presidential election, recently declared that Xi Jinping’s rule over China will not last forever: “If we believe in universal values, then why do we think China will never have democracy and freedom?” It is a fine thought, but it may not happen soon.

President Xi himself recently spoke of the complexity and severity of the national security problems faced by China: “We must be prepared for the worst case and extreme scenarios, and be ready to withstand the major test of high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms.”

The fact remains that the system put in place by China’s “core leader” seriously aggravates the already difficult internal and external situation.

India and the world should be prepared for the worst.

Tags: chinese president xi jinping, chinese communist party, taiwan china relations