Contemplating a Post-Xi Landscape: Four Scenarios for Xi Jinping’s Absence, Return, or Purge

By | September 13, 2012 | No Comments

Xi Jinping on 31 August, the penultimate day before dropping from the public eye. He was celebrating the 20th anniversary of normalized Sino-ROK ties.

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As we should never forget, Kim Jong-il officially died of a heart attack while overworking himself for the North Korean people, prompting a relatively smooth hereditary succession. With the recent vanishing act of Xi Jinping, China’s heir apparent, we can again ask ourselves of North Korea and China: Which country is the more stable? And how does all this jockeying, propaganda, and possible scandal in Beijing look from Pyongyang’s perspective? While we can’t read the DPRK Ambassador’s cables (North Korea not having found its Julian Assange, its “transparency grenade“), we can use data from North Korea to triangulate just a bit as regards Xi Jinping.  September 9 was the anniversary of the DPRK’s founding, and thus a nice pretext for a  high-level letter to Kim Jong-un from Beijing. That letter was signed only by Hu Jintao, Wu Bangguo, and Wen Jiabao. As we continue to graft Pyongyangology on top of our quest to peer behind the vermillion facades of Beijing’s inner sanctum, Roger Cavazos arrives with healthy doses of realism, wit, informed speculation, and foresight. – Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Contemplating a Post-Xi Landscape: Four Scenarios for Xi Jinping’s Absence, Return, or Purge

by Roger Cavazos

While rarified air breathing Chinese Communist Party Central Committee members have made numerous appearances, Xi Jinping (习近平) hasn’t been seen in almost a fortnight as of this writing (September 12 GMT).

One of the characteristics of the Chinese Party is that of rarely feeling a need to make available even the most mundane details of their senior-most leaders.  The entire leadership normally disappears for about three weeks to a retreat at Beidaihe for meetings to work out leadership issues with nary an electron sacrificed.

We’ll look at four broad cases: minor medical issue; major medical issue; factional skullduggery; and corruption charges. We’ll also briefly discuss what each cases might portend.In all cases, China’s very reasonable predilection for stability means even though one person, Xi, changes, China’s policies will only change at the margins at the beginning.  However, over the course of a decade, the change in leadership lineups and constituencies will be altered in ways not even China, let alone we peering through a dark lens, can fathom.

As far as Chinese policy towards North Korea is concerned, a CCP with or without Xi’s active influence is unlikely to shift radically: China will continue telling North Korea to “keep it down” so China can concentrate on internal matters.  China will also likely continue providing minimal amounts of aid to the North, while not committing to any joint military exercises with, or weapons sales to their paper-thin ally, the DPRK.  They will likely keep the “normal state-to-state” relationship instead of the “All-Weather Ally” Pakistan-style relationship.  In short: lots of bromides, some food aid, little money. In a word: stability.

CASE 1:  Minor medical issue (slipped disc, hernia, appendix, playing hoops, etc)

Summary:  This is a best-case scenario.  Everything remains basically the same; Xi just doesn’t want to come out while he’s still looking Quasimodo-ish.  He might not want to appear even slightly incapacitated if he’s on pain killers, or just plain embarrassed.  His return offers State media organs another golden opportunity to lecture netizens about not spreading rumors online.

What to watch for: Xi reappearing with casts, limps, or in obvious discomfort.  He might appear only in still pictures, no video in order to control how he is physically presented.  On the plus side, it seems Photoshopping has been relegated to local-level official and below.

Implications for future: Minimal.  Leadership transition continues as planned.  Li Keqiang (李克強) and possibly Zhang Dejiang (張德江) are on the Politburo Standing Committee (中国共产党中央政治局常务委员会PBSC) as the most-senior folks with significant North Korea experience.  There will likely be no changes to whatever plans may or may not have been made on changing PBSC from 9 to 7 members.

CASE 2:   Major medical issue (heart attack, stroke, incapacitating cancer, etc)

Summary: This scenario is pretty dangerous to Xi, the Party and the country.  Whilst many things in China are written (aiding in the normalizing of the process whereby a group or person is tagged as no longer acceptable), there are also a great many things not written.  While the CCP has been steadily giving itself public plaudits for institutionalizing “rule of law,” Chinese continuity of government / succession remains unclear in the event of death or incapacitation of Comrade Prima inter Pares.

Legal Safety Net, or Tiger Trap? |  To this writer’s knowledge, Article 84 of China’s Constitution (中华人民共和国宪法) is the only applicable article and in full states:

“Article 84. In case the office of the President of the People’s Republic of China falls vacant, the Vice-President succeeds to the office of President. In case the office of the Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China falls vacant, the National People’s Congress shall elect a new Vice-President to fill the vacancy. In the event that the offices of both the President and the Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China fall vacant, the National People’s Congress shall elect a new President and a new Vice-President. Prior to such election, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress shall temporarily act as the President of the People’s Republic of China.”[i]

Amendments to the Constitution were made steadily in the 1980s, 1990s and last in 2004, meaning that the leaders have had time to consider such a scenario as China moved steadily out of Mao’s shadow.  But since Chinese Constitutional Jurisprudence is not the main subject of this short article, we’ll skip to the effect of Article 84.  Picking a new President has the effect of paralyzing the top leadership for an undefined amount of time.  The Party is likely well aware of the rapid change in leaders and ensuing barely mitigated chaos of the-then Soviet Union when three Chairmen (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko) died in rapid succession.  Chinese leaders are known for their longevity, but none have yet proven immortal.  Preparing for the decadal change started in earnest about five years ago.  A surprise election to pick a new successor would take a long time or risk alienating some very important – yet poorly understood – groups.

What to watch for: A Xi absence extending longer than 3 weeks.  No announcement of next Party Congress date by 30 September. 中秋节 /추석 / Mid-Autumn festival starts on that date and the government mostly shuts down for a week, people go to their home provinces.  No one wants this hanging over their head.  2,270delegates have to travel to Beijing en masse and do their duties for a week in order to hold the 18th Party Congress.  The police have to elevate their vigilance (from Code Red to Code Plaid, as it were), and China’s already-fraught politics of internal security, a subject my colleague Nathan Beuchamp-Mustafaga covered and takes on new meaning.  Also look for a sleeker, svelter Xi who now eschews tea in favor of water.

Xi Jinping (foreground) and Li Keqiang are introduced as Politburo Standing Committee Members — and heirs apparent — five years ago in October 2007.

Implications for future: Decisions in China will slow to a crawl.  China will claim extremely limited flexibility as they try to come up with a new slate for the top positions and shove five years of jockeying into as short a time as possible.  Watch for the possible rise of Wang Yang and the position of Li Keqiang; the latter is slated to take over as Premier and led the last big top-level delegation to Pyongyang last October.  Any plans to change from a 9 to 7 member PBSC will likely become insanely difficult to implement.  The Chinese governance system was designed to set events and is not meant to absorb so many simultaneous shocks.

CASE 3:  Communist Youth League versus Princeling skullduggery.

Summary: While China denies there are power factions within the top circle, there can be no doubt that they indeed exist. In the following scenario, two leading power factions:   the Princeling faction(太子派) and the Communist Youth League faction(共青派CYL)  vie to set the future direction of the party – and China.  Generally, Princelings are descended from China’s senior-most government officials and luminaries.  The Communist Youth League (CYL) , are those like President Hu Jintao, who rose through a meritocracy and worked in the “trenches”).  Xi Jinping is squarely in the Princeling arena.  Li Keqiang is the archetypal CYL so a combination of Xi Jinping as #1 and Li Keqiang as #2 satisfies both broad factions.  If Xi Jinping is in fact incapacitated, that means someone who was originally going to be in the  #3 or # 4 position would have to move up to restore the balance of power among the factions.  The various Party organs might have to come to some accommodation of the new realities if they are to change almost five years of work in less than a month

In this instance, Ling Jihua (令计划)  is likely a visible ripple in the waves of a power struggle coursing through Zhongnanhai (China’s Leadership Compound, like the White House or 10 Downing Street).  As the jockeying heats up and leaders going back to Party elder Jiang Zemin exert their influence, Xi may have decided he needed to focus on preparations and negotiations to ensure a smooth transition and leadership slate acceptable to the many opaque constituencies.

What to watch for: Provincial-level assignments of Communist Youth League-affiliated cadre vs. those of Princelings.  One might reasonably see a disproportionately large number of Princelings assigned at Provincial-level as a sop to them if they lose out at the Standing Committee level.  Alternatively, roughly proportionate distribution likely means they reached a compact.

Implications for future: This shakeup and resulting fount of power will form the headwaters of a new direction.  It won’t be a drastic change of direction, but it will last for at least ten years. Neither faction advocates wholesale reform. Both factions will only advocate for changes they think will strengthen CCP rule.  Both view any liberalization as a very sharp double-edged sword to be wielded carefully.

A broad-brush generalization is that CYL are generally more technocratic, inward-focused and slightly more likely to enact governance reforms.  Princelings are generally a little more worldly, but still primarily focused domestically.  Netizens are generally more and more critical of Princelings or any senior cadre displaying ostentatious wealth.

CASE 4: Corruption/nepotism

Summary:  Assuming at least some relatives, no matter how distant, are found to have benefited from guanxi (“connections,” 关系), Xi may be vulnerable or have to go through an even finer-toothed comb than previously considered.   He might not have passed the test, or he simply may have had to prove whatever the Party needed to see in order to tip the scales.  As we learned rather dramatically in the Gu Kailai case, a spouse and immediate family (combined with a little torture and a nascent public personality cult) can aid in the rapid plunge of an otherwise rising top leader.

What to watch for: Oblique references to Bloomberg or “Western Financial Media”.   There was a tremendously thorough expose on the finances of Xi Jinping and his family.  Even though it was censored in China, anyone in Chinese leadership circles wanting to target Xi or his family could easily access the information.  Look for Xi Jinping’s extended family “returning” to Beijing for “vacation style treatment” as a sign the inquisition has started.  If they stay where they are, things are likely ok for Xi and for the leadership transition

Implications for future: In previous “Strike Hard” / “Stomp out Corruption” campaigns the top leaders and their families were mostly immune.  After the Bo Xilai case, there seems to be some willingness among the Party elites, given egregious circumstances, to amend the unspoken rule.  It may be a sign the Party is serious about corruption.  Or it may be a manifestation that corruption is still a very convenient and selective pretext upon which to remove a candidate.  However, if the Party does remove those barriers, they risk losing even more legitimacy in the public. There is likely little stomach to expose any more of the Party’s internal machinations in public. Having painstakingly built up the image of an unassailably patriotic and competent Xi Jinping, the CCP would surely reap a bitter harvest if it were to unseat the presumptive successor to Hu Jintao.

The Chinese government’s penchant for secrecy, numerous opaque constituencies guarantee a process that only China can understand.  However, it is useful to hypothesize what different scenarios mean for dealing with a China that plays an increasingly active role on a world stage.


[i] People’s Daily online, http://english.people.com.cn/constitution/constitution.html. Accessed 12 September 2012


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