Who will replace Xi as China's leader ten years from now? A new Hu.
On Tuesday, Hu Chunhua was appointed party secretary of Guangdong Province, and had only recently been made a Politburo member. If the Chinese Communist Party is able to hold onto power for the next decade, you can bet that Hu will be selected as its leader when it holds its 20th Party Congress in 2022.
The final list of the Politburo members came out after November’s 18th Party Congress. Scandals involving Chinese officials like the case of Bo Xilai have spawned many rumors about the Communist Party’s internal struggle and the membership of the new Standing Committee. While there is much speculation about the list of names of the current Standing Committee—especially who is conservative and reformist—people have overlooked Hu Chunhua, who is a big winner of the current power arrangement. Hu is only 49 years old, ten years younger than Xi Jinping. His unusual promotion is based on the CCP’s hidden rules for power arrangements and selecting a successor for the current top leader.
One part of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy is a complex formula for leadership succession, a system where the current leader selects his successor’s successor. In Chinese, this is called “gedai zhidin.” For example, Deng selected Jiang Zemin’s successor, Hu Jintao, when Deng passed his position to Jiang; and Jiang picked Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping. It was now Hu Jintao’s turn to assert influence.
In instituting this rule, Deng intended to avoid accumulation of power with the current top leader by restricting his ability to choose his own successor. This would also help power balance and reduce power struggle for the successor’s position. Early determination of a successor would also allow longer time for this selected person to prepare for the position.
Hu Chunhua is called “Little Hu Jintao,” and his political path is indeed very similar to the former party secretary. He worked in Tibet for a long time, where he was deputy party secretary before being appointed chief of the Communist Youth League. Then he became governor of Hebei Province. He was quickly appointed a party secretary of Inner Mongolia after serving in Hebei for only two years. This promotion came even though the infamous tainted milk scandal occurred in Hebei during his term. He is clearly the man Hu Jintao trusts most.
Based on the CCP’s political game of age and seniority, five years from now five of the seven current standing committee members will retire. And Hu Chunhua will most likely become a member of the Standing Committee in 2017. So ten years from now—when the CCP holds the 20th Party Congress and if no big surprises occur—Hu Chunhua will naturally replace Xi Jinping as the party secretary of the CCP.
The CCP is the largest political party in the world. Because of internal struggle and lack of strong, authoritative leaders, age and seniority have become the most important criteria in selecting its leadership. Before the November announcement of the Standing Committee members, there were rumors about who would be on the list based on the power struggle of political alliances inside the party. But the final results clearly indicate that seniority and age are the most important criteria for membership in the Standing Committee.
Among the seven Standing Committee members, only two – Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang – were members of the previous Standing Committee; the rest retired. Naturally they became the top two leaders. Among the five who were just promoted to the Standing Committee, three have served two terms in the Politburo. They are Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng and Liu Yunshan. So they are senior to the remaining Politburo members, except Xi and Li. That is the reason they were appointed to their seats. The other two members – Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli – are senior to two other Politburo members who did not get promotion this time, Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao, as they became Central Committee members five years earlier than the rest.
Age is also a big consideration. Since Deng Xiaoping, the CCP has a fixed retirement rule; 68 years of age is the red line preventing anyone from becoming a Standing Committee member. If Zhang Gaoli (66) and Wang Qishan (64) are not promoted to the Standing Committee, they will retire five years from now at the 19th Party Congress. On the other hand, Wang Yang (57) and Li Yuanchao (62) can still join the Standing Committee at the 19th Party Congress. In a culture that respects seniority and age, this is a persuasive practice.
The only exception is the female Politburo member, Liu Yandong. She is one year older than Zhang Gaoli. There are two important reasons why she was ruled out for promotion. First, in the history of the CCP, no female has served on the Standing Committee. Additionally, Liu is not an outstanding leader with visible accomplishments, so it would not be ideal to make her the first female Standing Committee member. Second, in comparison with her male colleagues, her career portfolio is rather thin: she has not been a governor of a city or province or an economic development leader. Liu’s whole career focuses on the Communist Youth League and united front work. So there is no suitable position for her in the Standing Committee, given that the chair of united front work has already been given to Yu Zhengsheng, who is senior to Liu. This is a good explanation for Liu Yuandong’s accepting this arrangement.
There is another “young person” in the new politburo—Sun Zhengcai. He is same age of Hu Chunhua and was just appointed the party secretary of Chongqing. In terms of age, the two are much younger than the rest of the current politburo members. Sun was believed to be China’s next premier, replacing Li Keqiang in 2023. The placement of Hu in Guangdong and Sun in Chongqing was very meaningful. In both economics and politics, Guangdong is much more important than Chongqing. This arrangement thus ensures that Hu Chunhua will be the successor to the top position and Sun will be below him.
The final power arrangements of the 18th congress have indicated that watchers outside of China have exaggerated the impact of the CCP’s internal power struggle. Information from internal sources says that the Standing Committee member list was decided long ago, even before the Bo Xilai scandal happened. Perhaps reducing the number of Standing Committee members from nine to seven was intended to block the disgraced Bo Xilai from the committee. Bo is 63 years old, and if the size of the Standing Committee remained at nine, he would have had a seat based on seniority and age.
Using the criteria of seniority, age and rule of the current leader picking his successor’s successor does not mean that there is no internal struggle. But this internal struggle caused the CCP to use these criteria to avoid even greater turmoil. The party does not vote to select members, and accomplishments of top leaders from in varying posts are difficult to evaluate. Using these criteria is a good way to make officials who are not selected accept the arrangement. So far, political transition of leadership has worked smoothly, from Jiang to Hu and Hu to Xi. It will be interesting to see whether the same arrangements based on age and seniority will still be in place ten years hence. Hu Chunhua certainly would hope so.
Dr. Zheng Wang is a public policy scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and is associate professor of Seton Hall University.