Guangdong province Communist Party Secretary Hu Chunhua. Photo: AFP / Mark Ralston
Guangdong province Communist Party Secretary Hu Chunhua. Photo: AFP / Mark Ralston

Cheng Li, one of the world’s top authorities on China’s leadership, believes that President Xi Jinping may formally tap Hu Chunhua, 54, the party secretary of Guangdong, as his successor at the ongoing 19th Party Congress in Beijing.

The director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Washington’s Brookings Institution also believes that Wang Qishan, Xi’s 69-year-old anti-corruption tsar, will step down, honoring “the norm” for the party’s retirement age limit of 68, which he has already passed.

The main task of the week-long party congress is to select the members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) as Xi embarks on his second five-year term as China’s leader. This, in turn, will set the pace for the country’s economic, political, cultural, military and other reform efforts. Xi proclaimed a “new era” in China’s development as the pivotal meeting kicked off on Wednesday.

Shanghai-born Li, who specializes in generational change in China’s party leadership, has a fine grasp of the personalities and dynamics involved in the current congress. His latest work is a detailed biographical analysis of the 12 leading contenders to sit on the all-important PSC, whose size isn’t fixed and can be made up of 5, 7, or 9 members.

Li spoke with Asia Times about what’s likely to emerge from the reshuffle.

Will Xi anoint a successor at the party congress and who will it be?

I think one highly likely successor (to Xi) will be (Guangdong Party Secretary) Hu Chunhua.

Xi Jinping can deal with that (issue) in a number of ways. One is that he can downsize the Politburo Standing Committee from seven to five. The main purpose of keeping it at five is to not let the (next) generation enter that body — so it basically keeps (everyone) at a similar age, so he could delay the succession process … Xi could persuade the party establishment that the previous model of ten years (in power) for one generation and five years to identify a successor is a little bit rigid and could potentially undermine the top leader’s power. That means he could act (to determine) the succession.

But Xi may not announce Hu as his successor at the congress. It’s a 50-50 chance … There may also be a couple of more candidates to make the succession to Xi dubious … One is Chen Min’er, the current party secretary of Chongqing. I also think a certain degree of compromise may happen for the sake of party unity, but how much, I don’t know. We should know the answer in less than a week.

Do you expect Wang Qishan, the face of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, to stay on, get promoted or made to retire?

My personal view is that Wang Qishan will step down. Not by being pushed, but rather to follow the norm (regarding the party’s age restriction). Wang is also quite a capable politician. He understands this is the best thing to do to preserve his legacy and to make sure his proteges will be well-positioned … But it’s not 100% (sure).

What key summations / developments do you expect from the 19th Party Congress?

Dr. Cheng Li_ Credit Brookings Institution
Cheng Li. Photo: Brookings

We’re basically looking at three major areas. The most important one is the third one — party personnel. The least important is the first.

The first are speeches by Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan that lay out what they think they’ve achieved and what will happen in the next five years and beyond.

Based on (Wednesday’s) speech by Xi, he is certainly claiming great success. He used (the example of) the“Four Greats” in his speech to define the past five years, certainly with justification and by making valid points.

[The second area] has to do with reforms. In the past five years, Xi launched a big and very broad anticorruption campaign that really, in my view, saved the Chinese Communist Party and helped it regain public confidence. Ten percent of Central Committee members were purged — this is not including retired leaders. This is quite remarkable. In the previous 8-10 years, as Xi pointed out, the thing the Chinese people hated most was corruption.

But the past couple of years show the main concern of the Chinese public is no longer corruption, but rather the environment, food safety and other issues.

Another important reform was China’s military. I have written extensively on that subject. This is a reform that even (late paramount leader) Deng Xiaoping could not do, but that Xi basically accomplished.

What did Xi do with the military?

Xi did three things. In the first instance, he changed China’s military structure from the previous Russian model which emphasized land forces to a joint operation with more emphasis on the navy, air force and strategic forces.

In the second, he marginalized the four great departments in the military. Previously, these four tended to undermine the power of the Central Military Commission (CMC). But now these four belong to 15 departments in the CMC, giving Xi direct control of these forces in different operations theaters. The third thing Xi did with the military was to promote young officers to important positions.

What are other reforms?

Xi laid out market reforms. Some say Xi has not implemented these reforms. But I would say this was because his priority was on the other areas. He has nevertheless, still delivered certain things. Domestic consumption is up, the service sector is up, and innovation has really started to impress people.

“Xi also used two new key words in his speech: ‘unbalanced’ and ‘inadequate.’ This leaves a lot of room for imagination”

There are also foreign policy feats. Xi did this in two areas: through the One Belt, One Road project and by trying to promote infrastructure development by maintaining good relations with neighboring countries. Some have said this is not successful. But I think most neighboring countries welcome China’s economic cooperation. Also, on the foreign policy front, Xi has created new types of power relationships — especially with the US.

Xi can take credit for the fact that despite Donald Trump’s early months in office, Sino-US relations have stayed on the right track. The bilateral relationship is still under control and not out of control.

So these are achievements.

What is the third major area?

The most important third area has to do with key personnel developments at the congress, including whether Wang Qishan will stay and if a successor to Xi will be identified — which we’ve already discussed.

But what is Xi hinting about his future policies?

The most important change is what Xi characterized as the “new era” (in his Wednesday speech). He said a previous tension or challenge for China during the Deng years was the people’s need to improve their livelihood and the constraints of a backward mode of production. Now, China is not backward. It has had a miracle and its innovation and business model is actually catching up and may be ahead of many other countries including, in terms of its business model, the United States.

Xi also used two new key words in his speech: “unbalanced” and “inadequate.” This leaves a lot of room for imagination. This could refer to imbalance in China’s regions, inland regions versus coastal regions, urban and rural. It could refer to different economic and social groups or interest groups. It could also mean the dimensions between economic development and social-political changes — where one lags behind the other. It could also mean China’s domestic development and its influence overseas.

So this leaves a lot of room for further changes.

What other potential changes could emerge from the party congress?

We should also look at institutional changes, including the establishment of a “National Supervision Commission” in both the state and the party and also a “National Financial Stability Commission.” These are institutional changes we need to pay attention to, as well as some amendments in the party’s constitution, particularly with respect to Xi’s governance ideas.

How will the congress affect Sino-US relations? Will they improve? What areas will be most impacted?

It’s still too early to say, but President Trump will visit China in a matter of weeks. And immediately after the 19th Party Congress, Xi will see foreign delegates, especially business leaders and retired politicians from the US. That will certainly show that he cares deeply about US-China relations and wants to make sure that relations are moving in the right direction. Also, President Trump is sure to put pressure on issues like market access, fair trade, financial liberalization or service-sector openness. These were all mentioned in Xi’s speech. So he will continue to emphasize these issues.

What do the tea leaves say on what’s happened with Xi at the congress thus far?

One message is very clear: Xi Jinping is in good shape and he consolidated his power. But I don’t want to go too far to say that he returned to the “strongman power base.” If he really has such a base, we don’t have to care about what’s going to happen to the Politburo Standing Committee. But that’s not the case. China’s leadership is still largely about teamwork — though Xi is certainly more powerful than other leaders.

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times

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