Xi will seek to stay in powerful post of party chief, say analysts

Analysts expect Mr Xi to try to stay in office beyond the standard term of 10 years. But staying on as general secretary but not retaining the presidency would make him "less powerful".
Analysts expect Mr Xi to try to stay in office beyond the standard term of 10 years. But staying on as general secretary but not retaining the presidency would make him "less powerful".

BEIJING • Already China's most powerful leader in decades, President Xi Jinping will probably seek to extend his term to more than 10 years, analysts say, the first Communist Party chief to do so since Mr Deng Xiaoping.

The ruling party's leaders have reportedly gathered at their secretive annual Beidaihe retreat on the northern Chinese coast, where discussions are expected to focus on the composition of its next all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).

The 19th Party Congress, slated for next year, will decide a new PSC line-up, traditionally seen as indicating Mr Xi's most likely successor after he steps down, due in 2022.

But Mr Xi has thus far delayed anointing an heir. And while Chinese communist leaders have often maintained influence after their official retirement, scholars and analysts increasingly believe Mr Xi will try to stay in office beyond the standard term.

"A lot of analysts now see it as a given" that Mr Xi will seek to stay as party general secretary, the country's most powerful post, said Mr Christopher K. Johnson, a former CIA analyst and now China specialist at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Professor Willy Lam, an expert on politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said there was a 60 to 70 per cent chance that Mr Xi would refuse to give up the role.

Doing so would violate the unofficial rule set by Mr Deng, who led China from 1978-1989, that general secretaries stay in office no longer than 10 years. That principle has helped smooth transfers of power within the party since the 1990s.

As well as ensuring regular renewal at the top, and opportunities for different Communist Party factions to dominate at different times, the concept seeks to prevent the emergence of a despot.

China's Constitution sets term limits for presidents and ministers, but there is no such rule for the party secretary. Analysts say if Mr Xi's close ally Wang Qishan, a PSC cadre who is due to retire, is allowed a second term, it could establish a precedent for the party chief.

Mr Xi has made his enduring ambition clear by installing himself as chairman of most of the powerful new groups within the party, said Professor Victor Shih of the University of California, San Diego.

Doing so "increases the threshold for anyone to replace him", he said.

Mr Xi has already smashed several unwritten party rules since ascending to the role of general secretary in 2012, Mr Johnson noted.

His anti-corruption drive felled the once-hugely-powerful security chief Zhou Yongkang, breaking the tacit understanding that former top leaders were immune to such campaigns - and giving him an incentive to stay in power.

More time as president could allow Mr Xi to follow through on long-promised reforms and bolster his more assertive foreign policy in the South China Sea, experts say.

Mr Xi's allies could argue that a longer term would let him pursue his ambitious targets of national rejuvenation and doubling 2010 per capita income by 2020, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party's founding.

Analysts say Mr Xi sees an enviable model in Russia's Mr Vladimir Putin, who has successfully kept power for well over a decade by bouncing between the offices of president and prime minister.

But while Mr Xi has openly admitted he admires Mr Putin, following his example presents challenges, said professor of Chinese politics Bo Zhiyuem from the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

"Putin can switch his positions without losing his power, but in Chinese politics that's not possible," he said, adding that staying on as general secretary but not retaining the presidency would make Mr Xi a "less powerful leader".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline 'Xi will seek to stay in powerful post of party chief, say analysts'. Print Edition | Subscribe