China's powerful 3-in-1 Veep
New vice-president likely to head CCP secretariat and party school too
BEIJING - The United States' vice-president is often lampooned as a largely useless sidekick with only one job brief: step in for a dead or ill president.
Not in China. A Chinese Veep holds more power than his American counterpart owing to his other crucial roles in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Based on recent trends, he usually takes on two other jobs - executive secretary of the party secretariat, its nerve centre, and president of the Central Party School.
Add to these the vice-presidential role, which is largely ceremonial, and it is little wonder the post has been called "one of the most complex and contentious roles" in a US government report this year.
It will also be one of the most keenly watched appointments in the leadership change at the 18th Party Congress starting on Nov 8.
While the presidency and the premiership will almost certainly be filled by Mr Xi Jinping and Mr Li Keqiang, the new Veep remains a mystery.
Pundits have thrown up several names as a replacement for current vice-president Mr Xi. The top bet is on the party's organisation czar Li Yuanchao, widely seen as President Hu Jintao's ally.
Others touted include propaganda chief Liu Yunshan and Guangdong boss Wang Yang.
Whoever it is, the new vice- president will be an incredibly powerful man, operating mostly behind the scenes.
"In China, beyond the official rank and title, there is also an issue of real power," said University of Chicago analyst Yang Dali.
"Due to his other roles, a Chinese VP can be said to hold more power and sway than higher- ranked leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee."
It was not always so. Up until the early 1990s, the vice-president did not hold other roles and the post was largely a retirement job for party elders.
But the vice-president's power grew when Mr Hu assumed the position in 1998, as anointed successor of then-president Jiang Zemin. By then, Mr Hu was already running the CCP secretariat and party school.
He turned the vice-president's office into a three-in-one job.
Since then, Mr Hu's successors - Mr Zeng Qinghong in 2003 and Mr Xi in 2008 - have followed similar tracks.
"Whoever gets this office is a matter of intense negotiations among power blocs within the top leadership," said Professor Steve Tsang of the University of Nottingham.
In recent times, the post has been alternated between an heir apparent and a watchdog, said observers. Mr Hu and Mr Xi were heirs apparent. Their extra duties make it hard for others to dislodge them as designated successor, noted Professor Huang Jing of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
As head of the party school, the CCP's top learning institution, the vice-president can build a support base among younger cadres, said Prof Yang.
He added that as head of the secretariat, a vice-president also works closely with senior leaders and familiarises himself with the internal workings of the party.
A few years before the heir apparent becomes president, he is made No. 2 in the powerful Central Military Commission, giving him control over the People's Liberation Army.
But Mr Zeng, who retired in 2007 and remains influential, was more of a watchdog. As a close ally of Mr Jiang, he was partly chosen to guard Mr Hu.
The new Veep is likely to reprise this role - he is expected to be an ally of Mr Hu and to look over the shoulders of Mr Xi. He would need to have the finest political deftness, said Prof Yang.
"The VP has to ensure he doesn't acquire too much power, or else the top leader may be unhappy," he added.
"But being so close to power, he may be tempted to expand and exercise his influence, or else it can be quite frustrating."
TOMORROW: State-owned firms' bosses gain political clout
This article was first published on Oct 30, 2012 in The Straits Times.