ST Global Outlook Forum

Xi to secure legacy with choice of successor

He knows what he aims to achieve cannot be done within his two terms, says China expert

At the panel discussion of the ST Global Outlook Forum yesterday were (from left) ST foreign editor Audrey Quek, who served as moderator; Prof Wang; Professor Subrata K. Mitra, director of the Institute of South Asian Studies; Ms Selena Ling, OCBC Bank's head of treasury research and strategy; and ST's US bureau chief Jeremy Au Yong. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

China's leadership transition next year may not be of the same seismic proportion as the United States' presidential election, but it will have long-term implications for the rising superpower.

President Xi Jinping will be looking to name his own successor at the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) 19th National Congress next year to ensure the continuity of his policies beyond his term of office, historian Wang Gungwu said yesterday.

Among these policies is the "grand strategy" of the One Belt, One Road project, a revival of the fabled ancient land and sea trade routes known as the Silk Road and a long-term undertaking that can help China chart its future direction.

There are also difficult domestic policies to root out corruption and restructure the economy that are causing internal tensions.

"Xi Jinping knows that what he has to achieve cannot be done during his two terms as general secretary. Even Deng Xiaoping, with all his extraordinary authority, needed 20 years to keep his reforms on course," said Professor Wang, chairman of the East Asian Institute, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, referring to the two five-year terms to which top Chinese leaders are limited.

Mr Xi comes from a generation that has benefited from Deng's vision for China - grounded on the people's well-being and on stability and order in his quest for national cohesion. Deng began reforms and the opening up of China in 1978.

However, the CCP that Deng saved to become one of the most successful communist parties anywhere has also become "corrupt beyond recognition", noted Prof Wang in his speech at the ST Global Outlook Forum which was organised by The Straits Times and presented by OCBC Premier Banking, with Mercedes-Benz as a partner.

Since taking over the reins of the party in 2012, Mr Xi "has been trying to amass enough power to do what he thinks is vital for China's future, to save the Chinese Communist Party and thus save his country".

The Chinese leader, said Prof Wang, knows that "painful actions need to be taken" but does not believe that the private sector can be of much help. Instead, he is counting on a disciplined party to regain the faith of the people.

He has done well in making the People's Liberation Army a more professional army and in making deep changes to the party and its youth wing. But his reforms will take more than 10 years, said Prof Wang.

To ensure that his initiatives will be carried through beyond 2022 when he steps down, he wants to choose his own successor. Hence the move recently to make him the core leader of the party that gives him the right to do so.

"If he finds the right leaders to succeed him, he could stand back like Deng Xiaoping and watch his plans being carried out," said Prof Wang.

And while the external environment is fraught with uncertainties, the major obstacles he faces are within China itself, the most challenging being "the rise of a dynamic Chinese society, one in which people are better educated and have higher expectations of the party and its leader".

Mr Xi seems to want to erect a platform on which this enlightened citizenry would actively share his China dream.

He will then have to be a bit of Mao Zedong - who tamed a fractious party at a time of crisis and whose policies inspired heroic actions from his dedicated cadres - and a bit of Deng Xiaoping - whose greatest contribution to China's rise came from his openness and willingness to change.

"But he must go beyond them to confront a very different century," said Prof Wang.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2016, with the headline Xi to secure legacy with choice of successor. Subscribe