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Xi promotes no clear China heirs, opening door to keep power

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, meets with his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, in the latter's Florida resort of Mar-a-Lago on April 6, 2017. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)

Chinese President Xi Jinping unveiled a new leadership lineup that included no clear potential heirs, breaking with a quarter-century-old succession system and raising the chances that he might seek to stay in office beyond 2022.

All five men appointed to join Xi and Premier Li Keqiang on the Politburo Standing Committee will be too old to rule for a decade after Xi finishes his second term. The official Xinhua News Agency said those promoted were Xi chief of staff Li Zhanshu, 67; Vice Premier Wang Yang, 62; party theorist Wang Huning, 62; party personnel chief Zhao Leji, 60; and Shanghai party secretary Han Zheng, 63.

“We will work diligently to meet our duty, fulfill our ambition and be worthy of their trust,” Xi said in remarks to reporters in Beijing.

The new lineup — coupled with revisions to the party charter that elevated Xi’s status — lays the groundwork for him to influence the world’s second-biggest economy for decades to come. Last week he laid out a vision to turn China into a leading global power by 2050, with a thriving middle class, strong military and clean environment.

During his first term, Xi looked to boost China’s global clout with an Asia-to-Europe infrastructure initiative, and has reassured the world that his nation wouldn’t seek hegemony as it grows more powerful. He has also sought to avoid a conflict over North Korea with U.S. President Donald Trump, who is scheduled to visit China next month.

The wider 25-member Politburo included younger officials who didn’t make the cut, including Chongqing party chief Chen Miner, 57, a former Xi aide, and Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua, 54. The group also included Liu He, one of Xi’s closest financial and economic advisers, and Yang Jiechi, a former foreign minister.

The group of leaders he announced on Wednesday raises questions about the future of a succession system that has underpinned China’s recent power transfers.

Established in 1992 as an aging Deng Xiaoping sought to ensure stability following the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown, the framework calls for party chiefs to hand over power after two, five-year terms, and identify a successor by the halfway point — where Xi is now. It also set an unwritten retirement age of 68.

The addition of Hu Jintao to the Standing Committee in 1992 put him in line to succeed Jiang Zemin a decade later, establishing the two-term succession system. The elevation of Xi at the midpoint of Hu’s tenure in 2007 similar paved the way for him to take power in 2012.

While Xi could still promote a successor at any point, Wednesday’s announcement signaled a willingness to depart from the norms established by Deng and return China to a personality-driven model that allocates him even greater authority. On Tuesday, the party approved a revised charter that put Xi’s contributions on par with those of Mao Zedong and Deng and while declaring him the party’s “core” leader indefinitely.

Joseph Fewsmith, a political science professor at Boston University who has studied China’s elite politics for more than three decades, said that naming an heir now would’ve weakened Xi as the future leader acquires political power.

“Doing so would make Xi something of a lame duck,” Fewsmith said before the announcement. “I’ve always believed Xi Jinping is a three-term guy. It’s quite clear Xi sees himself as one of the big three leaders, after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.”


(Ting Shi reported from Hong Kong and Keith Zhai from Singapore)


© 2017 Bloomberg News

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