Leadership Succession in China: These aren’t the norms you’re looking for

I never thought I’d write this, but I think it’s time we cut Xi Jinping some slack.

First, there was criticism that Xi was building a “cult of personality” in an effort to become the new Mao Zedong.  Now, there’s a growing consensus that Xi is steering the good ship China towards the rocks of dictatorship by preparing to flout the “unwritten rules” that govern leadership term-limits and mandatory retirement ages.

In the last few weeks I’ve read two smart pieces on this question by journalists I respect greatly. Xi, according to one, “appears prepared to defy the Communist Party’s established script for transferring power and delay the designation of his successor until after a party congress next year, unsettling the party elite and stirring speculation that he wants to prolong his tenure.” According to the second piece, “there is increasing speculation [Xi] may try to dispense with the retirement convention entirely.”

The FT editorial page has a follow-up today framing the issue in even more dire terms: “Hanging on to power would send an unequivocal signal that China is lapsing back into a system under which personal power trumps established procedure. The insidious effect of this would probably be felt in several political and economic spheres, inside and outside China.”

In effect, if Xi isn’t Mao already, as many argue, then he’s looking to drag the country back to its Maoist past of one-man arbitrary rule. Such speculation doesn’t strike me as “wrong” per se, so much as it seems premature, or more importantly, overwrought.  

But before I get into that, I’d like to first pose a few questions: in the entire 95-year history of the Communist Party of China (CCP), how many General Secretaries (or “Chairman”, as the position was known until abolished in 1982) have served exactly two terms (ten years) in the top post?

Answer: exactly one – Hu Jintao.

Second question: how old is the “unwritten rule” rule of “7 and up, 8 and out”, which stipulates mandatory retirement for top leaders if they are 68 at the start of a new Party congress period?

Answer: it was instituted in 2002 by Jiang Zemin to block Li Ruihuan (then 68) from remaining on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC).

Sub-question B: Prior to this 2002 re-jigging, when was the previous alteration to the retirement age status quo?

Answer: 1997, when Jiang Zemin set it at 70 to push his political rival Qiao Shi (then 72) out of power. 

I think of these facts every time I read about the potential for a “rule shattering” 3rd Xi term as the General Secretary of the CCP, or the possibility of Wang Qishan staying on past the “mandatory” retirement age of 68. While we speak of an increasing “institutionalization” of the norms of leadership succession in the post-Mao era, the reality is that these “norms” are neither “institutionalized” let alone “mandatory.”

·       When the FT editorial page states that Xi “may ignore the age and term limits that the ruling Communist party has worked hard to institutionalise in recent decades,” I think this drastically over-estimates how fickle and malleable these “limits” are.

·       When it writes of the “unwritten rules painstakingly introduced by China’s collective leadership since the 1990s”, I think this gives an entirely misleading perspective on just how natural it is for Chinese leaders to amend “rules” to meet their own political needs.

The rhetoric and speculation on the length of Xi’s tenure will undoubtedly heat up over the next year as the CCP enters a key twelve month period, book-ended by the 6th Plenum of the Central Committee which begins on Oct 24th and the 19th Party Congress, set for the fall of 2017. There are thus two ways we can think about next year’s 19th Party Congress and the 20th Party Congress beyond:

·       This is potentially a moment of crisis as Xi Jinping unravels the norms of leadership succession and retirement that have evolved in the post-Mao era, or;

·       The so-called “norms” were never particularly well institutionalized and have been frequently changed or amended by the top leadership to suit their exigent needs. Thus, the Hu-Wen smooth transition represents an anomaly, not the baseline. In short, we shouldn’t necessarily freak out just yet.

Given the dimly-lit box that is Chinese elite politics, such speculation is unavoidable. But like the concept of “legitimacy”, I think the term “unwritten rules” is far too elastic and overused. Consider a few recent examples:

[Normal disclaimer: I have an immense respect for journalists covering China and think they do a fantastic job given the difficulty of operating here.]

1.     “The unwritten rules of succession politics in China require Mr Xi to keep his policy preferences close to his chest at the beginning of his term in office, and to stick to the guidelines laid down by his predecessors.” The Economist, May 4th, 2013  

2.     In ordering the investigation [against Zhou Yongkang], Xi has broken with an unwritten understanding that members of the Standing Committee will not be investigated after retirement.” South China Morning Post, December 11, 2013

3.     “For decades, there has been an unwritten rule within the Communist Party that members of the Politburo Standing Committee should always act as a cohesive unit, or at least maintain a facade of unity to prevent chaos and preserve the stability of the party.” Pin Ho and Huang Wenguang, Politico, August 1, 2014

4.     “[I]n China, there's an unspoken rule that Chinese leaders should step out of the public spotlight when they step down from office.” BBC, March 13, 2013

5.     “An unspoken rule in the [CCP] empowers retired leaders to influence the selection of the next generation's core leadership, both helping to extend their power through personal connection and serving as a means of ensuring the CCP's authority.” Stratfor, July 6, 2011

As you can see, there seem to be a lot of “unwritten rules”, and they can be asserted anytime we believe the CCP is drifting away from established (if equally unwritten) norms. The problem isn’t that we want to see further steps towards institutionalizing a system of leadership succession, rather it’s that we’re imposing a degree of institutionalization on the actual, existing system that doesn’t yet exist.

I call this “fictional institutionalization” – a term I just coined after mis-reading “future institutionalization” in a 2003 Bruce Gilley article.  By this I mean a norm or rule that we outsiders have decided is unbending and unyielding when in fact it’s far more malleable than we require.  Thus we begin speculating on palace coups where we see deviations from the norm, when in fact the “norm” is quite weak and much less sacred than we care to admit (or more likely, than we remember). 

Placing too much faith in such a fictional institutionalization has led to vast overconfidence in the regularization of the succession system. Based on the precedent of the Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping transition, a 2014 academic paper concluded that over the past 30 years, the CCP has developed “a seamless transfer of power that rarely proceeds smoothly in authoritarian regimes.”  

Yet by my (admittedly amateur) reading of recent leadership transitions, the process looks far from “seamless.”  

Take the supposed limit on term-length for CCP General Secretary. First, there’s absolutely nothing in the CCP Constitution that forbids Xi from remaining on in the post indefinitely. I’m not saying it’s the preferred outcome, just that in and of itself, there’s no legal or organizational prohibition on the move. When FDR ran for a third term as US President, he was violating the norm, but not the law. And that was a norm that had existed for the previous 31 Presidents!

One of the recent succession pieces states that, “Two terms as party leader has evolved as the standard since the 1990s, and an heir apparent is usually clear by the start of the second.” But consider this: there have been five CCP chiefs in the post-Mao era (excluding Xi Jinping) and only one, Hu Jintao, has followedthis “rule” of two five-year terms. Some may quibble and say that Jiang Zemin doesn’t count, but the start of his term happened under such unusual circumstances that I don’t see how his case helps bolster either side of the debate.

Or consider the path to power for Xi Jinping. Although his appointment to the PBSC in 2007 seemed to confirm his ascent to the position of General Secretary in 2012, there were still “norms” that “should” have signposted his rise that were missed. One important posting, for example, was to be his appointment as the vice chairman of the CMC at the 4th Plenum in 2009.  This had become a “norm” simply by virtue of the fact that Hu Jintao had traveled the same road on his way to the top of the PBSC. Yet when this move failed to materialize at the 4th Plenum in 2009, some speculated that this “outcome deals a blow to the prevailing theory of leadership succession.” And as Bill Bishop pointed out in the latest issue of the Sinocism newsletter, "at the the start of the 17th Congress five year period it was not a done deal that Xi would be Hu Jintao's successor, though it was obvious he was very much in the running."

Rewinding to the 16th Party Congress in 2002, it’s worth remembering that Jiang Zemin turned over only two of the three keys to power, holding on to his position as the head of the CMC until 2004. Writing in the months after Jiang’s partial retention of power, James Mulvenon of Defense Group, Inc. wrote that the move represented an “institutional retrogression driven by [Jiang’s] unattractive personal ambition” and that it “throws a spanner into the evolving mechanisms of inner-party democracy.”

Media coverage from the time painted the move in much the same way that the rumors about Xi are now playing out. A NYT piece from around the time of the 16th Party Congress reported that some experts “think [Jiang] is planning to stay on longer [than the 2003 NPC meeting], at the possible risk of fostering divisions at the top during a military crisis.”  

What about the “mandatory” retirement age for top leaders – “7 and up, 8 and out”?

Deng Xiaoping was certainly an active proponent of age limits for cadres and government officials, and in 1982 both the CCP and the State constitutions were amended to limit the upper working age. But I think it’s important to point out that Deng wasn’t doing this out of fealty to institutionalism or to a rules-based politics. Rather, he was, in large part, trying to force out the older, “redder” cadres who were standing as conservative barriers to the “open door” policy that was Deng’s lodestar.  Working largely from behind the scenes for much of his uncontested rule in the 1980s and early 1990s, Deng never had a problem with reaching down from on high to influence the policy process, institutions and “norms” be damned.

His successor, Jiang Zemin, didn’t have a problem with this either. As mentioned above, Jiang twice changed the retirement age convention to serve his political goals, first to sidestep Qiao Shi and later to end-run Li Ruihuan. Writing in the New York Review of Books in the lead-up to the 16th Party Congress in 2002, Bruce Gilley and Andrew Nathan observed that the battle between Jiang and Li “may have been the first succession battle fought according to agreed-upon rules. But a battle it was, and one that is not over.” Indeed.

None of this means that we should be nihilists about leadership succession or the importance of institutions and norms.  They certainly matter.  Rather, I think we’ve created an ideal type of Chinese politics that doesn’t actually exist.  Wang Qishan may well stay on past the 19th Party Congress. Xi Jinping may remain for a 3rd term as General Secretary. We can argue about what this means, and whether these are benign or malign moves, but one thing we shouldn’t do is to claim that any of this is unprecedented.