Who’s Hu’s Successor?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 4

The Hong Kong based newspaper Ming Pao learned from sources in Beijing that Xi Jinping—who was only recently elevated by President Hu Jintao to become a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee—may be slated to replace Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan in the position of vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) (Ming Pao, February 11). Chinese news sources speculate that the announcement will be made at the Second 17th National Congress, which will be held in the latter half of this month, whereby the congress will deliberate on the selection of nominees for leadership positions in state organs. Speculation is rising that Xi may be nominated to replace Vice President Zeng Qinghong, who is set to leave his post at the 11th National People’s Congress (NPC), which follows the first session of the 11th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), opening on March 5 and March 3, respectively (Ming Pao, February 11).

The decision for Xi—a member of the so-called group of “PLA Princes”—to take over the position of vice chairman of the Central Military Commission is believed to have been arranged at the First 17th National Congress in October 2007 (Ming Pao, February 11). As Jamestown Senior Fellow Willy Lam noted in a recent issue of China Brief, Xi is a relatively neutral figure within Chinese power bloc politics, and accepted by most factions in the CPC polity (China Brief, April 18, 2007).

If the reports about Xi’s prospective appointment as vice chairman of the CMC are accurate, it will solidify Xi’s position at the helm of the so-called “fifth generation” of CPC leaders and place him on the fast track of becoming President Hu Jintao’s most likely successor in 2012. His appointment, if approved, will initiate the transitory phase of “replacing the old with the new” (xinlao jiaoti) in CPC generational politics, which will groom the eventual successors of the 18th National Congress in 2012.

Citing an expert familiar with Chinese leadership transition, Ming Pao noted that two noticeable differences will affect the leadership transition process this time around. Firstly, it is not likely that Hu will want to wait until 2012 before handing full authority to Xi, since seven years is not enough time to groom a leader to take over the helm of the CPC. Secondly, the way that Hu handles state affairs is different from his immediate predecessor Jiang Zemin. The aforementioned expert believed that Hu intends to hand power over completely in one transition at the 18th National Congress, and in particular, Hu will not want to stay for an extra two years as chairman of the CMC. Therefore, the expert said that there is even a possibility that Xi Jinping will “reach the position in one step” (yibu daowei) to become the first vice chairman of the CMC at the Second 17th National Congress (Ming Pao, February 11).