Why Xi has not appointed his successor


By Josep Colomer.


The Congress of the Chinese Communist Party has reappointed its Secretary general, Xi Jinping, for a second five-year term, but, against some expectations, it has not nominated his successor. Some foreign observers say that Xi has tried to show his firm grasp over the party and some have even speculated about his intentions to stay in the office for a third term, which is against the party’s rules.

There is another interpretation: it is always very difficult to select the successor of a dictator, especially so much time in advance (think about the conflict successions of leaders in the Soviet Union or the number of dictatorships that fell when the dictator died).

In fact, exactly the same happened ten years ago (I was visiting China at the time), when Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was reappointed for his second term and tried to nominate his successor. Only to withdraw the proposal in a hurry to prevent internal rebellions and fights from potential alternative candidates who could have jeopardized his entire second term.

The last-minute appointment of the dictatorial leader was a procedure already used in early 18th-century China. When the Emperor openly selected one of his sons as his heir, long before the time of succession, the emperor’s other siblings fought him. In reaction, emperor Yongzheng set up the “Heir Apparent Box” system, by which the name of the successor was written on a document sealed within a box placed behind the throne; the emperor always carried a copy with him. (You still can see the throne with the box where the sealed document was kept in the imperial palace). After the emperor passed away, the secretly appointed crown prince would ascend the throne. The procedure not only solved the problem of succession, but also triggered faithful support for the incumbent Emperor during his mandate by all potential candidates for nomination to the office or other relevant posts.

The procedure was somehow replicated in Mexico by the old Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), with the principle of “non-reelection” and the rotation of numerous offices. Over an authoritarian period of about sixty years, each Mexican president was in office for only one six-year term, and during his last months in office, he appointed his own successor with “the big finger” (dedazo).

Also in current China, this skillful formula for the orderly succession of authoritarian leaders induces cooperation of potential rivals with the leader. An enforceable decision is not likely to be reached much before the last minute, in five years from now.


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