Does Xi Jinping plan to be president-for-life? There’s no way to tell, but The New York Times reports that many people in China think he is hoping at least to extend his tenure:
The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, 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.
The delay would buy Mr. Xi more time to promote and test favored candidates and prevent his influence from ebbing away to a leader-in-waiting, experts and political insiders said. But the price could be years of friction while a pack of aspiring cadres vie for the top job, as well as unnerving uncertainty over whether Mr. Xi wants to stay in power beyond the usual two terms as party leader.
Although Mr. Xi’s decision will not be known until late 2017, the suggestion that he intends to break with precedent and begin his second term without a probable successor is magnifying uncertainties about who will rise and who will fall in the expected shake-up, including questions about the fate of the premier, Li Keqiang.
Xi’s relationship with premier Li Keqiang has been the subject of much speculation, with many rumors over the years that the two men do not get along. In July, disputes between the two power brokers came into the open as reporters began noticing that Li and Xi each had substantively different messages about economic reform plans. Party insiders told The Wall Street Journal that the messaging inconsistencies were only the tip of the iceberg.
Xi may be trying to give Li a rap on the knuckles and send a signal to the rest of the Party about who is in charge. Reading the tea leaves is difficult and dangerous, but it does at least look like Xi wants to encourage competition among officials scrambling to climb the Party ladder.
All eyes will be on the upcoming party congress, by the end of which Xi either will have announced his successor as per protocol —or not. Many things, in particular economic reforms, are on hold in China right now while Party officials wait to see how the congress shakes out. No governor wants to face street protests for firing thousands of factory workers until he knows his job is secure. Xi’s decision to hold off on naming a successor only heightens the tension, and may encourage Party officials to be even more risk-averse in the coming months.