The process for a peaceful and orderly top-echelon leadership transition in China has been set in motion by the recently concluded fifth plenary session of the Seventeenth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi Jinping, 57, for long viewed as the likely successor to China’s President Hu Jintao was in mid-October 2010, appointed vice chairman of China’s powerful Military Commission. The long anticipated appointment, which makes Xi Jinping only the second civilian in the Military Commission, firmly sets him on the path to taking over the three top jobs in China. It simultaneously dispels speculation of differences within the leadership over Xi Jinping’s elevation. Unless something goes drastically wrong in the coming couple of years, Xi Jinping is set to take over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), President of China and chairman of the Military Commission, after the Eighteenth Party Congress in 2012.
Xi Jinping’s appointment as vice chairman affords him almost two years to familiarise with military matters before he assumes supreme command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This probationary period is essential if Xi Jinping, as head of the party, is to exercise effective command over the PLA. The decision to combine authority over the party and military in a single individual was taken in 1987 by Deng Xiaoping. He anticipated that future generations of leaders would not possess military credentials and neither have veteran cadres, wielding sufficient authority over the military, waiting in the wings to help them. When Jiang Zemin, who was ‘helicoptered’ in to Beijing to take over as party general secretary during the ‘Tiananmen incident’, assumed charge as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in November 1989, he had the benefit of Deng Xiaoping’s presence. Hu Jintao was the first civilian party leader to take over the reins of the CMC from a civilian predecessor without the benefit of a supportive veteran cadre present. In contrast to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, neither of whom had any military credentials, Xi Jinping has experience in the PLA.
A graduate in chemical engineering, Xi Jinping joined the Communist Youth League in 1971 and the CCP in 1974. Because of his father’s position in the party and PLA, Xi Jinping worked for almost three years from April 1979 till 1982 as personal secretary to Geng Biao (1909-2000), politburo member and China’s defence minister. During this period he was an officer in ‘active’ service. He also has the support of some ‘princelings’ at senior levels in the PLA. Xi Jinping’s military connections were sought to be further buttressed in the official account of his career, released by Xinhua on the occasion of his recent appointment. Coincidentally, Xi Jinping’s second wife, Peng Liyuan, is a Chinese folk singer who graduated from the Beijing Conservatory of Music and holds the rank of major general in the PLA.
Whether Xi Jinping’s elevation to the top posts will herald changes in China’s domestic and foreign policies is debatable. In the tradition of Chinese party apparatchiks he has kept a low profile and been very circumspect in his remarks. The party communiqué disclosing Xi Jinping’s appointment, however, dwelt on the international political situation and challenges likely to confront China. It hinted that the review of China’s Asia policy, that had begun late last year, had either been finalised or was nearing completion. The pattern of Xi Jinping’s recent foreign tours suggests he will pay attention to the neighbourhood.
What can be inferred with reasonable surety is that Xi Jinping’s military affiliations and pronounced linkages with senior PLA officers will influence his policies. The military will receive high budgetary allocations and the focus on the PLA’s modernisation will continue. ‘Integrated joint operations’ and preparations for fighting ‘short duration regional wars under hi-tech informatised conditions’ will remain a feature. He is likely to stay with the current policy, which combines diplomacy with a strong suggestion of military muscle.
Xi Jinping has not publicly expressed his views on domestic issues like political reform. While his father’s ‘liberal’ thinking and viewpoints could have left an imprint, Xi Jinping is unlikely to take steps that could weaken the party or its monopoly on power. He is expected to push ahead with economic reforms and has earned a reputation for ‘getting things done’.
Xi Jinping has not yet visited India but has met Indian officials and leaders in Beijing. He met Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi in Beijing when he “expressed deep gratitude” to India for taking “effective” steps to ensure smooth passage of the Olympic torch relay in New Delhi and for backing Beijing’s efforts to stage a “unique and well-run” Games. Xi Jinping was in charge of managing the Beijing Summer Olympics. He later received India’s then national security adviser and special representative who was in Beijing to attend the 12th Sino-Indian meeting on the boundary issue. Xi Jinping said “both should maintain peace and tranquillity in the border area before the boundary issue is resolved”. In May he met President Pratibha Patil at a reception in Beijing to mark the 60th anniversary of establishment of ties.
Xi Jinping is well-versed with Taiwan issues from his almost 17 years in the Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. His wife visited Taiwan for eight days as part of a cultural delegation in 1997 and his brother-in-law has been living for some years in Taiwan’s southern Chiayi county. He has often met senior North Korean officials and Kim Jong-Il during the latter’s visits to Beijing in 2008 and subsequently. The official North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun, published the congratulatory message issued on the occasion of Xi Jinping’s appointment to “the important post”.
In matters pertaining to the minorities, Xi Jinping can be expected to encourage development of the regions, but is unlikely to introduce any relaxations in policies. His presence at the national work conferences on Tibet and Xinjiang, held in the first half of 2010 and where tough measures were unanimously approved, was specifically mentioned in official news agency despatches. It is interesting, though, that Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was an interlocutor for the Dalai Lama’s Special Envoy Lodi Gyari in the 1980s and had opposed use of the army during the crackdown in Tiananmen. This is unlikely to influence Xi Jinping’s stance on Tibet as it would have wider implications for the six million Tibetans and for the peace and stability of China and the border regions.
(Reductio ad absurdum will return next week)
About The Author;
Jayadeva Ranade is a former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India