Beijing tongues are wagging amid chatter Xi Jinping may stay a while. The most extreme rumor has the president plotting to extend the typical 10-year term. The less tantalizing one has him delaying naming a successor in 2017, one who’d wait in the wings for the last five years of Xi’s tenure.
The first option would be a mistake, veering into emperor-reign territory. The second is worth exploring.
Two five-year terms has been the norm since the early 1990s, with the heir apparent clearly designated by the start of the second. Naming a successor so far in advance can make the Communist Party leader somewhat of a lame duck. Look no further than the lost years of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao. With princeling Xi consolidating power behind the scenes and deciding who will rise and fall, Beijing was gripped by gridlock.
Xi is the strongest Chinese leader in decades — powerful enough not to feel constrained by recent tradition. His disorienting anticorruption putsch, meanwhile, has many a party mandarin on the defensive. But Xi didn’t create the empire he’s running and it still has the ability to strike back. By naming a successor in the next 12 months, Xi risks becoming yesterday’s news and losing clout to play his economic and political reform long game.
That assumes there is one, of course. To be blunt, Xi’s real work to curb Beijing’s excesses and recalibrate growth engines has barely begun. Reducing the role of state-owned enterprises, curbing bubbles in credit, debt and real estate and addressing runaway pollution means guiding growth downward to the 4 percent to 5 percent range. So far, the supposedly omnipotent Xi hasn’t displayed political will. Instead, Xi’s unsightly clampdown on the internet and global media suggests he’s even more insecure than Hu or predecessor Jiang Zemin.
Wouldn’t Xi, like Hu before him, be distracted by a successor looking over his shoulder, building new fiefdoms and second-guessing changes in party circles until 2022? There’s great merit to breaking with a toxic feature of Chinese politics that stymies reform.
The magnitude of Xi’s to-do list argues in favor of dispensing with succession dogma. Naming his replacement in, say, 2020 offers more time to choose and groom a successor. It also gives Xi breathing room to take on powerful vested interests, many of which control state-owned giants impeding the development of a vibrant private sector. Xi would have greater latitude to scrap Beijing’s annual growth target silliness. The more time and energy Xi’s team spends meeting this year’s 6.5 percent goal, the less it’s curtailing financial excesses and altering incentive structures to increase innovation. The more Beijing obsesses over an arbitrary number, the more it’s putting stimulus ahead of increasing the role of services and deemphasizing smokestack industries.
Xi could telegraph the coming slow-growth era with policy directives and speeches. With a dab of transparency and a dash of specificity, he could prepare global markets for a managed and orderly downshift. Until now, Xi delegated these tasks to Premier Li Keqiang. One of the hottest rumors in Beijing is that a coming shake-up will demote Li, who’s been a less-than-credible technocrat or communicator.
As I’ve argued before, Xi needs to find his inner Zhu Rongji. Xi pledged to outdo the former premier (1998-2003) who shook up state-owned enterprises and earned considerable street cred in Western circles. Li, let’s face it, isn’t that man.
Interestingly, young Chinese have rallied around Zhu’s boss, former President Jiang Zemin (1993-2003). The 90 year-old has become an unlikely rock star among millennials who call him “The Elder” and post “+1s” on social media platforms, hoping to add a second — or another year — to Jiang’s life and legend.
Jiang wasn’t exactly China’s Ronald Reagan, but there’s great nostalgia for how he made the masses feel. His unscripted persona, openness and courage at times to let live foreign television cameras and questioners into the room (including a freewheeling Beijing press conference with President Bill Clinton) seems a long, long time ago.
The painfully scripted Xi has walled Beijing off from prying Western eyes. Odd as it sounds, the 20 year-old speeches of Jiang, a guy who got grief for high-waisted pants and square-rimmed, Kim Jong Il-like glasses, are internet hits. Those showing Jiang singing Elvis, playing the ukulele and speaking English and Russian are particularly popular.
Turns out, the down-to-earth authenticity Americans crave gets mileage in China, too. It’s something Xi, for all his power, conspicuously lacks. Giving Xi a few more years to implement upgrades won’t suddenly endear him to mainland millennials. But it will give him space to find the inner reformer that’s eluded him these last four years. And perhaps even an inspirational persona that could win the support of the masses, both in China and abroad.
William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics. www.barronsasia.com