Xi Jinping’s Succession: What Did the West Get Wrong?

What would happen if Xi Jinping suddenly died, killed by assassination or incurable illness? Would such an unexpected departure of the paramount leader paralyse the government and release the suppressed chaotic energy in the upper echelons of the Party leadership, with all those vying for such an opportunity racing to fill the power vacuum and bringing about an unpredictable outcome? In the past few weeks, these questions have inflamed the imagination of commentators on social media and in the press. All this because in March President Xi Jinping, accompanied by French President Macron, appeared to have exhibited a ‘suspiciously’ slow walk when inspecting the guard of honour in Paris. And then, in an incident that apparently reaffirms the earlier suspicions, he executed a laboured descent into (and ascent from) his chair when meeting the press following the EU-China Summit in the same week. Concerned observers passionately examined the President’s gait, posture, walking pace, and micro-expressions from the two-minute video clips released by the media, and hastened to conclude that the President is in poor health. This episode offers a glimmer of hope for the many opponents of Xi and his policies: a premature change of leadership.

One reason that Xi Jinping has attracted such obsessive attention to his personal life and affairs is that he is considered a rule-breaker. Six years into office, he has instituted so many changes in governance on so many fronts that people have started to decorate his many titles with adjectives that used to be the exclusive domain of Chairman Mao. Out of nowhere, Xi came to power and shook up the Chinese polity and surprised the world with his intensive anti-corruption campaign, relentless purges in domestic politics, unconventional military reforms, and an audacious global strategy supported by an aggressive foreign policy. His reworking of the Party’s propagandistic discourse from unprincipled pragmaticism to making-one’s-own-narrative assertiveness is unequivocal and decisive. His about-face from the familiar exercise of classic Chinese prudence to an uneasy flaunting of entitlement and vindictiveness is so sharp that no one seemed prepared for it. All these have earned him the reputation as a political maverick, one who breaks rather than follows the norms.

Has Xi Jinping reached his position because he has defied norms or, rather, because the norms are flexible and pliable enough to allow him to shape them to his own ambition? To answer this question and to properly assess the quality of Xi’s governing style, we need to first establish what kind of norms are involved. And for this investigation no topic is better suited than that of leadership succession.

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