top of page

Xi Jinping has no interest in succession planning – The Economist – 20.10.22

The longer he clings to power, the harder it will be to engineer an orderly transition.

The Emperor Qin Shi Huang is celebrated for unifying China, starting its Great Wall and building himself a vast mausoleum, guarded by an army of terracotta warriors. Less widely known is what happened after he died in 210BC on a tour of eastern China. According to the historian Sima Qian, aides concealed the death until the imperial entourage reached the capital, in order to stop his eldest son and heir from taking power.

They had food sent to the royal carriage and handled business from there as before. Carts of fish were placed nearby to mask the corpse’s stench. The ruse paid off at first. The eldest son committed suicide and a younger one, backed by the scheming aides, took the throne. But he proved weak. Within four years he was dead and the Qin dynasty collapsed.

Imperial Chinese history is littered with succession sagas tainted by bloodshed and skulduggery. Communist China was not much better for its first six decades. When Hu Jintao handed power to Xi Jinping in 2012 after ten years in office, it was the first complete, orderly leadership transition since the revolution in 1949.

A decade later, however, Mr Xi is set to be granted a third five-year term—breaching the norms Mr Hu helped to establish—after the Communist Party’s congress ends on October 22nd. And with no end to the Xi era in sight, China is once again confronting questions that have plagued its history. How does an all-powerful leader retire? And what happens if one suddenly dies or is incapacitated?

The article concludes with these words of warning:

China’s next leader will face an elite dominated by Xi loyalists and highly invested in the status quo—with no clear norms for how long to stay in power. “There will be power fragmentation and struggle after Xi’s rule,” predicts Yang Zhang of American University in Washington. “Without basic rules, succession means struggle. It’s just about when, and who will be involved.”

Research on China’s emperors reaches some similar conclusions. Yuhua Wang of Harvard University has compiled data on 282 emperors across 49 dynasties. He found that dynasties lasted for 70 years on average and the most common cause of collapse was elite rebellion.

About half of all emperors died naturally. But identifying a successor made an emperor 64% less likely to be deposed. And their chances of dying naturally and preserving their dynasty increased further if they appointed an heir within five years of taking power—a similar timescale to the succession norms that Mr Xi is dismantling.

Mr Xi may not have crunched the data in the same way. But he displays an avid interest in China’s imperial past, frequently quoting from historical texts. Mao, whom Mr Xi emulates in so many ways, was also a fan of China’s ancient history. He often referred to the “Zizhi Tongjian”, a chronicle published in 1084 that recounts the lessons learned from previous Chinese emperors.

That did not help him engineer a smooth succession. Of his heirs, one died in prison, another was killed in a plane crash after a failed coup attempt, and the last was toppled after just two years in power. Perhaps Mr Xi will fare better. But the longer he clings to power, history suggests, the harder that becomes. ■

For the full article, please click here:

Xi Jinping has no interest in succession planning – The Economist – 20.10.22
Download PDF • 153KB

Subscribers can sign up to Drum Tower, our new weekly newsletter, to understand what the world makes of China—and what China makes of the world.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "Heir unapparent"

24 views0 comments


bottom of page