From Hu to Xi

Authoritarian regimes have two well-known fatal flaws that explain their instability and lack of durability. The first one is the absence of rules governing succession. As a result, conflict among the ruling elites when power is transferred from one generation to another frequently brings down the oligarchy. The second flaw is "adverse selection" such regimes have the propensity to attract opportunists and risk-averse careerists who colonise the upper echelons of power. The consequence is progressively weaker leadership at the top.

As the Communist Party of China (CPC) has just completed its once-in-a-decade transfer of power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, the most important question to ask is whether the CPC, famed for its capacity to learn and adapt, has managed to overcome these two flaws this time.

Regrettably, the best answer we can come up with is a mixed one.

On the positive side, the transfer of power from Hu to Xi this time was, in nominal terms at least, complete and proper. Hu retired as the general secretary of the CPC and the chairman of the CPC's military affairs committee (the equivalent of the commander-in-chief). He will quit the presidency of the country, a purely ceremonial position, in March next year. By leaving his position as commander-in-chief, Hu not only created a historic precedent his two successors kept the position for two extra years after retiring from their party posts but also signalled that Xi is now in complete control of the two more important formal positions in the party. In this sense, the succession should be judged a success.

Because of Hu's full retirement, Xi will spend less time consolidating power. This also avoids a potentially destabilising rivalry between Hu and Xi. In addition to this positive outcome, Xi must be pleased with the reduction of the size of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body. The committee used to have nine members; now it has seven, making it easier for Xi to form a coalition. Decision-making at the top in China is by consensus. The smaller the size of the committee, the easier it is to arrive at an agreement.

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