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The Rise of Xi Jinping: Why all the Excitement?

Earlier this week, Chinese VP Xi Jinping was elected vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (NYSE:CMC) during the Fifth Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, virtually guaranteeing that he will be China’s next paramount leader after the retirement of current President Hu Jintao.
The news, however, was really much ado about nothing.  Unlike past transfers of power in the People’s Republic of China, nearly every serious China watcher knew that Xi’s appointment to the CMC was not a question of “if”, but when.  In fact, despite a recent highly-publicized stream of Western news coverage detailing growing battles between various Party factions over the need for political and economic reform, 2010-2012 will likely represent the most fluid and methodical political transition period in the young history of the People’s Republic of China.
So why was Xi’s appointment to a simple vice chairmanship front page news?
The reason many Western commentators have seen drama in the week’s events where none is present is that they fundamentally misunderstand both the power structures and processes in a Chinese leadership succession.
China, like all traditional communist countries, has a three-tiered power structure:  the government, the Party, and the military.  While transfer of the first two offices (head of the govt and head of the Party) have followed a relatively orderly pattern since Deng Xiaoping (with party leadership transferred during designated party conferences held every ten years: 1992, 2002, and presumably again in 2012, with governmental leadership transferred a year later), the same thing is not true for the transfer of the third office, the head of the military.  But that doesn’t mean the process is chaotic either.  Deng held onto the CMC spot for several years even after transferring the other two offices to Jiang Zemin; Jiang held onto it for several years after Hu Jintao rose to power; and it is basically accepted that Hu will stay on for at least several years as head of the CMC after Xi’s ascension to Party General Secretary in 2012 and to president a year later.
Why is this done?  Partly because rulers are reluctant to step down entirely, thus relinquishing all their power at once; partly to stay on long enough to ensure their protégés are able to avoid being purged or pushed aside; but also because it has become an accepted part of the succession process—to ensure the transition is balanced and that stability is assured.
When Hu doesn’t relinquish the CMC spot to Xi in 2012—and it is very likely he will not—it will not be a sign of regime instability.  Rather, it will reflect a developing norm in Chinese politics, the staggering of the three-tiered power transfer.

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