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Choosing the next leader

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James Reynolds | 09:42 UK time, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The man who will one day lead more people than any other person in history isn't even the most famous person in his own household.

xijinping.jpgXi Jinping is China's vice-president - he's expected to take over as China's leader in 2012/13. To many Chinese people, though, he's been more famous as the husband of the folk singer Peng Liyuan [not in English].

For many years, Peng Liyuan has appeared on Chinese state TV's New Year Gala - the most watched TV programme of the year. She also performs in Chinese opera (I sat high up in the stalls of the newly opened Beijing Opera House a year ago to watch her sing.)

We've tried to interview Peng Liyuan many times, without any luck. Our interview application has been complicated by the fact that she's also a major general in the People's Liberation Army - an organisation which doesn't usually let its soldiers speak to foreign news organisations (we ran into the same problem when we tried to interview China's first astronaut Yang Liwei - who is also a major general).

Anyway, Peng Liyuan's husband is currently in Venezuela - his latest stop on a tour of Latin America. Since he took over as vice-president almost a year ago, Xi Jinping has been sent on a number of official trips abroad. These tours are partly designed to introduce him to the countries and leaders he'll be dealing with over the next few years. They're also partly aimed at showing the audience back home that the man they've known as the obscure husband of a popular singer has now become an international statesman.

Establishing Xi Jinping as China's next leader is an important subject for the Communist Party. The premise is simple: an undisputed succession will help the Party to stay in power.

A quick history of Communist regimes across the world reveals a major weakness in the Communist system: how do you go from one leader to another? Democracies have elections, monarchies have heirs apparent, Communist parties tend to have a mess.

For many years, the Chinese Communist Party struggled with the question. Chairman Mao's first two picks as his successor- Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao - didn't work out (the first was condemned as a traitor, the second was killed in an unexplained plane crash).

Eventually, Deng Xiaoping took over. He then ran into exactly the same problem. Deng tried out two potential successors - Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. He removed both of them.

Then, in 1989, Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union collapsed. The Chinese Communist Party was determined to learn the lessons from the fall of similarly run Communist Parties. Among its conclusions - don't let yourself be ruled by a collection of elderly leaders who stay in power for too long, don't indulge in years of uncertainty and chaos about who takes over from the leader.

So, the Chinese Communist Party came up with a set of four clear rules in order to avoid any more of its own succession problems:

  1. Each leader will stay in power for 10 years - aiming to retire at about the age of 70.
  2. The most talented figure from a generation 10 years younger will be designated as the current leader's successor well in advance.
  3. An uncontested transition between the two will be respected by everyone.
  4. Repeat the above.

These rules were tested in 2002 when the current President, Hu Jintao, took over from Jiang Zemin. This marked the first successful, non-chaotic transfer of power in the Communist Party's history.

The process has now moved onto its second cycle. In 2007, Xi Jinping was chosen as the most talented figure of the next generation. He was appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee and then made vice-president. In 2012/13 he is expected to take over as the General Secretary of the Communist Party and the President of China. A few years after that, the Party will pick his successor. And so on.

So far, the Party's rules have worked.


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