Currently, China's political system emphasizes continuity and eschews fractionalization. But this was not always the case. For the first half of the People's Republic of China's history, there were few if any institutional mechanisms for managing leadership transitions. Power did not emanate from positions but from individuals. In some instances, this dynamic threatened to dismantle the entire Party structure.After Deng Xiaoping emerged as the leader of China in 1978, he not only launched a new economic system, but he also began constructing a new political system. His vision for the system was informed by leadership crises in other Communist Bloc states and later by the political fallout from the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.
Deng was determined to move China away from a single strongman to a joint leadership structure that was grounded in the posts of president and premier, the former also being the Party chief. Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji were the first appointed under this new system but Deng also identified their successors, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, respectively, guaranteeing two decades of clear political lineage. The upcoming leadership transition already tested this arrangement; this is the first instance where successors were determined not by the elder statesman but by consensus.
Xi and Li Keqiang were thus identified and placed in their respective positions five years ago, showing a clear path for further continuity of leadership. Since then, it has been known that Xi would succeed Hu Jintao as the general secretary of the Party during the Communist Party's 18th National Congress this October. Likewise, it has been known that Xi and Li would be approved to take the positions of president and premier through a vote at a March 2013 session of the National People's Congress, the country's legislature.
While the system is well positioned to moderate extreme ideas, mollify factions and ensure stability, it has one major flaw: It is unable to act quickly. There is no mechanism for replacing the next president on short notice. Replacing a serving president, vice president, premier or vice premier is relatively straightforward; such scenarios would be disruptive but ultimately manageable.
The problem is that no one has been designated Xi's replacement should the incoming president fall ill or die. This was a deliberate move. Naming an alternative to Xi from the start would have raised the possibility of a factional struggle, thereby undermining China's rule by consensus and push for stability and Party unity. Because there was no alternative, the various elite groups had no option but to accept Xi's future role, and for the last five years have been adjusting their own interests and networks around that fact. Thus, the very system that has allowed the Chinese leadership to manage internal differences, manage social and economic crises and deal with security problems at home and abroad ironically constricts the leadership's ability to respond to crises.
Were Xi no longer to become president, it is unclear that the balances of interests among the elite could be readjusted on such short notice, particularly because such adjustments involve the presidency, the head of the Party, and the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. This is a lot of power to hand to someone not yet groomed, and someone who has not come about as the result of long-term consensus building.
China's political system, designed to guarantee continuity and consensus, has served well for two decades. In large part, its success and stability has been underpinned by slow, deliberate action. But that same reliance on consensus and continuity also cripples the system's ability to respond to a crisis.