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‘Red Aristocracy’: The intriguing succession of power in the Chinese regime

The agitated political scenario that, both internally and externally, usually envelops the regime that directs the destinies of the Chinese nation is now rarefied by the lack of knowledge of the eventual strategy that may be being followed for the transmission of political power.

Moreover, in the absence of a process approved by the citizens to delegate the administrative functions characteristic of a democratic state, the succession of power could be traumatic if left to the struggle between the main political currents. 

The prominent role played by members of the so-called “red aristocracy,” those people linked by blood or marriage to China’s revolutionary leaders, cannot be overlooked. It was precisely they who gave their support to the current leader of the Communist Party of China (CCP), Xi Jinping, who is now 68 years old, to assume power—one of their own.  

Their support was confirmed at meetings held during the 2012 Spring Festival vacations. During the largest of these, the sons of China’s old guard praised Xi’s record at the People’s Liberation Army film studio in Beijing on Aug. 1, according to author John Garnaut’s article for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Indications are that the “red aristocracy” was concerned about the Communist regime’s opening up to the outside world and the risk of disintegrating its growing power over the nation. 

“There is hope in the snake year now the party leadership has shown us the content and direction of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” said Hu Muying, one of the descendants of former Politburo member Hu Qiaomu. Hu Qiaomu was Mao Zedong’s speechwriter and the foremost ideological authority under Mao and his successor as supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping. 

Hu Muying added: “We shall prove by our own actions that we, the children of veterans, are indeed worthy of the name ‘Second Generation Red,’” and then repeated Xi’s slogan: “Let’s strive together towards the China Dream.”

It is worth remembering that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), from which the Chinese regime derived its initial revolutionary political conformation in 1921. However, it collapsed in the face of the opening promoted by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Mikhail Gorbachev, and his political reform of 1980. 

The power of the “red aristocracy”

It should be noted that it was precisely the opening to the capitalist practices of the West that opened the doors to the fortunes, with which the descendants of the most prominent leaders of the communist revolution, including those revered as the “immortal eight,” filled their coffers. 

These were the top bureaucrats and military officers who came to power after the death of Mao Zedong and who, led by Deng Xiaoping, opened up to the world capitalist market.

At least 103 of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and their respective spouses, who became the CCP’s most powerful businessmen, many of them educated and based in the United States, have been identified as descendants of “the immortals,” according to Bloomberg research. In addition, other publications link at least 123 other such offspring. 

The leaders “… entrusted some of the state’s key assets to their children, many of whom became wealthy. It was the beginning of a new elite class known as princelings. Moreover, it fueled public anger over unequal accumulation of wealth, unfair access to opportunity, and exploitation of privilege—all at odds with the original aims of the communist revolution,” Bloomberg explains, as quoted by author John Chan. 

Through the manipulation of intricate business deals, sharing joint employers, and ties to the same private or state-owned companies and diplomatic organizations, the ‘princelings’ benefited from the booming Chinese economy. 

They transformed their jobs and state connections into private careers, and have been able to work, study, buy property abroad and at the same time transfer immense wealth to other countries. 

For example, Deng Xiaoping’s son Zhifang received his doctorate in physics from the private University of Rochester, located in upstate New York. His grandson Deng Zhuo Di, 28, a bridge player who worked at the U.S. law firm White & Case, was appointed county leader in the southern Guangxi Autonomous Region in 2013. Another grandson, Zhuo Su, is chairman of a company that invests in an Australian iron ore miner.

Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997, is credited with leading China’s reform and opening-up process in the 1980s. However, he has also been blamed for the bloody crackdown on protesters in the 1980 Tiananmen massacre. Thousands of students demanding democracy were killed by the Chinese regime’s army attack. 

According to an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, other relatives of Deng Xiaoping and former President Hu Jintao appear with accounts in tax havens in the Cook Islands or the British Virgin Islands, according to an investigation, by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The report also mentions several high-level Chinese businessmen, including China’s wealthiest and Deng Jiagui, President Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law. Also, Hu Jintao’s son, Hu Haifeng, 41, was appointed deputy secretary of the CCP in the city of Jiaxing, in the coastal province of Zhejiang. On the other hand, Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan’s only daughter, Xi Mingze, studies at Harvard University, where she usually goes unnoticed. 

Nevertheless, the regime blocks information about the rise to power of the ‘princes,’ trying to avoid protests of nepotism. In the case of Deng Zhuo Di, searches about him through the Chinese microblog Weibo were blocked. In Hu’s case, the official Zhejiang government website included the names of all its party leaders except Hu’s in one of its updates.

Xi Jinping’s performance

Xi, son of former Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun, one of the party’s founders who leader Mao Zedong later persecuted, began his career in a village from where he rose to power in 2012 when he obtained at least nine positions at the highest level.

Xi thus became China’s president, head of the CCP, chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), and head of at least six high-level committees dealing with areas such as cybersecurity, national security, and foreign policy. He is seen as thus surpassing the might of his predecessor, Deng Xiaoping. 

However, for Nottingham University analyst Steve Tsang, who agreed in 2014 that Xi “has managed to assert himself more effectively than his predecessors all the way back to Deng,” he also considered, “… this does not make Xi a strongman. He is essentially the first among equals—though an assertive and powerful one.”

Admittedly, however, Xi’s power has increased substantially since then. In 2018 he oversaw the repeal of the two-term limit on presidential office, which has opened the way for him to remain in power beyond 2023 after serving the two presidential terms of five years each stipulated for those who take his place. 

Xi has devoted a great deal of time strengthening the party’s state organizational and institutional foundations. His political and administrative power has been spent on restructuring the party. However, he has shown “a certain leaning toward the legacy of the Mao era, which has dismayed many liberal intellectuals, not least because of some comments he made in December [2012] highlighting the continuity between Mao’s revolutionary decades and Deng’s reformist era,” Garnaut noted. He added, quoting prominent lawyer He Weifang: “This is almost like overturning Deng Xiaoping’s rejection of the Cultural Revolution. It seems Xi is trying to fawn over the left while not offending the right.”

But apparently, members of the liberal-leaning red aristocracy did not welcome such behavior from Xi, generating comments to the effect: “I don’t challenge him openly, because I have to support him,” the son of one of the 10 grand marshals of the People’s Liberation Army, according to Garnaut, told Fairfax Media.

He has also sought to guard against internal threats, including corruption. Shortly after coming to power, Xi declared that it threatened the survival of the sole ruling political party, the CCP, in 2014, on the notion that officials were squandering taxpayers’ contributions or using their positions for personal gain.

To get an idea of the dimensions corruption reached, “According to a People’s Bank of China report, 18,000 officials left the country between 1995 and 2008. They took assets (whether legally or illegally acquired) valued at $126.5 billion, and the trend has been on the rise with them,” writes Luigi Tomba of the Australian National University in a 2014 report. 

He adds, “The assessment of Central Party School Professor Lin Zhe as reported in Caixin revealed that, from 1995 to 2005, China had 1.8 million naked officials. [who have transferred assets abroad].” 

Succession options

Among the possible options for the succession of CCP power is an orderly transfer of control this year, when Xi could hand over some of the most critical positions he holds to one of the current politburo members. This would follow the precedent of retiring at the end of two terms and retiring at the age of 68. 

In this case, the possible successor could be Ding Xuexiang, loyal to Xi, and his promotion could be announced on the occasion of the 20th Party Congress in October. Ding has had an extensive career in the party, besides accompanying Xi since 2012.

Ding is director of the CCP General Secretary’s Office and director of the General Office of the Central Committee, i.e., he heads up Xi’s office. He also belongs to the “red aristocracy” that backed Xi’s rise to power. 

“Ding is already one of the most powerful members of one of the most powerful Politburos in contemporary Chinese history. However, his fortunes are entirely tied to Xi Jinping, and while internal factional positioning continues through the run-up to the fall Congress, Ding is safe from any purges, so long as Xi himself survives,” argues The Diplomat of Feb. 1. 

In parallel, another possible candidate for Xi’s succession is fellow Standing Committee member Wang Huning, who shares a similar status to Ding in the face of Xi’s eventual preferences should Xi want to name his successor now. Likewise, Xi could continue to rule informally, as some of his predecessors did.  

The possibility of naming his successor is not foreign to Xi, given his words before the 2014 National People’s Congress. He stated, “The best way to evaluate whether a country’s political system is democratic and efficient is to observe whether the succession of its leaders is orderly and in line,” the Lowy Institute published last year.

A further argument for Xi to opt for the peaceful transfer of power is suggested by the research of Erica Frantz and Elizabeth Stein, who said: “… succession rules protect dictators from coup attempts because they reduce elites’ incentives to try to grab power preemptively via violent means. By assuaging the ambition of some elites who have more to gain with patience than with plotting, institutionalized succession rules hamper coordination efforts among coup plotters, which ultimately reduce a leader’s risk of confronting coups.”

On the other hand, analysts do not rule out a coup against Xi rather than a peaceful succession, even though he enjoys the backing of many members of the “red aristocracy.” 

A violent move in this direction could lead to “… public turmoil and repression of the sort seen in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when peaceful student-led protests were harshly put down by troops armed with assault rifles and accompanied by tanks,” analyst Amitrajeet A. Batabyal wrote.

In anticipation of social upheaval of such dimensions, the Chinese communist regime has strengthened its security systems by equipping it with millions of video surveillance cameras. The circuit also integrates the latest advances in digital technologies and artificial intelligence. Likewise, the coordination between the different security bodies is such that the possibility of a coup d’état is remote.

Moreover, a would-be coup plotter faces numerous obstacles, starting with gaining the support of key members of the military-security bureaucracy without alerting the incumbent leader and his security apparatus. Thus, despite Xi’s numerous enemies, the likelihood of a military coup being executed is minimized. 

Given that the military is critical in a violent deposition of power, Xi has overseen the appointments of thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers. Particularly “officers in high-level command positions. They are chosen for their ethnic, class, and ideological backgrounds, making it unlikely they would support anti-regime protesters,” according to observations by Yale University political scientist Dan Mattingly.

Another possibility is an inevitable unexpected death or permanent disability, which would be contributed to by his age; Xi Jinping is 67. In addition, he has been a smoker, he is overweight, and he has a very stressful job.

Consider the rumors about Xi’s poor health that have been spreading for several years, some based on videos that appear to show his difficulty walking during meetings with foreign leaders. 

Also, the authorities are jealous of information about Xi’s health inside China “and have threatened foreign journalists who write about it with the cancellation of their visas,” say authors Richard Mcgregor and Jude Blanchette.

In the event of Xi’s death, the CCP statutes state that the general secretary can only be “elected” during a plenary session of the Central Committee. In addition, they must be a member of the previously appointed Politburo Standing Committee.  

The absence of a known plan for how Xi’s successor to the vital post he now holds will be chosen spreads a blanket of uncertainty about the possible effects on many other nations. This is especially true in light of their growing dependence on China’s role in the supply chain and its prominence as the world’s second-largest economy.  

This situation “… is causing uncertainty about issues including potential trade disruptions, foreign policy changes resulting from domestic instability and the potential for a military coup,” Batabyal predicts.

So far, uncertainty persists, as the aspirations expressed by Deng Xiaoping in 1980 when he said, “We must take the long-term interest into account and solve the problem of the succession in leadership,” do not seem to have been fulfilled.

China prospered for millennia under the guidance of emperors who tried to conform to the designs of the gods; the future is now uncertain under a communist regime. An atheist regime that not only ignores but combats the freedoms of conscience and worship through which human beings have sought to cultivate the best aspects of their being.

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