Risks & Trends

‘Scenario Four: Unexpected Death or Incapacitation'

Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS)

Richard McGregor | Lowy Institute
Jude Blanchette | Center for Strategic & International Studies
‘Scenario Four: Unexpected Death or Incapacitation'
‘Scenario Four: Unexpected Death or Incapacitation'
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After Xi

4

‘Scenario Four: Unexpected Death or Incapacitation

April 21, 2021

‘Even if the CCP’s claim that Xi Jinping has no designs to remain in office for life is true, his evisceration of succession norms leaves the country ill-prepared for his sudden death or incapacitation.’

'If Xi passed away in office, or became seriously ill, the transition process, on paper, at least, is straightforward.'

  • 'According to the party’s constitution, the general-secretary is chosen during a full session of the Central Committee, and from the existing members of the Politburo’s inner circle.
  • 'The few sentences in the party and state constitutions, however, are almost certainly inadequate to describe what would happen.'  

‘In practice, the choice of a new leader would be decided through a process of informal consultation and horse trading, before being approved by the Central Committee.’

‘In a power vacuum, however, the process could break down into infighting within the Politburo, a nightmare scenario for CCP institutionalists.’

  • ‘Members of Xi’s coalition might splinter into different groups backing disparate successors.’
  • ‘Those who had been punished or marginalised by Xi’s coalition may rightly see his death as a rare opportunity to reassert power, and thus they too could be vying for control.’

‘There is another important scenario to consider: that of Xi’s health-related incapacitation (e.g., stroke, heart attack).’

  • ‘Unlike a leader’s death, incapacitation forces the system into a political purgatory of indeterminate length, wherein regime supporters and detractors alike try to simultaneously hedge between recovery and expiry.’

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