By Jackie Sheehan.

I don’t know – perhaps he was away arm-wrestling Vladimir Putin for the title of leader of the un-free world. The Chinese government’s prolonged refusal to explain the absence from the public eye of the country’s leader-in-waiting allowed such rumours to flourish.

With the fall of top leadership contender Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai’s conviction for murder, this round of China’s once-a-decade leadership transition has already been much livelier than the previous one. In 2002-03, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao came to power as expected in a way seen at the time as a victory for bureaucratic routinization over the charismatic leadership and personality cults of Mao Zedong’s day. In hindsight, that handover of power appears positively boring compared with this year’s knock-down, drag-out fight to join the handful of men who actually rule China, the CCP Politburo Standing Committee.

But Hu and Wen’s uneventful succession was important precisely because it was such a break with CCP history, for most of which being designated the leader’s successor was like being given the Black Spot. Few escaped with their lives, and none with their reputations intact.

Take Liu Shaoqi. Until the early 1960s, the worst thing anyone accused him of was being a bit dull, a “bureaucrat’s bureaucrat”, although his revolutionary career working underground in 1930s Shanghai, where possession of a CCP card meant execution, shows there was more to the man than that. Purged at the start of the Cultural Revolution as a “capitalist roader”, Liu met a wretched end in 1969, dying from ill-treatment and the refusal of medical aid at the hands of Red Guards.

Then there was Lin Biao, and I really hope it doesn’t take as long to find out what’s happened to Xi Jinping these last two weeks as it has to discover what really led to the bodies of Lin and his entire family being found in the wreckage of a military plane in Mongolia in September 1971. The official line is that Lin, leader of China’s armed forces and from 1969 Mao’s “closest comrade-in-arms”, was actually a traitor who tried to assassinate Mao and fled to the Soviet Union when his plot failed. The details of the alleged plot, involving bazookas and exploding gas tanks, sound more like the first five minutes of a Bond film (and not one of the good ones) than the work of a military genius like Lin Biao, and some observers think Mao got his retaliation in first by having Lin killed, with Lin’s supposed ambitions to be number one all in Mao’s head. Nevertheless, a traitor Lin remains, with not so much as a plaque on the wall anywhere in China to commemorate one of the three or four greatest individual contributors to the CCP’s 1949 revolution.

In Deng Xiaoping’s era, the pattern continued. Hu Yaobang was forced to resign for being conciliatory towards student protestors in the winter of 1986-7, but came back to haunt the CCP when his death in April 1989 sparked off the democracy movement which might have forced them from power. Then Zhao Ziyang was removed for not cracking down sooner on that democracy movement, and kept under house arrest until his death in 2005, whereupon the CCP insisted on a eulogy that said Zhao had made “serious mistakes”, which his family refused to accept.

So if Xi, wherever he was, is looking for lessons from history, one is that for a designated successor in China actually to get the top job is still the least likely outcome of events, and another is that, if he does find himself in serious trouble, he probably shouldn’t load his family onto a plane and head for Russia.

Jackie Sheehan is Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute and Associate Professor of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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