Observers of elite politics in China cannot miss a cruel paradox: Those closest to the apex of power are the most likely to fall. The latest example is that of Sun Zhengcai, a member of the Chinese Communist Party's politburo, and party chief in the large southwestern city of Chongqing.
Before his recent detention on unspecified corruption charges, 53-year-old Sun was a high-flyer. Promoted to the politburo at the CCP's 18th congress in 2012, he was seen as a potential candidate to succeed either the general secretary, President Xi Jinping, or Premier Li Keqiang when they retire in 2022.
This is not to be the case. As an alleged loyalist of a rival faction, Sun may never have stood a chance to become one of the top leaders after Xi successfully consolidated his power in record time. Nevertheless, even those skeptical about his prospects were surprised by his sudden fall from power. Sun could have been eased out of office and given a largely ceremonial position. His removal can only be understood in the context of succession politics inside the Chinese party-state.
According to an informal convention established in 2007, the CCP is supposed to anoint candidates to succeed the general secretary and the premier five years before they are expected to leave office. In 2007, Xi and Li were designated as successors at the party's 17th congress. Should this convention be observed at the 19th congress in the fall of this year, two senior party officials under the age of 55 will be promoted to the standing committee of the politburo -- the party's top decision-making organ -- as designated successors to Xi and Li when they step down in 2022.
Five years ago, at the party's 18th congress, two rising stars under 50, Sun and the current Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua, were promoted to the politburo. Their relative youth made them hot contenders for promotion to the standing committee -- and the two coveted slots as designated successors -- at the 19th congress.
Now that Sun is headed for prison, the party's succession plan has apparently been scrambled. Even though Hu Chunhua appears safe for now, few are betting on his promotion to the standing committee this fall. In the event that he does get the promotion, it remains unclear which of the two top positions -- general secretary or premier -- he will fill in 2022.
One consequence of the fall of Sun is clear: Xi now enjoys unprecedented freedom to arrange his own succession. Instead of following the convention established a decade ago, the party is almost certain to delay the anointment of two successors, giving Xi more discretion in picking his own successors in 2022, or extending his term. (Contrary to popular perception, the party does not have formal term or age limits.)
Besides its near-term political impact, the purge of Sun also illustrates the perils of succession politics inside the CCP. Since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, succession has been accomplished by purges and coups more often than by prearranged plans.
During the Maoist era (1949-1976), the dictator Mao Zedong picked, but later purged, two designated successors, Liu Shaoqi (who died in detention during the Cultural Revolution) and Lin Biao (who met his grisly fate in a mysterious plane crash while attempting to flee to the Soviet Union in 1971). When Mao died in September 1976, he did not have a clear successor:The issue was settled only with a military-backed coup. Mao's widow and three comrades (the infamous "Gang of Four") were arrested. A transitional figure, Hua Guofeng was installed as the "wise leader" but pushed out of power two years later by a coalition led by the newly rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping.
In the post-Mao years, the party has done all it can to avoid similar power struggles, with mixed results. Deng purged two designated successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, because they were too liberal. In 1992, unhappy with the slow pace of reform under the newly appointed party chief Jiang Zemin, Deng toyed briefly with the idea of firing him as well, but was persuaded not to. As a result, the party had its first peaceful, albeit unplanned, transfer of power in its history when Deng died in 1997 (he stopped appearing in public from 1995).
Since then the party has had a marginally better record of managing succession. The handover from Jiang to Hu Jintao in 2002 happened according to plan only because Deng designated Hu as a successor to Jiang in 1992, a decade before Hu was to assume the top position. Even that transfer of power was untidy because Jiang kept his position as commander-in-chief of the military for two extra years, effectively constraining Hu's power. The issue of who should succeed Hu divided the party's leadership in 2007. The deadlock was resolved only by a compromise, with Xi designated as the party chief and Li as the premier.
What this record shows is that, since 1949, four designated successors have perished, either physically or politically. In addition, a hastily installed successor (Hua) was pushed out in a palace coup; one narrowly avoided the sack (Jiang); and one succeeded his predecessor only in part (Hu Jintao). The only clear-cut succession is that of Xi from Hu Jintao in 2012.
Academic theories explaining the CCP's success in "institutionalizing" itself in the post-Mao era notwithstanding, the historical record and recent developments in elite politics in Beijing show that the party has not really solved the succession problem -- a well-known Achilles' heel of autocratic regimes.
One obvious explanation is the difficulty, if not impossibility, of enforcing succession deals struck among competing factions. No third-party enforcers, such as a constitutional court or a democratic electorate, can make violators of the terms of a deal pay a high price. A dominant CCP leader tends to gain power the longer he stays in office, thus making it impossible for his colleagues to prevent him from breaching whatever succession arrangements have been previously agreed. When such arrangements have been honored, it was not because of the presence of a third-party enforcer, but because of the balance of power at the top.
One crucial reason for the CCP's improved record of succession in the post-Deng era is the relative equality of power among rival factions. For instance, with powerful rivals such as Li Peng, Zhu Rongji and several others, Jiang did not have the power to upend the succession arrangement made by Deng in 1992. Hu Jintao faced even worse challenges. When he became the CCP's general secretary in 2002, his predecessor Jiang not only refused to give up his chairmanship on the Central Military Affairs Commission, but also elevated at least four of his loyalists to the standing committee, effectively emasculating Hu's authority and rendering him ineffective in the succession power struggle in 2007.
The second, and far more important, factor is the lack of security even for top leaders in the Chinese party-state. As demonstrated by the fall of Sun and countless other current and retired senior officials, they have no protection from the vagaries of internal party power struggles. One moment they are riding high, the next they can be hauled away on charges of alleged misdeeds. Since no laws or rules can ensure their personal safety in the Hobbesian world of elite politics in Beijing, they can protect themselves only with power in hand. This dynamic greatly increases the incentives for top leaders to hold on to power and prevent their successors from rising to the top and threatening their security.
As we ponder the implications of Sun's fall from grace, it is worth remembering that this case is no accident. It is but the latest confirmation that the life of a senior leader in China remains nasty, brutish and sometimes, short.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of "China's Crony Capitalism."