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Who will succeed China's leader Xi Jinping?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is official. Chinese leader Xi Jinping is unrivaled. This past weekend at a Communist Party Congress in Beijing, Xi extended his rule into a third term, and he stacked party leadership with his allies. He also left the line of succession unclear. And as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, that may create problems down the road.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Leader succession in China under communist rule has a rocky past, says Rana Mitter, a professor of history at Oxford University.

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RANA MITTER: It's always been a dangerous game.

RUWITCH: Mao Zedong's first choice to follow in his footsteps was state President Liu Shaoqi. But he had second thoughts and purged him in the Cultural Revolution. Liu died in a prison cell in 1969.

MITTER: And then there was Lin Biao, his defense minister, who basically tried to launch a coup, it seems, and died in an air crash.

RUWITCH: ...In Mongolia while apparently fleeing. That was in 1971. When Mao died five five years later, his final pick, Hua Guofeng, took over. But he was soon sidelined by Deng Xiaoping, who became paramount leader. Deng eventually established a system that endured, for a while at least. There were informal retirement ages. Leaders were limited to 10 years at the helm. And successors were promoted and groomed well in advance.

BENJAMIN KANG LIM: He put that in place, of course, with the - in the hope that it would be sustainable and that would be the system.

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RUWITCH: Benjamin Kang Lim is a journalist in Beijing with the Singapore Straits Times. He's covered the past six party Congresses.

LIM: I don't think he put it in place to - for it to be, you know, broken, right? But then laws are made to be broken, and rules are made to be bended.

RUWITCH: Twenty years ago, though, the rules survived their first big test at the 16th party Congress.

LIM: Back in 2002, it was the first orderly transfer of power since 1949.

RUWITCH: Jiang Zemin handed the reins to Hu Jintao after two full terms in office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Now I have the great honor to introduce to you comrade Hu Jintao.

RUWITCH: Hu served 10 years, then followed Jiang's lead, handing power to the next guy, Xi Jinping. The system seemed to be working, according to Jorgen Moller, who studies political succession at Aarhus University in Denmark.

JORGEN MOLLER: The Chinese case was then used as an example in the literature on authoritarian systems that sometimes you can actually have institutions that seem to do the job.

RUWITCH: But that's all gone now. Xi Jinping sidelined the men who many thought might succeed him. He ended term limits and also concentrated and personalized power to a degree that no Chinese leader has since Mao. Moller says that could be a recipe for trouble.

MOLLER: And history shows very clearly that the problem of succession creates political instability. So when Xi Jinping at some point has to retire, there is no clear model for how that will be done.

RUWITCH: And that's a potentially dangerous prospect for the world's second-biggest economy and a budding superpower with a growing nuclear arsenal. But Rana Mitter says Xi knows all that. But he wants officials to be laser focused on his policy priorities and what he calls the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

MITTER: Xi Jinping wants to make it very clear that he's not going anywhere and that people shouldn't spend time speculating about who comes next.

RUWITCH: He may eventually come up with a new system for succession. But until then, Mitter says, Xi doesn't want his power diluted, and he doesn't seem all that worried about the risks.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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