Does Chinese leader Xi Jinping plan to hang on to power for more than 10 years?

The ranks of potential successors have been thinning out ahead of party congress

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 October, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 October, 2017, 10:54am

The leader of China’s Communist Party, Xi Jinping, will begin a second five-year term this month. Many observers say it’s unlikely to be his last.

Ahead of the party’s national congress, due to start in Beijing on October 18, the ranks of potential successors have been thinning out. Former Chongqing party boss Sun Zhengcai, 54, who had been regarded as a rising star, was expelled from the party last Friday after being taken away for questioning by party anti-graft inspectors on July 14.

If, after the congress, no ­putative heir is elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, it will be the clearest sign yet that Xi is eyeing a third term as the party boss, possibly as general secretary or under ­another title, that would start in 2022.

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Leadership transitions in the party have historically been a difficult process, with the only the past two – in 2002 and 2012 – having any resemblance to an institutionalised process.

The first of those was when Jiang Zemin made way for Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor. But Hu had been a Politburo Standing Committee member for 10 years by then, having been elevated to that position by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1992 as successor in waiting. And Jiang only fully handed over power two years later when he vacated from the post of Central Military Commission chairman, which commands the People’s Liberation Army.

“When Jiang stepped down, that was a momentous event,” said Susan Shirk, chairwoman of the 21st Century China Centre at the University of California, San Diego. “Achieving leadership succession in a Leninist state has been very difficult, and the Chinese Communist Party is the first to do that.”

Things look less certain now. While leadership arrangements beyond 2022 are not on the official agenda for discussion at this month’s party congress, the elephant in the room for delegates is whether Xi will carry on beyond his second term.

There are voices advocating just that, arguing that China is at a critical juncture and needs a strong leader with a long-term strategic vision.

Before Xi was anointed the party’s “core” leader – a title Hu never acquired – in October last year, the party mouthpiece People’s Daily carried a report on a survey of citizens, experts and cadres that said China’s rise depended on a strong leadership figure.

Division of power

Firm leadership would make Chinese people more united and the party’s governance more effective, the report said, warning that without a leading figure discipline and policy orders would be ignored and the nation could fall into chaos or stagnation.

“[China] has many advantages, but it is also facing a lot of new and tougher risks and challenges,” it concluded. “It needs a firm core leadership more than any other time in its history.”

Matthias Stepan, an expert on Chinese policymaking at the Berlin-based think tank MERICS, said China’s economic slowdown and widespread corruption had pressed the party centre to move to strengthen its control when Xi took office in 2012.

“The underlying message of most [party] documents issued ever since is ... ‘we have to strengthen the party and the discipline of all party members. If we want to keep the legitimacy to rule, we have to be able to govern this country more efficiently and more professionally’.”

In the past five years, Xi has repeatedly stressed the need to break the party’s “hidden rules” and establish new guidelines. Analysts said his push had widespread support among party members, who were disillusioned by the ineffective collective rule of the previous leadership, which was blamed for the emergence of rival power centres and resultant corruption.

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“Xi has decided to make some changes and has accumulated power over five years as a result of the inefficacy of governance when the central leadership’s clout was divided among nine Politburo Standing Committee members in Hu Jintao’s era,” said Chen Daoyin, a political scientist at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

Jiang played a major role in Xi’s ascension but observers say Hu – widely regarded as having been a weak and ineffectual leader – is unlikely to have a role in determining Xi’s successor.

Following Sun’s expulsion from the party’s Politburo last week, its youngest member is now Guangdong party secretary Hu Chunhua, another 54-year-old. He is a Hu Jintao protégé who, like his mentor, rose through the ranks of the Communist Youth League.

But Professor Wu Guoguang, a former Chinese government adviser who is now a political scientist at the University of Victoria in Canada, said Sun’s downfall had effectively abolished the power transition precedent introduced by Deng and made it less likely for Hu Chunhua to be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee.

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Chen agreed that Hu Chunhua was unlikely to join the Politburo Standing Committee after the congress.

He said that if an official born in the 1960s was elevated to the standing committee it was likely to be 57-year-old Xi protégé Chen Miner, who succeeded Sun as Chongqing party chief in July. He said Chen Miner had made “a significant contribution to Xi’s theory of governance” when he served as the top propaganda official in Zhejiang when Xi was the province’s party secretary from 2002 to 2007.

Chen Miner is not a member of the Politburo, but Xi and Hu Jintao both vaulted straight into the standing committee from jobs in the provinces.

However, Wu said that even if Chen Miner and Hu Chunhua advanced to the Politburo Standing Committee after the congress, neither was likely to take over from Xi five years later.

“This is a political scenario against Xi’s will,” he said. “In my opinion, naming a successor after the 19th party congress is not in line with Xi’s ultimate interest.”

Wu said Xi was likely to wait until the last moment before naming a successor because his authority as party chief would inevitably be undermined if everybody expected a newcomer to the Politburo Standing Committee would succeed him sooner or later.

Unwritten retirement rule

Hiroki Takeuchi, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in the United States, said the biggest hurdle facing Xi if he sought a third term would be the unwritten but powerful norms that had stopped the regime from collapsing.

“I think Xi is aware of the dilemma,” he said. “The act of seeking a third term itself will undermine the institutional mechanism that supports the resilience of one-party rule.”

“If we are going to go back to the day when you don’t know how long leaders will stay in office, we are back again in a world of tremendous risk of either an open fight at the top, or having a dictator who stays in office until he dies or is overthrown by a violent coup,” Shirk said.

She said another danger as Xi consolidated his hold on the party was the return to one-person rule.

“The greatest cost is without checks on his power, he can make mistakes,” she said. “He can put the Communist Party and all of China at risk.”

China’s constitution says a president can only serve for two five-year terms, but there is no such cap for the position of party general secretary, which is where the real power lies, apart from a stipulation in the party constitution that rules out “lifelong tenure”. Xi has been party general secretary since November 2012 and state president since March 2013.

Despite the two-term limit for the presidency, Chen Daoyin said a young vice-president was unlikely to be named next March because doing so might send out a false political signal that Xi was preparing to hand power to the “president in waiting” at the next party congress in 2022.

He said that if Xi relinquished the presidency in 2023 but remained party chief and chairman of the Central Military commission (CMC), his successor as president would be nothing more than a symbolic figure, like Li Xiannian, who was president from 1983 to 1988, and Yang Shangkun, president from 1988 to 1993.

“None of them was ever the paramount leader in China,” he said, going on to liken the relationship between the presidency on the one hand and the leader of the party and CMC on the other to that between the body and the soul. “Once the president is neither the party’s general secretary nor the CMC chairman, he or she will be hollowed out, just like a body without a soul.”

In the party leadership transitions in 2002 and 2012, an unwritten “seven up, eight down” rule was adhered to, with those 68 or older forced into retirement.

The rule was followed in 2002 and 2012, bringing an end to the general secretaryships of Jiang and Hu Jintao, and if followed this year would see five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee stand down – the only exceptions being Xi, 64, and Premier Li Keqiang, 62.

But there has been speculation that the party’s top graft-buster, Xi ally Wang Qishan, could retain his seat this year, even though he turned 69 in July. That would set a precedent for Xi to begin a third term as party chief in 2022, when he would also be 69.

Deng Maosheng, a mid-ranking official with the Central Committee’s Policy Research Office, told foreign reporters in October that the seven up, eight down rule was “folklore”.

“The party makes adjustments according to the circumstances,” he said. “There is no specific standard age for [standing committee members to retire].”

‘Xi Jinping Thought’

In recent years, Xi and his top ally in the party’s personnel administration, Central Organisation Department deputy head Chen Xi, have repeatedly stressed the importance of experience and political loyalty, rather than age limits.

Speculation Xi could be positioning himself for a third term as party chief has been gaining traction as he has strengthened his grip on power by naming close allies to key positions vacated by those who have fallen foul of his crackdown on corruption. That has led some to suggest there is also a political dimension to the campaign.

One choice for Xi is to copy the Deng Xiaoping model: not holding the highest position but exerting his influence by assuming the role of the party’s guiding thinker.

The party’s propaganda machine has hit new heights in singing Xi’s praises. In Chinese-language reports by the official Xinhua News Agency in the month to October 5, Xi’s full name appeared in nearly 350 articles – four times more frequently than that of Premier Li, who was the second most mentioned member of the Politburo Standing Committee.

And there has been speculation Xi could have an eponymous ideological “banner term” – possibly “Xi Jinping Thought” – included in the party’s constitution this year, which would see him join Mao as the only paramount leader to have done so while in power.

Xinhua reported last month that the Politburo had discussed a draft amendment and the party would “write key theory and strategic thoughts [taken from] the report on the 19th party congress into [its] constitution”.

“The revised constitution will reflect the major strategic thoughts the central leadership has set forth since the 18th party congress,” it said.

Beijing-based political analyst Zhang Lifan said a plenary session of the party’s Central Committee on October 11, the final stage of preparation for the congress, would decide the final wording of the amendment and whether Xi’s name should be pinned to it.

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While Xi could still name an heir apparent in the five years between this year’s party congress and the next one in 2022, analysts say he is unlikely to relax his grip on power and could stay on as a paramount leader wielding decisive influence behind the scenes – as Deng did – even if he steps down as party general secretary.

Frank Pieke, an expert in Chinese politics at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said the large number of people purged or sidelined by Xi meant he had little choice but to cling to power for as long as possible.

“As you become more and more forceful in staying in power, you make more and more enemies,” Pieke said. “In order to continue to survive, you have to continue staying in power. As soon as you let power go, the people who succeed you will seek revenge.”

Stepan said the concentration of power at the top and the anti-corruption campaign in the past five years meant local governments now followed instructions from Beijing more closely. But the new settings also stifled local innovation, with less room for a bottom-up flow of ideas, and that could ultimately endanger the adaptive capacity of the Chinese political system.

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Chen Daoyin said Chinese officials had become gun-shy over the past five years. While they now shunned bribes, officials at various levels were also abstaining from action to avoid being blamed for mistakes.

“It’s unreasonable for party officials to grab the key power and bear little responsibility while expecting less powerful administrative officials to accept almost total accountability for any wrongdoing,” he said.

This is the second story in a series looking at the key policy and personnel implications of this month’s Communist Party national congress. Read part one here.

Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen