Wang Xiangwei
SCMP Columnist
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei
China Briefing
by Wang Xiangwei

Rare party resolution will solidify Xi Jinping’s power, but leave China’s succession unclear

  • The CCP is set to pass a resolution that will provide a further theoretical boost to Xi’s political standing, as a previous one did for Mao
  • But the document is unlikely to address one of the Chinese leadership’s greatest uncertainties: leadership succession

In the Chinese Communist Party’s parlance, the words “historic resolution” carry special political significance and implications. Only twice in the party’s 100-year history have the leaders adopted the so-named documents at critical junctures to resolve major issues plaguing the party, altering the course of its history.

The first resolution, issued in 1945 and guided by Mao Zedong, marked the party’s break from the heavy Stalinist influences and established Mao’s thought as the guiding principle to lead the party forward.

In 1981, Deng Xiaoping orchestrated the second resolution to repudiate Mao for launching the “Cultural Revolution”, which resulted in turmoil and catastrophe. Although the document continued to uphold Mao’s thought as the guiding principle, it nonetheless strengthened Deng’s authority and united the party’s thinking on his policy of reform and opening up, which paved the way for China’s economic lift-off.

Next month, the party leadership under Xi Jinping is set to discuss and pass the third such resolution.

Understandably, the announcement has generated considerable interest at home and abroad. The wording of the document may provide a clear indication about Xi’s authority and standing. Some analysts have also speculated whether the third resolution will examine and reflect the party’s past lessons and mistakes like the two previous ones.

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The new resolution will come roughly one year before the party’s 20th congress, estimated to take place in the autumn of 2022, when Xi is widely expected to seek a third term as party chief, thus breaking the de facto two-term limit.

So far, the party leadership has kept the draft of the document under close wraps and the full text is unlikely to be released until the end of the annual plenary session of the party’s central committee, scheduled for early next month.

According to an official statement on Monday, Xi chaired a leadership meeting which discussed the draft of “a resolution on the major achievements and historic experience of the party’s 100 years of endeavours”, and decided to submit the draft for approval at the upcoming plenum.


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Xinhua said that Xi recently chaired a symposium to hear from political and business figures who are not affiliated with the party, and the leadership also solicited opinions from a select group of officials from local authorities and central government departments. All of them have expressed support.

The statement did not offer any detail of the document, but some analysts have speculated that its tone and wording have suggested the third resolution is most likely to be forward looking about Xi’s era, as compared to the previous two, which heavily focused on making a historic resolution of the party’s past major mistakes and lessons.

It noted that the party under the successive leaderships of Mao, Deng, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had achieved “vital” progress in its revolution, construction and reform, and accumulated “precious” experiences.

The statement went on to say that under Xi’s leadership, the party had made new notable achievements with new precious experience gained.

It said that the party, the military, and the people had become united as never before, with China’s international standing further consolidated, and socialism with Chinese characteristics showing vitality.

The statement said the national rejuvenation had become a historic inevitability as Mao’s rule enabled the Chinese people to stand up, Deng’s rule helped them to get rich, and Xi’s rule would make the country powerful.

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Those lines are most likely to feature prominently in the new resolution to provide theoretical support for and endorsement of Xi’s vision and thought.

Xi’s supporters have long argued that China needs an authoritarian and powerful figure like Xi to steer the country forward at a time of changes unseen in a century.

Internationally, China is contending with the United States and its Western allies for global influence, and domestically, the country is struggling with a painful transition to a quality-led economic growth model.

Since coming to power in late 2012, Xi has rapidly consolidated his power partly through an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign, and established his authority in 2016 when he was designated “the core” of the party leadership.

He followed these moves by changing the party charter and state constitution to eliminate the term-limit for the presidency, signalling his intention to rule as long as he liked. Both the party and state constitutions were also amended to include “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with the Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” – a sure sign of his political standing. Since then, he has been often described as China’s most powerful leader, on par with Mao and Deng.

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The Chinese leaders are a pragmatic lot. The party’s ability to survive and thrive in adversity comes from its agility and adaptability by doing things first and then adapting theories to justify their actions.

To achieve the standing as a great leader like Mao, the theoretical foundation and endorsement are critical for Xi, hence the significance of the third resolution.

As the document is most likely to focus on the CCP’s achievements and provide foundation for Xi’s era, it is unlikely to make new reflections on the party’s mistakes and lessons in the past 100 years.

That probably means it is unlikely to address one of the greatest uncertainties in the party’s history – leadership succession.

An exhibition in Beijing shows portraits of former Chinese leaders: (L-R) Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and current President Xi Jinping. Photo: Getty Images

Ever since the party was founded in 1921, peaceful and orderly transfer of power has mostly been a great source of conflict and instability. The party’s leadership succession was characterised by betrayals and purges until Mao’s leadership position was entrenched following the first resolution in 1945, and Mao’s thought was enshrined in the party’s charter as the guiding principle in the same year.

Since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, leadership struggles have been constant and fierce. Mao’s first designated successor, Liu Shaoqi, was purged and died in captivity in 1969. Another chosen successor, Lin Biao, died in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia while fleeing China in 1971.

Mao’s last chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, was sidelined by Deng Xiaoping in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Deng’s two hand-picked successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were toppled because of intense internal party politics.

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In many ways, the party’s first peaceful and orderly transfer of power since the founding of the People’s Republic did not occur until late 2002 and early 2003, when Jiang Zemin – Deng’s last hand-picked successor who rose to power after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 – handed over the first two jobs: the party’s general secretary and the state president, to Hu Jintao. In 2004, Jiang relinquished the last but the most important title, chairmanship of the central military commission, which Hu also took over.

In 2012 and 2013, Hu adhered to the two-term limit and retired fully to make way for Xi, who was widely seen as the successor when he joined the party’s Politburo Standing Committee in 2007, and became the vice-president in 2008 – and the vice-chairman of the central military commission in 2010 -giving him five years to prepare.

As Xi looks set to seek a third term as China’s top leader in 2022, and possibly a fourth term in 2027, it is very unlikely a potential successor will emerge next year.

Given the party’s opaque politics and the sensitivity of the matter, any historic resolution on China’s leadership succession plan may remain unclear for years to come.