China Enters Unsteady Waters as Xi Tightens Grip on Power
By Michael Cunningham
Chinese President Xi Jinping got a major shot in the arm last week. On Nov. 11, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) concluded the Sixth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee—the most important political gathering before the 2022 Party Congress—and the results all but ensured Xi will continue to lead the country after next year’s twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle.
As expected, this gathering of the CCP’s top 300 or so leaders passed a new resolution on history. Such resolutions are more than just propaganda; they have serious implications for China’s future trajectory. The CCP has a long history of using carefully crafted historical narratives to justify its actions, and “historical resolutions” occupy the apex of these narratives. Xi will use this new resolution to bolster the legitimacy of his continuing rule.
Shaping the Future
Only three historical resolutions have been adopted since the CCP was established in 1921. The previous two—in 1945 and 1981—delegitimized intraparty opposition to the leadership of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, respectively, and enabled those leaders to decide the course China would take in the subsequent decades. The resolutions also helped them retain their status as China’s paramount leader for the rest of their lives.
Party Icon. President Xi has been elevated to the same exalted status in China’s Communist Party as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Image Credit: Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons
While the full text of the resolution passed at this plenum has not yet been publicly released, an official communiqué on the plenum’s outcomes indicates that the resolution places Xi on an elevated status next to Mao—the founder of the People’s Republic of China—and Deng, who launched the economic reforms that have helped the country prosper. The communiqué credits Xi with leading China into a new phase in which it is becoming not only rich, but also powerful. This is not new messaging for people familiar with China’s state-run media narratives, but its inclusion in a resolution will make it the official party line for the foreseeable future.
Like the Mao and Deng resolutions, Xi’s resolution is less about remembering the past than it is about shaping the future. In particular, Xi will almost certainly use it to justify holding onto power after next year’s Party Congress, when he was originally expected to step down due to retirement norms. Xi pushed through an amendment to China’s constitution in 2018 that removed term limits for the president, but his real power comes from his CCP leadership roles.
While party leadership posts are not subject to formal term limits, unwritten norms limit the general secretary to two five-year terms and require senior leaders to retire at the Party Congress following their 68th birthday. These norms have been largely upheld for over two decades and are widely viewed as legitimate. Xi, who will be 69 when he finishes his second term next year, has to justify remaining in power while continuing to use those norms to limit the influence of his factional rivals within the party.
A resolution passed by the Central Committee that sets Xi on equal footing with Mao and Deng—both of whom ruled for life—and identifies him as the key architect of the governance path that China must follow in the “new era” will help make this case. Xi’s further codification in party orthodoxy will also make it harder for political opponents to remove him from power or discredit his rule.
The resolution will also further cement Xi’s governance philosophy as the only approved path forward for China, replacing the more collectivist leadership model promoted by Deng with the centralized leadership Xi has employed since taking power in 2012. The communiqué credits Xi with many accomplishments that his predecessors lacked the power to bring about. Included in this list are improving party discipline through the anti-corruption campaign; placing China on a more sustainable, equitable and higher-quality economic development model; and restructuring the nation’s armed forces.
Risk and Uncertainty
Yet the return to more centralized, personalistic rule under Xi brings significant risks for China and its leaders. First, it increases the likelihood of policy blunders. Officials at all levels of government fear the potential consequences of appearing to oppose Xi’s objectives. As a result, many legitimate concerns about a proposed course of action may never reach the party’s top leaders, causing potentially disastrous consequences.
China perpetually faced this problem under Mao’s leadership. The most extreme example was the Great Leap Forward, an ill-conceived experiment in centralized planning and agricultural collectivization launched in 1958 that resulted in a famine that caused tens of millions of deaths, even as local officials continued to report grain surpluses for fear of reprisal.
Top Dog. Xi shakes hand with former president Hu Jintao while another predecessor, Jiang Zemin, looks on. Image Credit: Voice of America/Wikimedia Commons
As more decisions are driven by Xi’s inner circle, the risk of similar blunders will continue to grow. Most concerning is the prospect of an armed conflict scenario, such as one over Taiwan, in which the foreign policy and national defense establishments do not believe the conditions are right for victory but are reluctant to give Xi information he does not want to hear, leading him to think victory could be easily attained. This course of action currently does not appear probable, and Xi is unlikely to launch such an ill-advised operation at present. But as his reign continues and he becomes more confident in China’s military capabilities, this risk will grow.
The recentralization of power under Xi also weakens the leadership transition norms that have contributed to China’s political stability by making succession predictable. Xi broke precedent in 2017 when no heir apparent was appointed during the Party Congress. So far, he has prevented any senior CCP official from receiving the experience and status needed to succeed him. While he likely plans eventually to select someone to replace him when he retires, no one knows when that will be, and the current absence of a successor all but ensures a political crisis if Xi is forced to leave office prematurely because of death, illness or some other factor.
These are among the risks that led Deng to decentralize leadership during his tenure, and whether or how the current party leadership intends to address these risks remains to be seen. The risks around succession could be mitigated next year if someone is appointed to succeed Xi at the following Party Congress in 2027, but unless and until that happens, a high degree of uncertainty will prevail.