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The China Challenge: Xi Prepares for His Third Term and Beyond
On the eve of the 20th Party Congress, all indications are that authority will remain centralized in Xi Jinping for the foreseeable future
By Michael Cunningham
On Sunday, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will convene its 20th Party Congress. The week-long event will see General Secretary Xi Jinping win a precedent-breaking third term and further consolidate his grip over the CCP and, thus, China.
Final preparations for the congress were made this past week during the 7th Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee. The official communique released at the close of the plenum reaffirmed Xi’s status as the “core” of the Party and added fuel to expectations that amendments to the Party’s constitution, which will be unveiled at the congress, will further enshrine Xi’s leadership and ideology in the Party orthodoxy in ways not seen since Mao Zedong ruled China.
If Xi fares as well as expected, he’ll receive a strong mandate to continue pursuing his policy preferences for at least the next five years, and probably much longer than that. On Sunday, he will present a work report outlining the CCP’s top priorities, which will likely follow the general direction set in his 19th Party Congress work report in 2017 and in last year’s historical resolution. Like those documents, the report is expected to de-emphasize quantitative economic growth in favor of “common prosperity.” It will also likely stress the need for indigenous innovation of key technologies (such as artificial intelligence, semiconductors and biotechnology) and, of course, strengthening the Party’s central role in all aspects of society.
Xi’s appointment to a third term, while precedent-breaking, is not altogether unprecedented. Though term limits and retirement ages have consistently applied to most high-ranking CCP officials, the precedent for China’s top leader is less robust. In fact, Xi’s immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, is the only paramount leader to have remained in office for exactly two five-year terms. Nevertheless, China’s political elite and its informed public both view these retirement norms as legitimate and important for political stability.
Strengthening the Party
For Xi to secure a third term in defiance of these norms speaks to his unrivaled skill at: getting his proteges appointed to important positions; using anti-corruption and Party discipline to purge his political opponents; and building consensus around his preferred policies. But Xi’s success also reflects a less-appreciated fact: The CCP leadership collectively view Xi’s continued rule as promoting their main interest, which is to preserve the Party’s grip on power. No matter the effectiveness of Xi’s ruthless, behind-the-scenes politicking, if the Party organization did not believe he would deliver on this core interest, he would not be permitted to stay beyond the prescribed two terms.
When Xi took power in 2012, the CCP was in crisis. A series of well-publicized corruption scandals had discredited the Party in the eyes of much of the public, and those with money or power were widely seen as living above the law. Hu Jintao, openly warned that failure to clean up corruption “could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”
Fast-forward to 2022: While many Chinese elites despise Xi, and not all of his policies are popular, his anti-corruption campaign, emphasis on narrowing the wealth gap, overall cult of personality and tight control of information inside China have won him—and, through him, the Party—strong support among the country’s wider population.
Indeed, just ten years after Hu’s warning, the Party has never been more firmly in control. Not only does the Party credit Xi with restructuring the economy in ways that his predecessors failed to achieve, but he has successfully consolidated his predecessors’ efforts to create a surveillance state that makes it nearly impossible for any rival group to organize and threaten the CCP’s monopoly on power. On the international front, while much of the world views Xi’s diplomatic style as abrasive and even reckless, in China’s tightly controlled information space he is credited for giving the country a voice on the global stage.
This is not to say that outlook for the regime is all rosy. While Xi’s continued rule may help bolster the Party’s leadership in the short term, his centralization of decision-making and open-ended rule bring serious risks that are likely to grow in the years to come.
If current trends continue, China will increasingly resemble an echo chamber, where political expediency and fear of disappointing Xi drive much of the policymaking. Historically, this kind of environment has produced poor governing decisions. This is already happening to an extent, and the extreme nature of Xi’s zero-COVID policy is one case in point. While the general zero-COVID approach is widely credited in China with preventing the large numbers of infections and fatalities reported in many other countries, the inhumane and unreasonable tactics used to ensure no infection goes undetected or spreads to others have further threatened an economy already facing serious headwinds and are likely not sustainable. Yet, officials at all levels obediently implement the policy, and there are no signs that it will be reversed anytime soon.
A more concerning case is that of Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats and other officials actively fanning the flames of international disputes, at least partly for the sake of winning favor with their superiors in Beijing. Statements by senior Chinese diplomats routinely blow U.S. actions with longstanding historical precedent—such as visits to Taiwan by members of Congress—out of proportion, stoking nationalistic sentiment among the Chinese public that all but requires Beijing to take an escalatory response. While Xi is unlikely to intentionally launch a war he doesn’t believe China could win, the narrative of unrelenting U.S. provocations raises tensions and heightens the risk of unintended escalation and miscalculation that could eventually lead to just such an outcome.
In the longer term, if Xi continues to lead China without an anointed successor, there will always be a question of what happens if he is unable to fulfill his duties due to death, illness or some other factor. The infighting such a development would cause is just the kind of situation Deng Xiaoping and his successors feared when developing and upholding norms governing leadership succession. Barring unforeseen circumstances, this risk will likely be manageable over the next five years. But the risks of political instability will increase as Xi (who is already 69) ages and clings to power.
Admittedly, there are other possible, albeit unlikely, scenarios for China’s future. A newly empowered Xi could emerge from the Party Congress ready to steer China in a more pragmatic direction to address the country’s looming economic crisis and trust deficit with many of its top trading partners, including the U.S. and Europe. Or an heir could be appointed at the congress and groomed to succeed Xi in 2027, potentially chipping away at Xi’s cult of personality and restoring a degree of predictability to the system. Such possibilities are remote, however. On the eve of the Party Congress, all indications are that authority will remain centralized in Xi for the foreseeable future, with resulting risks for both China and the world.