Xi Jinping may emerge from the party congress more powerful than ever

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Will Xi Jinping be China’s leader for life? The upcoming 20th Party Congress will provide important new clues.

In the U.S., even the lead-up to midterm elections involves great fanfare. But in China, the twice-a-decade major political transitions are cloaked in secrecy. The latest, the 20th Party Congress, begins this Sunday. Despite the secrecy, one thing seems clear: President Xi Jinping is expected to secure a third term as China’s leader — he has gained so much power over the past decade that he is widely believed to be uncontested.


Hear more from this conversation between Lili Pike and Victor Shih:




This is a significant moment for China. In recent decades, a norm has been established under which leaders hand over power after two terms. With Xi poised to continue leading China, some experts see him hanging on to power for life — and that means his agenda will continue to shape China over the coming decades.

On this week’s Global Grid, Grid China Reporter Lili Pike spoke with Victor Shih, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, who focuses on Chinese politics. They discussed Xi’s unexpected rise to power and the new policy priorities he might announce at the party congress. Shih weighed in on a key question: which officials will be appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee — the small group of China’s most powerful leaders that surround Xi. Shih said the details are hard to predict, but in almost all scenarios, Xi will emerge from the party congress with more sway over the Standing Committee — and therefore the country.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Lili Pike: Victor, I want to start off by looking backward. When Xi Jinping came to power a decade ago, I think many observers didn’t expect him to be such a strong leader. How did he manage to gain so much power over the last decade, such that he’s now on the cusp of this somewhat unprecedented third term?

Victor Shih: Indeed. As you point out, it didn’t seem an especially likely outcome. Looking back from the perspective of 2012, I think the people who chose him to be the next secretary-general of the Communist Party — including Jiang Zemin himself, the former president of China, as well as Zeng Qinghong, the most powerful princeling — these are children of first-generation revolutionaries, who were still in the Chinese government. So, these two probably did not think that he could consolidate power so rapidly within the Chinese Communist Party. I think where they miscalculated was how little competition within the party that Xi would face, especially after the removal of Zhou Yongkang, who was in charge of all the internal security forces of China. His removal was a collective decision, it wasn’t just because of Xi Jinping’s decision alone, but once Zhou was removed, there actually weren’t that many highly networked elites, especially those with close ties to the military, who were still in the upper echelon of the party to balance against him.

Xi Jinping, who still has a lot of contacts with other princelings in the military, very quickly eradicated the remainder of his enemies by launching an anti-corruption campaign. And also, for the first time since the Cultural Revolution, there was a wide-ranging purge within the military, which he carried out along with his friends and allies in the military. Hundreds of senior level official officers were arrested for corruption, and through a purge in the civilian world, he was able to completely dominate the party by 2017. So that was a surprising outcome, but he himself was very daring, and structurally, he didn’t have a lot of competition.

LP: Thanks for that wonderful tour of how we got to this point today. Some may look at the backlash against the current zero-covid policy and the recent economic slowdown and assume that Xi is in big trouble. I’m curious if you think there’s any merit to that. Why are we so sure at this moment that Xi Jinping will remain China’s leader after the party congress?

VS: One [reason], of course, is because he revised the party constitution back in late 2017, which strongly suggests that, obviously, he aims to serve a third term, and most likely a fourth and fifth, being the leader of China for life. The other thing is there’s been no discussion of a successor coming from the official circles at all. Usually, you will begin to have this kind of buzz about potential successors. Of course, Western media coverage of Chinese politics has been hampered by the fact that the majority of Western reporters have been expelled from China, even before covid. Now, many of them find it very difficult to go back to China to cover especially political issues. But nonetheless, nothing from the official press; no rumors, nothing about a successor.

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The party has only reinforced the leadership role of Xi Jinping through wave after wave of ideological campaigns. I don’t think it makes sense to talk about a successor when the party has been ordered to only care about the dictates of Xi Jinping for the past 10 years. So clearly, there’s no successor in sight.

This is not unprecedented in the party completely. [The former Chairman of China’s Communist Party Mao Zedong] was a dictator for life. But since the death of Chairman Mao, no secretary-general or party chairman has served for the three full terms. Each term is five years long. No one has served a total of 15 years as secretary-general. Even Jiang Zemin. He served sort of two and a half terms, but he never served the full three terms as secretary-general. If he were to obtain a continuation as the secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party, which we all expect him to obtain it at the Congress, and there’s no discussion of a potential successor then by the end of this five-year term, in 2027, he will have served three full terms, which would break with the post-Mao norm that had developed in the party. [Xi is often referred to as President in Western press, but his most important position is General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party].

LP: How significant is the shattering of that post-Mao norm? What does that mean for China’s political system and how do Chinese people view the political system?

VS: I hear wishful thinking of some people speculating that if he’s so powerful, he can decide to quit whenever he wants, right? Maybe in 2027, he will announce a retirement date, and he’ll step down, a successor will step in, and everything’s going to be very smooth. Except I don’t think it’s as simple as that. For the past 10 years, he’s been ordering the entire party to listen only to him. For the next five years, we expect the same people that he has placed in the Politburo Standing Committee, in senior ranks and military are all people who owe their careers to him personally. I don’t think anyone would want to be his heir apparent, whether it’s five years from now or 10 years from now, because historically, heirs apparent to senior dictators have not fared well.

Basically, once you claim a dictatorship, you either have two situations: one is that someone actually wants that position to replace Xi Jinping as the next dictator of China, but then of course, if Xi were to find out about it, he would very quickly purge that person. And then the other situation is, even when someone is nominated as an heir apparent, this person will try to avoid being purged by making himself — unfortunately, it most likely will be a man — as powerless as possible. This is the dynamic that I described in my book, in order to not make himself as a target of a purge before the death of the dictator. That also will introduce a lot of political uncertainty down the road because such a weak person after the death of a dictator, whenever that happens, will be a very weak figure still, and that will introduce a period of political uncertainty and turmoil.

The problem with introducing lifetime dictatorship is that in the short run, you’re very sure what’s going to happen — Xi Jinping is going to be in charge in the foreseeable future. But then what comes after that becomes completely unknown to everybody: people within the system, China watchers such as myself — I can’t tell you what’s going to happen — no one knows. Literally, no one knows what happens after Xi. And this is kind of the problem.

LP: Turning back to what we might know, looking at the next week and the events that will unfold during this party congress, it’s highly unlikely that there will be any surprises emerging from the top as you just explained, but there will be important changes to the Politburo Standing Committee. In a recent paper, you laid out two possible scenarios for the new Standing Committee coming out of this congress. It would be great if you could describe what those two scenarios are and what the possible selections could mean for the balance of power at the top — whether there are enough leaders to provide any challenges to Xi Jinping and his policies going forward.

VS: If he chooses to exercise the same degree of authority as he did at the 19th Party Congress [in 2017], then according to the norms within the party, where if you’re 67, you can stay in the Politburo Standing Committee and if you’re 68, you have to retire, then [China’s Premier] Li Keqiang, Wang Yang and Wang Huning can still stay on the Politburo Standing Committee. The two people who would have to retire under this norm, if still in place, would be Han Zheng and Li Zhanshu. I expect, in this more moderate exercise of power scenario, their replacement to be Xi Jinping people. They would be Ding Xuexiang, who currently runs his personal office, and then the other person is Li Qiang, the party secretary of Shanghai.

A lot of people say, “Oh, my God, it’s not possible for Li Qiang” because of the mess that he made in Shanghai. I look at it differently. From the party’s perspective, he didn’t do anything wrong. All the Covid-related policies that Shanghai carried out received permission from the central government. Whatever happened with the partial lockdown and then the lockdown was not his fault. His only shortcoming was more of a logistical one — not enough food was delivered to neighborhoods that had been in lockdown for weeks and weeks. But that of course, he can blame lower-level officials, and indeed some of the lower-level officials have been fired already. So I still think he has a good chance of moving into the Politburo Standing Committee.

The other scenario is if he chooses to exercise his full power and basically force Li Keqiang, Wang Yang even Wang Huning to leave the Politburo Standing Committee, even though by the current norm, they don’t have to — but of course, Xi Jinping can make them do it — if that were the case, I think then more of his followers will get promoted into the Politburo Standing Committee. We still would have Ding Xuexiang and Li Qiang, but then potentially, you would also have Cai Qi, Li Xi and Huang Kunming. Li Xi is a very interesting figure because on the one hand, he is typically identified as being a follower of Xi Jinping. He is currently the Guangdong party secretary, but his career did not overlap with Xi Jinping. He never worked in [the Chinese provinces] Fujian, Zhejiang or Shanghai. They have ties through Xi’s background in northwestern China. But this guy also is a pretty autonomous politician because he has a faction of his own — it’s not shared with Xi Jinping. So I think that would be interesting.


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The final person who could get promoted, even in this kind of Xi Jinping dominance scenario is Hu Chunhua. I think it’s rational for Xi Jinping to promote Hu Chunhua into the Politburo Standing Committee as the next premier or executive vice premier of China because China is facing a lot of economic headwinds and if anything goes seriously wrong, it’s helpful to have someone who’s not in your own faction to blame. Hu Chunhua is the perfect person to play that role for Xi Jinping. Even in this more dominant scenario, Hu Chunhua is going to make it, but it’s going to be a very challenging job for him for the next five years.

LP: To summarize, in both these scenarios, we’re looking at a Politburo Standing Committee where Xi would likely have more power than he has today. Is that correct?

VS: Yes, definitely. But in one scenario, it’s just going to be a moderate increase of his power in the Politburo Standing Committee, whereas in the other scenario, he would just completely dominate.

LP: How does that fit into this thesis in your book — this “coalition of the weak” that Mao pursued? Do you see that as Xi pursuing that strategy to try to protect himself from other more powerful leaders?

VS:Coalitions of the weak” really is about the last 10 years of Mao’s life. I don’t think we’re there yet. I do think Xi’s going to live a very long and healthy life, and for now, within the party, there are still some potential opponents to Xi Jinping. So he’s still playing this factional game, where he’s trying to fill the upper echelon of the party with people who historically had demonstrated loyalty to him. Some of these people, like Li Qiang, will move up into the Politburo Standing Committee. As he ages — he’s currently 69 — I think after he turned 75, he will begin to wonder who among his close lieutenants are aspiring to overthrow him. That will become a concern for aging dictators. I think that’s when the logic of “coalitions of the weak” could kick in. Because Mao has demonstrated there is a very secure way of preventing that scenario from happening, someone trying to overthrow you late in your life, which is: You install a “coalition of the weak” in the upper echelon of the party, where the entire Politburo Standing Committee is filled with these people who just literally cannot challenge your power, because either they’re so inexperienced or there’s clear evidence of very bad wrongdoing in their past.

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I think the coalition of the weak strategy could come into play at the 21st or maybe even the 22nd Party Congress, but I don’t see strong signs of that today. With the exception of Wang Huning, a think-tanker all his life who has a very small faction and one that’s entirely shared with Xi Jinping himself. I think he’s the one weak person, if you will, in the Politburo Standing Committee today.

LP: We’ll have to come back to you at the 21st Party Congress to see if we’re seeing a “coalition of the weak” forming. Another key decision that you just pointed to is who will become the next premier of China, because Li Keqiang will be retiring. You’ve pointed to Hu Chunhua as a potential successor. Could you speak more to who the other candidates might be, and what their candidacy might mean for how policy is shaped or whether there’s an economic counterbalance to Xi Jinping in the next five years?

VS: In any event, whoever serves as premier, they will have to listen to Xi Jinping’s instructions very closely. The person who’s currently most qualified for the job is Wang Yang. He has served as leader of very economically prosperous provinces as well as those that are not so prosperous.

The advantage of selecting him as the next premier of China is not only because of his qualification and experience, but also because he can only serve a five-year term because he is 67. He would have to retire after the first party congress, so he wouldn’t be able to build up any kind of power base in the State Council in the next five years.

The other potential candidate actually is Li Qiang who’s run a major city, Shanghai, previously, also senior positions in Zhejiang. There are precedents for provincial officials to jump directly from State Council as vice premier or premier. Then finally Hu Chunhua, I think that’s the other natural candidate — a lot of local experience as well as State Council experience. In his case he’s younger, so he can serve two terms as the premier of China, which is allowed by the existing rules. He may be able to build up a little bit of a power base in the State Council, he will have to be very obedient to Xi Jinping himself.

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Both people who are very close to Xi and those who are not as close in terms of economic policies can carve out economic policy as a space for themselves. Basically, Xi Jinping is not so interested in the economy, besides the big outcome, like growth, technological superiority — he wants these big outcomes to happen, but how they happen, he leaves it up to the experts to some extent. Although sometimes, the experts will carry out things that displease him, then they have to change. So I think for economic policy, there is some space regardless for these officials to try to carve out.

LP: So one of the important moments in the agenda during the party congress is the release of this work report in which Xi Jinping is likely to signal some of the new policy priorities going forward. In 2012, he signaled that corruption work would be really central, and we saw that anti-corruption campaign take place, which you referenced before. What are you expecting to see coming out of that report in terms of the next five years and any shifts?

VS: Hopefully, they’ll mention something about economic growth. China is really facing a lot of economic headwinds, the property market is not doing well. Covid lockdowns around the country have really put downward pressure on consumption. Something needs to be done.

And then on top of that, you have exports, which have supported growth in China in the past two years, slowing because the economies in the rest of the world are slowing down because of central bank tightening. So it’s going to be quite challenging for China in the foreseeable future. The party really needs a clear vision of what they’re going to do about it. Mike Pettis [professor of finance at Peking University] and myself and other people have advocated for a more demand-side stimulus to try to help growth in China.

The challenge for that also is that there’s just a lot of debt in China already, including for the central government, and especially for local governments. If the local governments have to issue a bunch of debt to pay for demand-side stimulus, it’s going to add to the debt substantially, as well as interest payment pressure. In an environment of rising rates, China cannot cut rates that aggressively. To cut aggressively will just invite capital flight. It’s a tricky thing, and hopefully, there are going to be some good ideas on growth coming out of the Congress.

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Besides that, the other major thing that people are watching for is wording on Taiwan policy, which has always been worded as “China first aims for peaceful reunification, and then, if there are no other options, armed resolution is always a possibility.” If the wording were to change to less emphasis on peaceful unification, that would be somewhat alarming. I think that’s the other thing that people would watch for.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.


  • Lili Pike
    Lili Pike

    China Reporter

    Lili Pike is a China reporter at Grid focused on climate change, technology and U.S.-China relations.