20 July 2021
China’s looming succession crisis
What will happen when Xi is gone?
Originally published in Foreign Affairs.
After nearly nine years in office, Chinese President Xi Jinping dominates his country’s political system. He controls the domestic policymaking process, the military, and international diplomacy. His unrivaled power within the Chinese Communist Party makes Xi as untouchable as Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong after the brutal purges each carried out during the Great Terror and the Cultural Revolution, respectively. Without credible political challengers, any decision to retire will be at Xi’s discretion and on his schedule. The 2018 dismantling of presidential term limits allows him to rule indefinitely, if he chooses. If he steps down from his formal leadership posts, Xi will likely retain de facto control of the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army. The longer he remains in charge, the more the political structure will conform to his personality, his objectives, his whims, and his network of clients. Xi, in turn, becomes more important to China’s political stability every day he sits in office.
This accumulation of personal power comes at a cost to China. Xi has not designated a successor, casting doubt on the future of a system that increasingly relies on his leadership. Only a handful of senior party officials are likely to have any idea of Xi’s long-term plans, and so far, they have been silent about how long he intends to remain at the top. Will he retire at the 20th Party Congress in 2022, or will he cling to power in perpetuity? If he dies suddenly in office, as Stalin did in 1953, will there be a split in the party as rivals jostle to take over? Will external observers even be able to pick up on signs of discord?
Asking these questions is not idle speculation. Someday, someway, Xi will exit the political stage. But without any indication of when and how he will leave—or who will replace him when he does—China faces the possibility of a succession crisis. Over the past few years, Xi has eviscerated the CCP’s fragile norms around the sharing and the transfer of power. When the time comes to replace him, as it inevitably must, disorder in Beijing could have destabilizing effects that extend far beyond China’s borders.
THE RETURN OF POLITICAL DRAMA
Peaceful, orderly, and regular transfers of power are largely taken for granted in modern democracies, but fractious transitions are a source of conflict and instability around the world. Even democratic systems with robust legal procedures and long-standing conventions governing succession are not immune to precarious transfers, as seen in the recent effort by former U.S. President Donald Trump to discredit the electoral victory of President Joe Biden. In many countries, insufficient legal and political constraints allow incumbents to hold on to power, often indefinitely. Where legal processes are more robust, leaders intent on remaining in office preemptively sideline or even jail political opponents. Although some autocrats succeed in fending off threats to their power, efforts to rule for life can also trigger succession crises, formal leadership challenges, or even coups.
China is no exception. The scholar Bruce Dickson has described succession as “the central drama of Chinese politics almost since the beginning of the People’s Republic in 1949.” During the Mao era, leadership battles were frequent and fierce, from the “Gao Gang Affair” in the early 1950s, which saw Mao stoke conflict among several would-be successors, to the death of Lin Biao, who was at one point Mao’s chosen heir and died in a mysterious plane crash while trying to flee China in 1971. Another potential successor, Liu Shaoqi, was sidelined by Mao and beaten by Red Guards before dying in captivity in 1969. In late 1976, the members of the “Gang of Four,” a group of high-ranking officials who helped radicalize the Cultural Revolution, were arrested just months after Mao’s death. Mao’s handpicked successor, Hua Guofeng, supported the arrests but was himself sidelined a few years later by Deng Xiaoping, who assumed leadership in late 1978. The instability did not quite end with the Mao era. The two leaders Deng chose to command the CCP in the 1980s, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were both unseated amid intense political turmoil and elite infighting.
The pattern changed over the next few decades, however. By the time of Xi’s accession in late 2012, it seemed that Beijing had settled into a rhythm of sustainable, predictable, and peaceful transfers of power. Prominent China scholars went so far as to claim that “succession itself has become a Party institution.” But Xi has laid waste to those assumptions as he nears the end of his second presidential term. At the National People’s Congress meeting in the spring of 2018, he rammed through a constitutional amendment removing the time limit on his tenure. Just as important, he has not anointed a candidate to replace him, and neither Xi nor the CCP has given any indication that a transition is imminent. Although some party-controlled media have declared that Xi has no intention to rule for life, there has been a conspicuous absence of any official statement about his political future.
THE END OF XI?
Xi may well defy expectations and decide to hand over power at the 20th Party Congress in late 2022. But without a successor in place—someone who has already established credibility and been tested by the party—this outcome is highly unlikely. Instead, several candidates might be advanced via promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China. These individuals would then spend several years moving through increasingly senior roles in order to gain governing experience and build credibility within the system. Yet even if Xi were to designate one or more potential successors in 2022 with an eye toward formally retiring as early as the following Party Congress, it may not mean the end of his informal control. He could continue to exercise enormous power behind the scenes, as both Deng and Jiang Zemin did after their terms as leader ended. This trend in China aligns with a broader historical pattern: it is rare for all-powerful rulers to abdicate, and they often retain influence if they do. For now, Xi’s dominance denies foreign governments the chance to build relationships with potential successors. And if he does not make his preferences clear in 2022, the delay will likely ensure that anyone eligible to become the next leader of China is currently too junior to even be on the radar of external observers.
Although Xi’s consolidation of control is impressive, even the strongest leaders rely on the support of a coalition of actors and interests. That support is conditional and can erode as domestic and international conditions change. No outsiders know the precise nature of the bargain between Xi and members of the political, economic, and military elite. But there is little doubt that a dramatic economic slowdown or the repeated mishandling of foreign policy crises would make Xi’s job of balancing competing interests more difficult and his control more tenuous. Every coalition has a breaking point. This, of course, is why leaders respond to attempted coups so severely; they want to deter would-be challengers. As Gambian President Yahya Jammeh warned after a failed coup attempt in 2014: “Anybody who plans to attack this country, be ready, because you are going to die.”
The overthrow of an incumbent leader—especially one with an iron grip on a Leninist one-party state—is not easy to pull off. An aspiring coup leader faces daunting obstacles, beginning with the need to gather support from key members of the military-security bureaucracy without alerting the incumbent and the security apparatus around them. Given the technological capabilities of the CCP security services, which Xi controls, such an endeavor is fraught with the risk of detection and the possible defection of early plotters who change their minds. It is true that Xi has a host of enemies in the party. It is equally true that the barriers to organizing against him are nearly insurmountable. Absent a systemic crisis, the chance of Xi’s rivals mounting a coup is exceedingly small.
But Xi’s sudden death or incapacitation would cut his rule short, no matter when he intends for it to end. Xi is 68 years old, has a history of smoking, is overweight, holds a high-stress job, and according to state media, “finds joy in exhaustion.” Although there are no overt signs that Xi is experiencing ill health, he is still mortal. And now that he has gutted China’s succession norms, his absence would create a power vacuum and might trigger infighting at the top levels of the CCP. Members of Xi’s coalition could splinter into opposing groups, each backing its own chosen successor. Those who had been punished or marginalized under Xi could try to capitalize on the rare opportunity to reclaim power. Even if Xi did not die but was incapacitated by a stroke, a heart attack, or another serious health condition, China would enter a political limbo. Regime supporters and detractors alike would be forced to scramble to forge new alliances to hedge against both Xi’s recovery and his expiry, with unpredictable consequences for domestic and foreign policy.
There are, of course, other possible scenarios. For one, Xi may choose to retire in 2035, the midpoint between the CCP’s centenary this year and the 2049 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But regardless of how or when he departs from office, the lack of a clear plan raises unavoidable questions about the party’s ability to transfer power in a peaceful and predictable manner. In the decades after Mao’s death in 1976, the country’s political system seemed to be steadily stabilizing, despite occasional turmoil at the top. Today, however, China’s political future is shrouded in uncertainty. The succession issue is not one that Chinese officials discuss in public, but they cannot ignore it, either. It is a problem that will need a solution sooner or later.