For pirate captain Xi Jinping, party congress will be a coronation
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For pirate captain Xi Jinping, party congress will be a coronation

What does ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ have to do with the CCP? Under President Xi, the party’s rules have turned out to be guidelines which he can follow, or dispense with, as the case may be. Originally published in the Financial Review.


There are no polls to provide guidance, nor leaders’ debates or street-level campaigns to help outsiders fathom what might happen at China’s top-level communist party congress in October.

In place of the myriad of data points that democracies deliver ahead of elections, the conclave in Beijing which will set the country’s leadership for the next five years takes place in a virtual black box.

Democracies dispense information. Communist states hoard it, so it is wise to be humble about predicting what might unfold in Beijing in six weeks time.

With all appropriate caveats, then, the one thing that appears to be certain is that Xi Jinping will be selected for a third five-year term, as head of the party, of state and the military.

With no other candidate permitted to stand for these positions and Xi being lathered with a tidal wave of praise in official press ahead of the event, his continuing reign as the “chairman of everything” seems assured.

Otherwise, however, the make-up of Xi’s third administration is less clear. Will Xi appoint a successor who can take over in five years time, at the next scheduled party congress in 2027? Who will make up the next Politburo and its elite core, the Standing Committee?

Within the Politburo elite, at least three of the seven-member body and possibly four should retire.

On top of that, just about the entire top-level economic and foreign policy team that has worked with Xi for the last decade is likely to be turned over, first at the October congress and then with the appointment of the new government next March.

Neutering the factions

To get a sense of how such changes might unfold, there are competing schools of thought in Chinese politics.

One school, which focused on positions being divided up according to factional balances, much like political machines do around the world, has largely been railroaded in the Xi era,

Jiang Zemin, for example, was considered the titular head of the “Shanghai Gang”, and Hu Jintao, his successor as party secretary, was part of the China Youth League faction.

Xi has successfully neutered the old factions using a variety of tools, including his relentless anti-corruption campaign, which attacked both corruption and recalcitrant political rivals.

These days, the factions that draw attention are the ones that cluster around Xi, made up of loyalists who worked alongside him, mainly in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces.

Without a successor-in-waiting and no term limits at all, Xi was effectively consecrating himself as leader for life.

So, in place of factional intrigue, what prism should one see the party congress through?

For a solid guide, many look at the thicket of informal rules that have been built up since the early 1980s dictating retirement ages for ministers and members of the central committee and the Politburo.

The most important of these is the so-called “seven up, eight out” rule governing appointments to the Politburo. In other words, anyone 67 years or younger can get another five-year term. Anyone older, from 68 onwards, must retire.

The trouble with this analysis is that Xi has demonstrated that he will discard the rules when it suits him.

Guidelines, not rules

When Xi came to power in late 2012, Chinese and foreign scholars largely believed that his position was subject to a two-term limit, just as had applied to his predecessors.

There is no limit on the job of party secretary (the head of the communist party) but the presidency was restricted to two five-year terms. That limit had then been applied informally to the party secretary’s job as well.

Xi threw that out that rule in early 2018. Without a successor-in-waiting and no term limits at all, Xi was effectively consecrating himself as leader for life, or for at least a long as he could stave off all his rivals and critics.

But if the rules don’t apply to Xi, do they still apply to the senior leaders in the Politburo below him?

For an answer to that question, we can look, to all places, to the popular movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the character played by Australian actor, Geoffrey Rush, the devious Captain Hector Barbossa.

Confronted to adhere to the rules of the “Pirate’s Code” to allow Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) to leave the ship, Barossa replies in his raspy seafarer’s voice: “The code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules.

Under Xi, the party’s rules have turned out to be much the same – guidelines which he can follow, or dispense with, as the case may be.

China is struggling in the lead-up to the party congress. The economy, the lifeblood of public support for the ruling party, is battling to maintain growth under pressure from COVID-19 lockdowns and a sagging property sector.

The US, Europe and Japan, with allies such as Australia, is pushing back against China, with a unity and strength that hasn’t been displayed for decades.

Which is another way of saying that Xi doesn’t have everything his own way, either at home, nor abroad.

But it is a tribute to his political skill and ability to spin crises to his own advantage that none of this seems to have hurt his chances of winning a third term.

Or at least thus far, not in ways that we can see.


Areas of expertise: China’s political system and the workings and structure of the communist party; China’s foreign relations, with an emphasis on ties with Japan, the two Koreas, and Southeast Asia; Australia’s relations with Asia.