Commentary |
23 April 2021

Reading the Xi leaves: what’s next for the Chinese President

If Xi Jinping had followed the rules, he would be stepping down next year. The longer he stays in office without an anointed successor, the greater the risk of a power struggle. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Richard McGregor
Richard McGregor

Such is Xi Jinping’s political dominance in China – one dissident called his rule a kind of “exquisite totalitarianism” – that any notion he might one day step down barely registers these days.

Xi appears to have an iron grip on the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the military and the security services. State and private business empires have learnt the hard way not to oppose his edicts. His diplomats style themselves as “wolf warriors”, aggressively prosecuting foreign policy.

However, Xi’s drive for power has far-reaching consequences, not just for China, but given the country’s economic and geopolitical weight and reach, the world too.

In early 2018, without public notice, Xi abruptly removed de facto term limits on the most senior position of power, the head of the Communist Party, and thus far has refused to nominate his successor.

In doing so, Xi made himself leader in perpetuity, at the expense of the most important, and successful, political reform in China of the last four decades: the regular and peaceful transfer of power at the top.

If Xi had followed the precedent set by his predecessor, Hu Jintao, he would be preparing to step down as head of the CCP and the military, and as president at the Party Congress - held every five years - in late 2022.

The longer he stays in office without preparing a successor, the greater the risk of a power struggle breaking out at the top of the party to take his place.

Xi has made enemies at home with the ruthless prosecution of his anti-corruption campaign, his crackdown on legal and media reformers, and his disdain for economic liberals.

Nothing, however, angered his critics as much as his upending of the elite consensus governing power-sharing that had evolved over four decades and produced successive peaceful handovers of power.

A former professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, Cai Xia, complained bitterly last May that the constitutional revision allowing Xi to extend himself in office had been sprung on top leaders.

“He forced everyone at the [meeting of the Central Committee] to swallow the revision like he was stuffing dogshit down their throats,” she said in a widely circulated speech. Cai, who coined the term “exquisite totalitarianism”, was stripped of her Communist Party membership after her comments and now lives in exile overseas.

Party rules

China’s rapid suppression of COVID-19, its ongoing economic strength and the engagement of all levels of the system in battling the US has, for now, strengthened Xi’s position.

Xi and the senior leadership in Beijing have been silent on how long he plans to remain in power. But few China analysts doubt that the issue of succession, and Xi’s manipulation of internal party rules, will re-emerge, possibly ahead of next year’s congress.

How, then, might any succession play out, either in the short term, or later, if Xi stays in power for another decade?

Is Xi akin to Stalin after the purges of the 1930s, a leader who has so thoroughly eliminated rivals and cowed the system that he will be in place until he can no longer perform the duties of office, leaving a succession battle in his wake?

Or will the system produce a Newtonian reaction against his all-encompassing power, either pushing him out of office prematurely, or at least forcing him to set a timetable for his departure?

Alternatively, is there a middle path, of an orderly succession in the next five to 10 years?

The orderly and regular transfer of power, while largely taken for granted in modern democracies, remains a source of conflict and instability in authoritarian systems. China is not immune to these realities.

As the effort by Donald Trump to discredit the victory of President Joe Biden demonstrates, even democratic systems with robust legal procedures and long-standing conventions can struggle to manage a peaceful transition.

Xi’s abolition of presidential term limits in early 2018, in the shorthand of news reports, was the overturning of the single constraint put in place by Deng Xiaoping a quarter of a century earlier to prevent a repeat of Mao Zedong’s dictatorial rule.

New norms

In truth, Deng’s two-term limit for the presidency, formalised in 1982, was the beginning of an incremental, imperfect and, as it turned out, fragile process of the institutionalisation of elite politics over decades.

What came to be considered its cornerstone, of regular and orderly leadership transitions, in fact only took place once in a fully fledged manner, when Xi himself took office in 2012 from Hu.

Xi inherited all three top jobs from Hu – as General-Secretary of the Communist Party, chair of the Central Military Commission, and as State President – in late 2012 and early 2013.

Until Xi threw the process out, the new norms governing the handovers were seen as a turning point in Chinese politics.

Han Dayuan, dean of Renmin University’s Law School, a position with vice-ministerial status, argued in 2018 that the term limits provided an “effective constraint on life-long tenure, power concentration and the emergence of a personality cult”.

Given Xi’s extensive purges, whomever he selected as his replacement would have to be steadfastly and publicly loyal. Only with such reassurances would Xi feel that he, and his family and associates, will be safe in retirement.

The question of how to ensure a safe and prosperous political afterlife ranks high on the list of concerns for any autocratic leader. For example, late last year, the Russian Duma began considering a bill to grant immunity for former presidents and their families, a clear sign that Vladimir Putin considers his liberty to be at risk once he retires.

In the case of Mikhail Gorbachev, the exception proves the rule. As a Russian paper quipped on the occasion of the former Soviet leader’s 90th birthday last month: “He’s the first leader in Russia’s thousand-year history who voluntarily stepped down, stayed alive and at liberty.”

In China, all of Mao’s potential successors died or were brutally ousted. Deng’s two handpicked successors were both toppled and removed from public life, with one spending decades under house arrest.

By contrast, the Chinese leaders who relinquished power voluntarily, Jiang Zemin and Hu, have enjoyed a safe retirement and kept their immediate families out of jail.

Indeed, the term limits in China were widely considered to have become entrenched, as they had worked so well in keeping the system stable while the economy grew. The two - political stability and economic growth - seemed to reinforce each other.

Third scenario: a coup

Both Xi and the CCP have remained silent about the first, and most unlikely, succession scenario, of a leadership change at the next Party Congress in late 2022.

Even if Xi does nominate a successor in 2022, so he can retire five years later, it stands to reason that he would continue to exercise enormous power, as did Deng Xiaoping after 1989.

A third possible scenario is a coup, a threat that has been widely spoken of by senior Chinese officials. In an internal speech published in 2016, Xi spoke of “political plot activities” designed to “wreck and split the Party”.

While the precise bargain between Xi and members of the elite is unknown, we can assume that a dramatic economic slowdown or the repeated mishandling of international crises would make Xi’s job more tenuous.

That said, any would-be coup leader faces near insurmountable barriers, beginning with gathering support from key members of the military-security bureaucracy without alerting the incumbent leader and his supporters.

A conventional leadership challenge, which would proceed according to a more formal process, shares some of the same challenges.

Even if we accept the CCP’s claim that Xi has no designs to rule for life, his evisceration of succession norms leaves the country ill prepared for his sudden death or incapacitation.

Xi is 67 years old, has been a smoker, is overweight, has a high-stress job, and, according to state media, “finds joy in exhaustion”.

If Xi passed away in office, or became seriously ill, the transition process, on paper, at least, is straightforward. According to the party’s constitution, the general-secretary is chosen during a full session of the Central Committee, and from the existing members of the Politburo’s inner circle.

The few sentences in the party and state constitutions, however, are almost certainly inadequate to describe what would happen. A power vacuum would be a nightmare for the CCP.

There is another scenario to consider, that of Xi’s health-related incapacitation.

In the case of Stalin, it took nearly five full days for him to finally succumb to the debilitating stroke he had suffered on March 1, 1953. Leonid Brezhnev atrophied for years before passing away, dragging down the capacity of the government along with his health. The same applies to Mao Zedong.

The report that this article is based on, written with Jude Blanchette of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, sets in details these various success scenarios, without expressing a considered preference for any of them.

In the author’s opinion, the least likely scenarios are that Xi retires in 2022, or that he chooses a clear successor next year to take over in 2027. The most likely is that Xi governs for the next decade, perhaps until 2035, by which time a number of his signature programs are due to be completed.

Staying in office also depends on staying in good health, of course. But by 2035, Xi will be 82, about the same age as Joe Biden at the end of his first term in the White House.

This article is adapted from a report After Xi: Future Scenarios for Leadership Succession in Post-Xi Jinping China, by Richard McGregor of the Lowy Institute and Jude Blanchette of the Freeman Chair in China Studies, at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.