Xi’s Second Term: Name in Charter, No Heir in Sight

Wednesday marked the beginning of ’s second term as China’s top leader, and saw the line-ups for the 25-member Politburo and the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee unveiled. Due to Party customs that dictate retirement for any Standing Committee member older than 68 as a Party Congress convenes, none of the seven appear likely to succeed Xi as the CCP’s most powerful leader at the 20th Party Congress in 2022. As some analysts have long suspected to be in Xi’s long game, the lack of a clear successor in the elite Standing Committee leaves a door open for Xi to extend his formal rule over the Party past the traditional two terms. At NPR, Anthony Kuhn reports:

“Xi Jinping has started his second term by announcing a new era in Chinese politics, and evidently part of the new era is to leave open the question of successors,” says University of Virginia political scientist Brantly Womack.

“No one on the new Politburo is young enough to meet the age requirement for successor,” Womack notes. “Does this mean that Xi plans to break precedent and take a third term himself?”

If he does, that would break another informal rule — one that limits China’s leaders to a decade in power.

Such rules were put into place after 1989 to move China away from the era when rulers ruled for life. But Wedeman says these precedents may not have been established long enough — or clearly enough — to constrain officials’ behavior. [Source]

As was widely expected to occur at the , Xi Jinping earlier saw his name and ideological contribution to Chinese socialism officially written into the earlier at the Congress. The 2,300 Party delegates present at the Congress voted unanimously to add the phrase “ for the New Era of Socialism With Chinese Characteristics,” making Xi the only top leader aside from Mao to have his name and ideas enshrined in the Party charter while still in office. The New York Times’ Chris Buckley reports how this development cements the ideological legacy of Xi, whose first term was marked by a steady consolidation of power, a widespread drive to enforce ideological orthodoxy, and a pledge to play a much larger global role in than his predecessors:

The decision solidified Mr. Xi’s position as China’s most powerful leader in decades after only five years of leading the country, making it harder for rivals to challenge him and his policies.

[…] In the near future, Chinese people are likely to refer to Mr. Xi’s doctrines as simply “Xi Jinping Thought,” a flattering echo of “.”

[…]The critical phrase is “new era,” which Mr. Xi has used throughout the congress. He has described Chinese history since 1949 as divided into two eras — the three decades after Mao seized power in a revolution that established a unified People’s Republic and ended nearly a century of civil war and foreign invasions, and the three decades after Deng took power in 1978 and refocused China on developing its economy.

In his report to the congress, Mr. Xi suggested that if Mao made China independent, and Deng made it prosperous, he would make it strong again — propelling the country into its “new era.”

To underline that point, the congress also added a second mention of Mr. Xi’s ideas to the constitution: his call to modernize and strengthen China’s armed forces. [Source]

While Xi’s two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, had their doctrinal offerings added to the charter, only Mao and had their names attached to their contributions. At Quartz, Zheping Huang notes 13 other phrases attributed to Xi that were also added to the charter, including “support Xi Jinping as the core of the Party Central Committee”—a term that last year was applied to Xi; “The Chinese Dream”—an ambiguous term unveiled during Xi’s inaugural address five years ago which hints at restoring China to its rightful global power; and “Belt and Road Initiative,” Xi’s massively ambitious global investment and infrastructure initiative that could do much to achieve the aforementioned “dream.”  

Writing at the Financial Times, Tom Mitchell and Lucy Hornby note that the combination and character of the formal enshrinement of Xi’s ideology in the constitution and the lack of clarity over who his likely successor will be “will make it difficult for any other party leader to challenge Mr Xi during his lifetime, regardless of whether he holds a formal party or state title.

At The Guardian, Tom Philips notes support from establishment figures who argue that Xi’s heavily consolidated cache of power as he enters his second term with will allow for better policy implementation. Others, however, doubt that an empowered Xi will be a good thing for all Chinese citizens:

“[Pro-establishment scholar] Wang [Wan] argued that Xi would enter his second term with “much more authority” and a greater ability to implement his blueprint for China.

Such optimism was echoed in China’s party-run media on Wednesday as cadres lined up to heap praise on their all-powerful leader. “We firmly believe that if people all over the country roll up their sleeves under the guidance of Xi’s Thought … we will move steadily into the future with the irresistible force of a high-speed train,” Chen Meifang, a Shanghai railway official, was quoted as telling the Beijing Daily.

However, such hopefulness is widely disputed.

[Expert in Chinese politics] Jude Blanchette said he expected to see a “super-sized version” of Xi’s first-term policies in his second stint, as China’s leader pursued what he saw as his “program of Chinese greatness”.

That would mean accelerating efforts to build a modern, battle-ready military that could begin to push the United States further and further out of what China saw as its Pacific backyard; an increasingly assertive foreign policy in regions such as the South and East China seas; and continued efforts to promote a hi-tech economic revolution by championing huge companies that were either controlled or heavily aligned with the state.

It would also mean that the Communist party – and the Communist party only – would continue to lay down the law, in all aspects of Chinese society.” [Source]

After recalling Xi’s revolutionary pedigree and credentials gained while toiling in the countryside as a sent-down youth—which allow him to “understand what life is like for those at the bottom of society, in a way that few politicians in the west or even his recent predecessors could,” The Guardian’s former China correspondent Tania Branigan compares Xi to the only other CCP leader to have their name enshrined in the constitution while still alive. While she dismisses the very common comparisons of Xi to Mao as “overblown,” she highlights the fact that Party leaders since the Great Helmsman have sought to avoid the concentration of power that he enjoyed, and explains why Xi appears to have departed from that tradition:

Xi has ripped up this unwritten rulebook. He is in charge, full stop. This week he became the only living leader since Mao to have his ideology enshrined in the party constitution under his name. His ideas are recorded as “Xi Jinping Thought”, on a par with Thought, rather than Deng’s slightly less elevated “Theory”.

[…] Comparisons to Mao are overblown, though there are some parallels in Xi’s approach: his demands for ideological purity, his call for China to play a leading role on the world stage and, above all, his personal appeal to the masses. Unlike Mao, he seeks the tacit support of the people, rather than their active intervention.

Xi has none of Mao’s love of disruption, only his insistence on dominance. He believes wielding his authority and that of the party more strictly can solve the multiplying problems that previous administrations failed to get to grips with, from rampant corruption to environmental damage. In Xi’s vision, greater control will end stagnation and abuse – the alternative is stasis or, worse, an end to party rule.

The leaders before Xi drew a simple lesson from the Cultural Revolution and from preceding disasters like the Great Leap Forward: strongmen breed instability and must be prevented at all costs. Xi appears to have reached a radically different conclusion: at least in this “new era”, stabilising China requires the concentration of power. It just needs to be concentrated in the right, incorruptible hands – his. [Source]

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and current Chancellor of Oxford, argues that while many in the Party see hope for reform in a greatly politically empowered Xi and his possible rule beyond the traditional two terms, his massive consolidation of power comes with great risk for China. From Project Syndicate:

[In “The Old Regime and the Revolution, a book that was reported to be in vogue among Party officials just after the 18th Party Congress] Toqueville argued that growing prosperity in eighteenth-century France had actually made it more difficult to govern the country. As people became wealthier, they also became more aware of social and economic inequalities and thus increasingly resentful of the rich and powerful. Attempts to reform the system only highlighted its vulnerabilities. Revolution followed, sweeping away the monarchy and aristocracy. Their heads literally rolled.

The CCP’s just-completed 19th National Congress showed the extent to which China’s leaders have taken Toqueville’s insights to heart. Xi asserted his undisputed authority over his party and country. Xi consolidated his position during his first term, by reversing much of Deng Xiaoping’s legacy, including the opening of China’s economy, the separation of the CCP from government, and a low-key approach to foreign and security policy.

But it is not just the Party that Xi is empowering; he is also empowering himself. In fact, it is hard to know who is ascending the CCP’s commanding heights and who will be struck down for disagreeing with the paramount leader. This hasn’t deterred outsiders from speculating, but there is not much point in playing that guessing game. Xi, like any other emperor, will continue to appoint courtiers who follow him wherever he leads.

But with great power comes great responsibility – and, at this point, Xi’s power is virtually absolute. That is a heavy burden for one man. Xi may be much smarter than Trump (not a high hurdle to clear), but that is not enough to guarantee a stable and prosperous future for China. And, if things go wrong, everyone will know whom to blame. There is a reason why dictatorial dynasties tend to end up the same way. You don’t have to read Toqueville to know that. [Source]

One possible wrinkle in the display of Xi’s ascendancy was the apparent retirement of his de facto deputy, disciplinary chief . Wang’s continued presence on the Standing Committee in defiance of the conventional age limit had been widely anticipated as a step towards Xi’s own departure from established norms in 2022. Some have speculated that this was derailed by accusations from exiled billionaire Guo Wengui, but Nikkei Asian Review’s Oki Nagai reports that Wang may have been sacrificed for the sake of Party stability:

Wang has won a reputation for deft crisis management throughout his career, seeing China through the 2008 financial crash and the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic that swept the country starting in late 2002. Xi sought to retain this indispensable expertise during his second term as party chief, despite the party’s custom of having those over 68 retire.

But opposition from other members proved too strong to overcome. Wang was not among those chosen to sit on the party’s Central Committee at the party congress, and so has lost his spot on the powerful Standing Committee as well. A source at the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the graft-busting entity Wang headed, praised his track record but opposed keeping him on board, unhappy with his autocratic approach. Many others feel the same: Wang’s crackdown on displays of wealth and luxury spending among party officials has made him an object of strong resentment.

“If Xi had made it a top priority, he probably would have been able to ignore the retirement rule” and keep Wang among the top leadership, a party source said. But the president’s true No. 1 goal is party stability, and burning up political capital on Wang could have hurt Xi’s ability to influence other appointments and protect his standing over the next five years. [Source]