The future of China under the leadership of Xi Jinping is set to scale new heights at the 20th Communist Party National Congress in October 2022. It is arguably the most important political event of the year in China. More than 2200 delegates, including provincial Party bosses, military officials and other political elites will come to Beijing and elect members to the Central Committee and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). The Party Congress will ultimately reveal a new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), composed of China’s top leaders in charge of the economy, military and Party. Most importantly, Xi Jinping appears poised to begin a third term as General Secretary of the Party. By securing a third term, Xi would break with the precedent set by his predecessors who gave up the title after two terms.
The 20th Party Congress is likely to fortify the consolidation of Xi Jinping’s political authority which began in 2012 at the 18th Party Congress. By scrapping the 10-year term limit for the office of president in 2018 and passing the Party’s third historical resolution at the 6th plenary session of the Central Committee in November 2021, Xi has signalled his intentions to stay on as China’s leader for the foreseeable future. Xi also cemented his legacy beside Mao’s by introducing his theoretical contribution – Xi Jinping Thought – into the Chinese constitution at the 19th Party Congress. His political ambition to engineer the rejuvenation of China hinges on the outcomes of and reactions to the 20th Party Congress, which are sure to have an enduring impact on political elites. Nonetheless, Xi’s decision to stay on as China’s paramount leader could spark discontent among Party officials and bring changes to the balance of power between factions in the Party. Concurrently, Xi Jinping’s third term will also raise uncertainty around institutional norms of succession, term limits and age limits.
Xi’s Strategy and Outcomes of the Party Congress
Under Xi Jinping’s direction, the Party Congress is likely to reorder the landscape of elite politics in China through appointments, promotions and retirements. Xi is aware that the period leading up to the Party Congress in October will shape expectations and perceptions surrounding the outcomes of the event. He will look to ensure the smooth and uneventful conclusion of the Beijing Winter Olympics, the National People’s Congress in April and May and diplomatic engagements with the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and United Nations (UN) in August and September respectively. Ensuring these events are a success will be crucial for Xi Jinping to build political momentum going into the Party Congress. The desire for stability is also reflected in Xi’s emphasis on unity within the Party and the country. His warning in November against domestic threats to the CCPs legitimacy and reiteration of the two upholds indicates a desire to protect his legitimacy and authority.
Xi promised no mercy in the fight against corruption, which has served the purpose of eliminating rivals and resistance to his leadership of the Party. Additionally, the anti-corruption campaign continues to enhance his popular appeal by tackling the corruption of Party elites. Interestingly, the campaign lost momentum in Xi’s second term, reflecting the emphasis on stability and leadership unity among factions in the Party. According to Cheng Li, in Xi Jinping’s second term only two members of the 376-member Central Committee were targeted by the CCDI, compared to 42 members in his first term.
Xi Jinping is likely to make several changes to the composition of China’s top leadership. For instance, he will promote a new generation of leaders born in the 1960s. With at least 11 members of the 25-member Politburo and two members of the PBSC due to retire in 2022, China’s top leadership will see a new generation of leaders enter the Politburo and even the PBSC. Xi may also appoint leaders born in the 1950s who have reached the retirement age in an effort to maintain the balance of power between factions or emphasize the continuity of leadership.
Alternatives and Rivals
Xi Jinping emerged as China’s most important leader in 2012 and did not appoint a successor at the 19th Party Congress in 2017. The absence of a successor on the horizon puts him on the cusp of becoming China’s paramount leader without term limits. Two potential successors to Xi, Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua, were eliminated from consideration for the job in 2017 when Sun was charged with corruption and Hu failed to win promotion to the PBSC. It is possible for Xi to appoint a successor in October 2022 although it is unlikely since Xi initiated the two safeguards campaign in 2019 to protect the unrivalled leadership of the Central Committee and his place at its core. However, at the Beidaihe informal summit before the Party Congress, factions and top leaders will network and lobby for positions in China’s top political bodies. Wang Qishan, China’s Vice-President and the former CCDI director, is one important actor whose experience and network in the Party could prove significant.
Xi Jinping’s strategy to manage potential rivals and resistance to his rule involves side-lining any threats to his leadership through the anti-corruption campaign, appointments to ceremonial roles and selective application of age limit rules. The most recent target of the anti-corruption campaign was Dong Hang, a former CCDI inspector and close aide to Wang Qishan. Xi also ensures that local leaders do not form power bases and networks in their provinces by reshuffling provincial Party secretaries and governors. By November 13, 2021, provincial committees completed their leadership transitions. These transitions have produced newly elected officials who are no longer distinguishable by faction.
And finally, age-limits that govern the reappointment of officials are selectively observed for certain candidates at the highest levels while they are enforced on others at the provincial level. For instance, the Party Secretary of Yunnan, Ruan Chengfa, retired after turning 65 in November 2020. Several other provincial party secretaries also retired in 2020 after turning 65 that year. Although provincial party secretaries like Ying Yong, Peng Qinghua and Chen Run’er continue to maintain their positions in spite of being nearly the same age as Ruan Chengfa, retirements and promotions at the Central Committee and provincial levels are largely consistent with age-limit rules. For example, between August and December 2021, none of the 79 personnel changes to the Central Committee deviated from the age-limit rules. Age limit rules are observed consistently at the provincial levels to ensure the promotion of a handful of officials based on their loyalty and proximity to Xi Jinping. On the other hand, retirement rules are ambiguous at the Politburo level and beyond, allowing them to be selectively applied to retire or side-line officials based on their factional loyalties.
The Post-Pandemic Future
In November 2021, Party members were instructed to prepare for the election of delegates to the Party Congress. The Party’s Organization department announced a meeting to make arrangements for the election that will run until June 2022. But the Party and Xi have more than just the Party Congress to think about. This year they face challenges on several fronts that threaten to undermine China’s rise. Xi will have to confront challenges facing China’s slowing economy, growing hostility in its external environment and instability within the Party. The Beijing Winter Games are currently underway and China faces pressure from the US and its allies on human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. China must also contend with outbreaks of COVID-19 in the face of a zero-covid policy that will test the resilience of Xi’s efforts. Moreover, China’s economy is slowing as it grapples with turmoil in the real estate sector and sluggish manufacturing and services activity. Beijing will also have to manage US-China strategic competition and sustain its diplomatic engagements like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) without overextending itself. These challenges converge to create a highly charged and tense political environment for Xi Jinping.
As Xi seeks a third term in power as General Secretary, he has decided to enhance the legitimacy of the Party and his rule. The common prosperity agenda outlined by him was designed to address the inequality of wealth through the use of taxation and income redistribution schemes. The Party has also initiated a variety of social policies in the interest of common prosperity: from banning for-profit tutoring to placing restrictions on the “996” work culture at tech companies. From a political standpoint, Xi is likely to continue consolidation of power while carefully managing the Party reaction to his third term as General Secretary. By pursuing a third term, avoiding to appoint a successor and purging his rivals, Xi Jinping has sparked fears of the cult of personality, much like the one that dominated Chinese politics in the 1950s and 1960s under Mao Zedong.
Rahul Karan Reddy is an international relations analyst pursuing a Masters degree from O.P Jindal Global University in Diplomacy, Law and Business. He is the author of ‘Islands on the Rocks’, a monograph detailing the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. His research focus is China and East Asia. He was a research analyst at the Chennai Center for China Studies (C3S) and an intern at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), writing articles and reports on China’s foreign policy and domestic politics. His blog, Asian Drama, follows the rise of India and China as they navigate the Asian Century.