The 20th Party Congress: Xi’s Path to Preserve “Absolute” Power

By – Neeraj Singh MANHAS;

Introduction

Chinese leaders have accelerated their preparations for the upcoming 20th Party Congress scheduled to take place this fall. The event, which occurs every five years, is significant for China observers across the world, as it will include the promotion and retirement of China’s elite political leaders over the next five years. The quinquennial congress will also decide the positions of the cadres, socio-economic policies, and China’s political trajectory for the short-term future. 

President Xi Jinping’s decision to not choose his successor during the 19th Party Congress in 2017, combined with recent changes to the constitution, stimulated speculation that Xi intends to revise unwritten party rules on succession and retirement age. Xi has clearly signalled his intention to remain in office after his normal two terms end in 2022. The Central Committee’s 6th plenum in November adopted a landmark resolution in the Party’s history, which put Xi’s leadership on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the two supreme leaders in China’s history. The resolution has also paved the door for a major personnel shift within the highest decision-making body, with Xi setting the path for a third term that will cement his legacy and allow him to rule for decades.

Why is the upcoming 20th Party Congress significant?

The 20th Party Congress could bear two distinct outcomes for the institutional transition of supreme authority in Chinese polity. Either Xi stays for a third term, which would be unparalleled in recent history, or he is dismissed by an unexpected coup or political pressure by other leadership factions within China’s Communist Party (CCP), thereby dissolving his political supremacy before October. The emergence of either outcome will have huge implications for the international community as well as for China’s national politics. Further, it will have a significant bearing on the Party’s institutional trajectory in the coming years, as the power struggle intensifies among cadres vying to secure their own political career advancements. Thus, the 20th Party Congress is expected to go down as a consequential event in the Party’s history. 

While the center of attention of this year’s Congress will be whether Xi secures a third term as General Secretary of the CCP, a significant focus will also be around who will constitute the most important administrative entity of China—the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee (PSC)—for the next five to ten years and possibly even longer. The upcoming Congress will disclose the successor of current Chinese Premier Li Keqiang—the country’s second-highest authority—and also the personnel changes in the CCP’s other central bodies. Excluding Xi, informal retirement norms indicate that two of the current seven PSC members, Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng, are expected to step down due to age. However, according to Cheng Li, a Chinese-American scholar, it might only be Li Zhanshu. While Premier Li is constitutionally barred from serving a third term, he is eligible for another term on the PSC, which would be at a lower rank than his current position. But the Premier has already announced his retirement is set for later this year after completion of his two five-year terms. The officials replacing these personnel will enter China’s most senior leadership councils and have a direct impact on China’s domestic and foreign policies.

Politico-Economic Background of the 20th Party Congress

By removing the term limit, Xi has indeed called in for a potential destabilizing succession crisis. 

In this regard, it is important to highlight the two primary sources of tensions that could overshadow Xi’s moment of political magnificence in the upcoming Party Congress. First, considering the recent deployments of assertive postures on both domestic and foreign policy fronts, the CCP leader needs domestic stability in the coming months to ensure the smooth conduct of the vital party conclave. Second, on the foreign policy front, the Congress will take place against a backdrop of geo-economic and geopolitical flux as China tries to shape its image as a major global power. The Party’s leadership is going through the worst phase of Sino-U.S. strategic competition and the trade talks with the U.S. are yet to be re-opened. Relevant to the current great power rivalry, Beijing has made clear its position is non-negotiable in terms of stability in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and with regard to Taiwan reunification. 

2021 has been a rough year for the regime’s global image as it came under severe international pressure due to its obfuscation of information on COVID-19 data, aggressive posturing on the Galwan Valley along the Sino-Indian border and the South China Sea territorial claims, as well as continued human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and Tibet. Furthermore, the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out just three weeks after Xi and President Vladimir Putin signed a joint declaration of their “no limits” friendship. The CCP’s leadership is now struggling to strike a balance between its desire to preserve its relationship with a crucial ally and that of spurring a greater risk of jeopardizing its relations with the West, which could multiply the country’s economic difficulties. Domestically, the rapid spread of the Omicron variant has posed an unprecedented challenge to China’s much-hyped “zero-covid” policy and to an already feeble national economy. Also, growing speculations about Xi’s gambit for extension may have caused factions within the system and angered some due to the leader’s decision to censor the press, suppress giant private companies, clamp down billionaires, and, most importantly, expel a few party elites in the name of corruption. China watchers perceive these enforcements as Xi’s bid to purge any form of domestic dissent that may weaken his political grip. 

Looking Forward to Xi’s Third Term

Despite the growing speculation about the possibility of strife within the decision-making body and that of recent Shanghai’s lockdown protests over Zero-Covid policies, Xi’s unanimous election as a delegate to 20th CPC National Congress eminently flags about a rare third term. At the expense of the most important political reform of the last four decades, the regular and peaceful transfer of power, Xi has succeeded in consolidating an unparallel amount of authority over the armed forces, security services, and within the constituency by maximizing his power on “politics of execution”. Xi has established complete control over Chinese elite politics by shelving the internal party-democracy that Deng had established and integrating the state with the Party. Xi is not unaware of the subsequent risks within a top-down dictatorial system. The principal reason behind his tireless efforts to win over unrivalled public support is, in part by maintaining a diversionary foreign policy approach to build national solidarity at home by projecting China’s power abroad. Xi, in effect, has become the unassailable authority in the country by increasing the public cost of any move against him by elites. Thus, to challenge Xi is to challenge the CPP, and the Chinese know the consequences of challenging the Party. 

Besides consolidation of his own personal power, Xi’s recent push for common prosperity and nationalistic appeal of his populist policy moves, such as the great rejuvenation of Chinese people through the achievement of the “China Dream” is also resonating well with the vulnerable sections and overall Chinese population. Formally aimed at fixing the long-standing corruption issues within the party, the anti-corruption campaign will be the prime factor for Xi in preserving his reign until 2032 and beyond. The campaign has simultaneously helped Xi to win popular support from the Chinese people as well as eliminate peer competitors. 

Xi’s rise to power in 2012 was on the back of his pledge to bring to the Chinese their great rejuvenation under the helmsmanship of Socialism with Chinese characteristics. Almost ten years later, China has achieved an economic success on its way to topple the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, possess the world’s largest navy, and have billions of dollars in investments in international infrastructure projects across the World. Domestically, the CCP under Xi has achieved its first centenary goal of establishing China as a moderately prosperous society. Chinese authorities have gained sufficient public faith in the regime’s rule resulting from their recent successes in public health, poverty elimination, green development, technological advancement, military modernization, and handling of the pandemic crisis even better than the World’s most developed democracies. But domestically, Xi has also tightened controls on free speech, imprisoned minorities, and implemented rigid surveillance policies to shape citizen behavior and opinions in accordance to the party’s interests. With Xi’s gang maintaining a hardline approach toward the Xinjiang issue, reunification of Taiwan, and a crackdown on big technology and real estate developers, Xi’s path to “lifetime presidentship” is certainly going to be challenging and complex. However, with China’s looming economic crisis, the political campaign on “common prosperity,” structural reforms in China’s economic and social ailments, and societal suppression under the brand of “Chinese Nationalism” are likely going to save Xi’s political career at least for the next two terms. 

Conclusion

In all likelihood, Xi will continue to stay in office beyond the anticipated decade. The international community, particularly its neighbours, must remain prepared to face an even more outward-looking, proactive, and assertive China in the global platform. Whereas the Chinese must prepare themselves for the long march ahead towards their national rejuvenation under the Party’s guidance. Stronger as Xi goes into his third term in office, ensuring domestic economic growth while preserving social stability will remain the central focus of Xi’s “New Era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. Hence, the 20th Congress will end with the restoration of the Party’s chairmanship to Xi followed by the continuation of his overall vision and policies on nationalism and political transparency of government officials. Nonetheless, the Chinese elite politics might witness some institutional restructuring to an extent of the rise of new younger powers under the patronage of Xi as he presides over the Politburo Standing Committee. 

In the rarest of possible scenarios, if Xi is replaced by a new successor, it would be premature to conclude that the latter can efficiently shape China into a global power through the path of externalized nationalism or will enjoy the same degree of consolidated personal power within the party as that of his predecessors—Mao, Deng, and Xi. However, considering China’s economic downturn, left-leaning economic reforms under Xi to steer China away from capitalism, and its alliance with Russia, any alteration in the leadership structure is certainly going to be confronted with the strenuous challenge of stabilizing China’s economy and reintegrating it into the global economy.

Neeraj Singh MANHAS is a Director, Indo-Pacific, at Raisina House, New Delhi. He has authored three books under his name and has various research interests covering India-China in the Indian Ocean, India’s maritime securities, and Indo-Pacific studies. His writings have appeared in The Guardian, The Diplomatist, Chanakya Forum, World Geo-Strategic Insights, and The Rise, among other online platforms. He has participated in various National and International seminars and conferences, and published over 150 papers. 

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