A Looming Power Struggle for China?

If President Xi Jinping hopes to extend his leadership beyond two terms, he must prevent the Communist Party from selecting a successor in the coming months.

October 28, 2016

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

President Xi Jinping was designated a “core” leader of the Communist Party at a high-level plenum this week in Beijing. It could give the Chinese head of state added momentum if he seeks to extend his reign beyond a second term at the nineteenth party congress late next year, says Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese politics. The next major step down this road for Xi, explains Pei, would be for him to prevent party leaders from picking his successor. However, he says “the party as an institution does not like uncertainty, and such a move would break all the rules about succession since [the Tiananmen crackdown].”

The Great Hall of the People is seen behinds red flags in Tiananmen square in Beijing, November 12, 2013.
The Great Hall of the People is seen behinds red flags in Tiananmen square in Beijing, November 12, 2013. (Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters)

Does the plenum signal a continuation of Xi’s anticorruption campaign?

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We do not know, but it will be important to look at the two key documents approved at the sixth plenum. We have seen only a summary so far, and it does not spell out any new rules regarding party discipline. We will see the full documents in a few days, and if they don’t contain specific requirements that are credible, enforceable, and transparent, then I think they will not be taken seriously.

What effect has the anticorruption campaign had on governance in China?

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On the surface, the anticorruption campaign appears to have suppressed wrongdoing by officials, based on popular impression, press reports, and observations. Officials are much more afraid of engaging in corrupt activities. That’s good news, but it also comes at a high cost for Xi Jinping.

First, he has alienated the bureaucracy, for which corruption is a way of life. Chinese officials are paid little. Even though they enjoy a lot of perks, they don’t have a lot of cash income, and without corruption income, they feel that they are being shortchanged by the system. They also feel that this new leadership does not take into account their interests.

Second, officials have displayed their unhappiness with the current system by not doing any work, so there are widespread work stoppages across the bureaucracy. That’s one of the reasons that economic growth has slowed. These officials no longer have incentives to work hard. It’s as if the new leadership took away their stock options, so it cuts both ways: the campaign has reduced corruption, but it has also created deep fissures inside the system.

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The party elevated Xi to “core” leader status. Is this significant?

It’s significant in the sense that his predecessor, Hu Jintao, never received such a formal designation. It indicates that Xi is more powerful and more successful in establishing his authority than his predecessor. But all Chinese leaders except Hu have received this title.

Is speculation that Xi may try to extend his leadership beyond his two-term limit, which ends in 2022, credible?

So far we have nothing but speculation. If Xi wants to accomplish this goal, he doesn’t have to do it all at once. As a first step, all he needs to do is prevent the party from picking two successors. The party typically picks a future premier and a future party general secretary so there’s no ambiguity [about succession]. [The politburo standing committee’s membership will change next year because of mandatory retirement ages.] We will see if the party can choose two eligible leaders to fill the open seats. But if Xi prevents it then he will preserve flexibility, meaning that come 2022, when his tenure is up, he can do one of the two things: stay on or pick a successor that he likes and trusts. So for Xi, the vital step is to block the party from nominating his successor.

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“It will be difficult for [Xi] to persuade his colleagues of more than eighty-six million party members that they cannot pick two people to be his successors.”

Do we know who he might favor as his successor?

Not right now, but the pool is small. Usually you look at existing politburo members. There are two people who currently meet the age requirements—the Chongqing party secretary and the Guangdong party secretary. The problem is that they are not part of Xi Jinping’s political faction; they were picked by his predecessors. It’s unlikely that they will be elevated to the politburo standing committee and designated as Xi’s successor; you can rule that out.

Outside the politburo, the party typically chooses from party secretaries of large provinces, but there’s not a single person who is younger than fifty-five. In other words, there aren’t any plausible successors other than the two who were designated by the Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin faction. These are the last people Xi would like to see as his successor.

Does the sixth plenum set the tone for next year’s party congress?

The real document to watch for coming out of the plenum is the new code of conduct for the party. We are going to see whether this document strengthens the authority of the central committee, the authority of the general secretary, and in what ways it changes the previous code. We need to see whether the new document undermines collective leadership for the sake of strengthening the “core” leader. We are still in suspense right now.

The good news for Xi Jinping is that he’s got the “core” leader designation, which means he has momentum going into the nineteenth party congress, which will likely be held mid-November next year at the latest. But the real battle is yet to be fought, and it will be difficult for him to persuade his colleagues of more than eighty-six million party members that they cannot pick two people to be his successors. The party as an institution does not like uncertainty, and such a move would break all the rules about succession since Tiananmen.

Xi was designated a “core” leader, but at the same time the summary of the plenum stressed collective leadership. Is that a contradiction, or an indication of internal opposition?

The party always says one thing and does another, so we don’t know whether the reference to collective leadership is a fig leaf or indicates reservations about Xi Jinping’s strongman style of leadership.

The system is opaque. Of course, if there’s no reference to collective leadership then it could be an indication of Xi’s absolute dominance, but what if there is a reference to collective leadership, but in practice there’s really a one-man show? The Chinese system is not yet at the stage of one-man show, but collective leadership is clearly on its last legs.

We’ll know more by the party congress. If the party does not pick two successors and if Xi cuts the number of politburo standing committee members from seven to five, with at least three in his political faction, then we can safely say the era of collective leadership is over.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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