Is China’s increasingly powerful president angling to break tradition and extend his rule indefinitely?
- By Willy Lam Willy Lam is an adjunct professor in the history department and the Center for China Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Foreign and Chinese observers surprised at Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s maneuvers to shake up the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — and at the same time arrogate powers of the party, state, and military to himself — may be in for another shock. Just two and a half years into his reign, Xi appears to be angling to break the 10-year-tenure rule for the country’s supreme leader, with the aim of serving longer than any Chinese ruler in decades.
According to three sources close to top CCP officials, Xi and several top aides are making plans to ensure that the strongman will rule until at least 2027, when he will still be a relatively sprightly 74 years old.
“Xi’s total dominance of the party-state-military apparatus — and the fact that he has so far not groomed any successor — indicates that he will remain China’s supreme ruler irrespective of whether he gives up his post of CCP general secretary in 2022,” said one of the sources, all three of whom asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of discussing elite politics. While much could happen to derail Xi’s plans — including pushback from rivals, an international or domestic crisis, or health issues, among other things — Xi appears to be planning to stay in office for as long as he can.
Xi’s desire to rule for longer than a decade is best evidenced by his refusal to publicly groom potential successors. In China, leaders are often classified by their generation. Xi, a member of the fifth generation of leadership — a reference to cadres born in the 1950s — has failed to groom potential successors from the sixth or seventh generation.
Consider, by contrast, the actions of his predecessor Hu Jintao, CCP general secretary from 2002 to 2012, who was born in 1942 and was the core leader of the fourth generation. Not long after ascending to the elite Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) in 1992, Hu started preparing to elevate fifth-generation cadres, including Xi Jinping (then Zhejiang province party secretary) and Li Keqiang (then Liaoning province party secretary and now China’s premier) to the 25-member ruling body, the Politburo. He also elevated slightly lower-ranking officials: By the mid 1990s, roughly 20 fifth-generation rising stars had achieved the rank of vice minister or above.
Equally significantly, in the years leading up to 2007’s 17th Party Congress, a major meeting that happens twice a decade, Hu picked roughly 30 sixth-generation rising stars and prepared them for major promotions.
By 2005, Hu and Jiang appear to have decided to install Xi and Li into the PBSC, as successors to Hu and then-premier Wen Jiabao. And by the end of 2005, a few dozen sixth-generation cadres had attained the rank of vice minister or higher.
If Xi were following the CCP’s tradition of injecting new blood into the ruling elite, he should by late 2015 promote a few dozen seventh-generation officials to ministers and vice ministers. However, only one seventh-generation cadre — Shanghai Vice Mayor Shi Guanghui (born 1970) — has attained the rank of vice minister since Xi came to office in November 2012. It seems very unlikely that he’ll elevate many more this year.
Xi seems poised to break another unwritten rule. Ever since the late 1980s, the top level of the party has unofficially followed the policy of qishang baxia, or “seven in, eight out”: A cadre 67 years of age or younger can still ascend to the PBSC, while one who is 68 or older cannot. At the major party congresses, held every five years, PBSC members 68 and over are expected to retire, while those under 68 can stay on. Of the current seven members of the PBSC, all but Xi and Li will be 68 or older by 2017 — and therefore should retire. But who will replace the ranks?
The three anonymous party sources indicate that at least three fifth-generation candidates who are confidants of Xi — Li Zhanshu (born 1950), Wang Huning (born 1955), and Zhao Leji (born 1957) — will likely ascend to the PBSC in 2017. More significantly, current PBSC member Wang Qishan (born 1948), the nation’s top graft-buster, would likely get a second term. This is even though Wang, a fellow princeling who has known Xi since the 1950s, will be 69 years old at the 19th Party Congress in 2017. That fifth-generation leaders will likely remain the bulwark of the party leadership until the 20th Party Congress in 2022 is another indication, the sources say, that Xi will try to stay on at least until the 21st Party Congress in 2027.
Given the expectation that a supreme leader should only remain in power for 10 years, how will Xi sidestep this entrenched tradition?
The Chinese constitution bars government ministers, including the prime minister, from serving more than 10 years. However, the CCP Charter — the Communist Party’s constitution — carries no stipulation about the length of service of cadres with ranks equivalent to minister or above. Instead, there’s an unofficial rule instituted by Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader for most of the 1980s and 1990s, that members of the PBSC don’t serve more than 10 years.
But it’s possible that Xi could step down as president and still remain the country’s top official. In China, while the CCP and the government often appear to exist in parallel, the CCP in fact outranks and controls the government. For example, the top official in Hubei province is the province’s party secretary; the provincial governor ranks second. The same is true at the national level. Of Xi’s three titles – president, general secretary of the CCP, and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which oversees China’s military — the CCP position is by far the most important.
Besides holding onto the position of CCP general secretary, Xi has other options. One scenario is that Xi will revive the position of party chairman — which Deng abolished in 1982 in an apparent effort to weaken Mao’s legacy — and take the post himself. This would mean that the future general secretary would have to report to Xi, the party chairman.
Alternately, Xi could retire from the two top jobs of party general secretary and president but remain chairman of the CMC. There’s some precedent for this: Deng ruled China in the 1980s from his position as chairman of the CMC, and Jiang remained incredibly influential by holding onto that post for two years after he stepped down as president.
Moreover, in late 2013, just one year after gaining power, Xi created two super organs at the top of the party — the Central National Security Commission (CNSC) and the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (CLGCDR) — which control the quasi police-state apparatus and economic policy, respectively. If Xi holds onto his chairmanship of the CMC and his two recently created organizations, whoever becomes general secretary of the CCP will likely have to defer to Xi.
Of course, Xi’s power grab — and his far-ranging anti-corruption campaign — could invite a ferocious pushback from members of rival CCP cliques. And having assumed control over domestic and foreign policy, Xi could find himself the scapegoat in an unexpected crisis at home or abroad.
Xi has a difficult task ahead of him. It’s possible that he will fail to consolidate power to a level that would allow him to remain in control past 2022. But Xi seems convinced that only a leader with supreme power — unencumbered by a fixed term in office — would ensure that China and the Communist Party will continue to prosper. And Xi seems convinced that he is the man to do it.
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