After nearly nine years in power, Chinese President Xi Jinping dominates his country’s political system. It controls the national policy making process, the military and international diplomacy. His unmatched power within the Chinese Communist Party makes Xi as untouchable as Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong after the brutal purges carried out during the Great Terror and the Cultural Revolution, respectively. Without credible political challengers, any decision to retire will be at Xi’s discretion and according to his schedule. The dismantling in 2018 of the presidential term limits allows him to rule indefinitely, if he wishes. If he resigns from his official leadership positions, Xi will likely retain de facto control of the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army. The longer he remains in charge, the more the political structure will conform to his personality, his goals, his whims and his network of clients. Xi, in turn, becomes more and more important to China’s political stability every day he is in power.
This accumulation of personal power comes at a cost to China. Xi has not appointed a successor, casting doubt on the future of a system that increasingly relies on his leadership. Only a handful of senior party officials are likely to have any idea of Xi’s long-term plans, and so far they have been silent on how long he intends to stay at the top. Will he retire from the 20th Party Congress in 2022, or will he cling to power in perpetuity? If he dies suddenly in power, as Stalin did in 1953, will there be a party split as rivals scramble to take over? Will outside observers even be able to detect signs of discord?
Asking these questions is not empty speculation. One day, one way or another, Xi will leave the political scene. But with no indication of when and how he will leave – or who will replace him when he does – China faces the possibility of a succession crisis. Over the past few years, Xi has gutted the CCP’s fragile standards regarding the sharing and transfer of power. When the time comes to replace him, as he inevitably must, the unrest in Beijing could have destabilizing effects that extend far beyond China’s borders.
THE RETURN OF POLITICAL Drama
Peaceful, orderly and regular transfers of power are widely taken for granted in modern democracies, but conflictual transitions are a source of conflict and instability in the world. Even democratic systems with strong legal procedures and long-standing succession agreements are not immune to precarious transfers, as evidenced by former US President Donald Trump’s recent effort to discredit the president’s electoral victory. Joe Biden. In many countries, insufficient legal and political constraints allow holders to retain power, often indefinitely. Where legal processes are stronger, leaders intend to stay in office preventively, or even imprison political opponents. While some autocrats are successful in fending off threats to their power, efforts to rule for life can also trigger crises of succession, formal leadership challenges, or even coups.
China is no exception. Academic Bruce Dickson described the succession as “the central drama of Chinese politics almost since the beginning of the People’s Republic in 1949”. During the Mao era, leadership battles were frequent and fierce, from the “Gao Gang Affair” in the early 1950s, which saw Mao fueling conflict between several potential successors, to the death of Lin Biao, who was at one point Mao’s chosen one. heir and died in a mysterious plane crash while trying to flee China in 1971. Another potential successor, Liu Shaoqi, was dismissed by Mao and beaten by the Red Guards before dying in captivity in 1969. End of 1976 , members of the “Gang of Four,” a group of senior officials who helped radicalize the Cultural Revolution, were arrested just months after Mao’s death. Mao’s hand-picked successor, Hua Guofeng, supported the arrests but was himself sidelined a few years later by Deng Xiaoping, who took over in late 1978. Instability has not quite ended with the Mao era. The two leaders Deng chose to command the CCP in the 1980s, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, both lost their seats amid intense political turmoil and infighting among the elites.
However, the pattern changed over the following decades. By the time Xi joined in late 2012, it seemed that Beijing had settled into a rhythm of sustainable, predictable and peaceful transfers of power. Prominent Chinese scholars have gone as far as Claim that “the succession itself has become an institution of the Party”. But Xi devastated those assumptions as he neared the end of his second presidential term. At the National People’s Congress meeting in spring 2018, he passed a constitutional amendment removing the time limit on his term. Equally important, he has not named any candidate to replace him, and neither Xi nor the CCP has given any indication that a transition is imminent. Although some party-controlled media have said that Xi does not intend to rule for life, there has been a glaring absence of any official statement on his political future.
THE END OF XI?
Xi may well defy expectations and decide to cede power to the 20th Party Congress at the end of 2022. But without a successor in place – someone who has already established his credibility and has been tested by the party – this outcome is highly unlikely. Instead, several candidates could be put forward via promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee, the summit of political power in China. These people would then spend several years in increasingly senior positions in order to gain governance experience and build credibility within the system. Yet even if Xi were to nominate one or more potential successors in 2022 with a view to formally stepping down at the next Party Congress, that might not mean the end of his informal control. He could continue to wield tremendous power behind the scenes, as Deng and Jiang Zemin did after their tenure as leader ended. This trend in China aligns with a larger historical pattern: Almighty rulers rarely abdicate, and they often retain their influence if they do. For now, Xi’s dominance prevents foreign governments from forming relationships with potential successors. And if he doesn’t spell out his preferences in 2022, the delay will likely ensure that anyone eligible to become China’s next ruler is currently too junior to even be on the radar of outside observers.
While Xi’s consolidation of control is impressive, even the most powerful rulers rely on the support of a coalition of actors and interests. This support is conditional and can erode as national and international conditions change. No outsider knows the precise nature of the deal between Xi and members of the political, economic and military elite. But there is no doubt that a dramatic economic slowdown or repeated mismanagement of foreign policy crises would make Xi’s job of balancing competing interests more difficult and his control more tenuous. Every coalition has a breaking point. This is of course the reason why leaders react so harshly to coup attempts; they want to deter potential challengers. As Gambian President Yahya Jammeh warned after a failed coup attempt in 2014: “Anyone planning to attack this country, be prepared, because you are going to die.
Xi eviscerated the CCP’s fragile norms regarding the sharing and transfer of power.
The overthrow of an outgoing leader – especially one with an iron grip on a Leninist one-party state – is not easy to achieve. A coup candidate faces daunting obstacles, starting with the need to garner support from key members of the military-security bureaucracy without alerting the incumbent and the security apparatus around them. Given the technological capabilities of the CCP’s security services, which Xi controls, such an enterprise is fraught with the risk of detection and possible defection of early plotters who change their minds. It is true that Xi has a host of enemies in the party. It is also true that the obstacles to organizing against him are almost insurmountable. In the absence of a systemic crisis, the chances of Xi’s rivals staging a coup are extremely low.
But Xi’s sudden death or inability would end his reign, no matter when he intends to end it. Xi is 68 years old, has a history of smoking, is overweight, has a very stressful job, and, according to state media, “finds joy in exhaustion.” Although there is no clear sign that Xi is in poor health, he is still fatal. And now that he has emptied China’s succession standards, his absence would create a power vacuum and could spark internal struggles at the highest levels of the CCP. Members of Xi’s coalition could split into opposing groups, each supporting their chosen successor. Those who had been punished or marginalized under Xi could try to take advantage of the rare opportunity to regain power. Even if Xi did not die but was incapacitated by a stroke, heart attack or other serious health problem, China would enter a political impasse. The regime’s supporters and detractors would be forced to scramble to forge new alliances to protect themselves against both Xi’s takeover and its expiration, with unpredictable consequences for domestic and foreign policy.
There are of course other possible scenarios. On the one hand, Xi could choose to retire in 2035, midway between the CCP’s centenary this year and the 2049 anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But no matter how or when he leaves office, the absence of a clear plan raises inevitable questions about the party’s ability to transfer power in a peaceful and predictable manner. In the decades following Mao’s death in 1976, the country’s political system seemed to gradually stabilize, despite occasional unrest at the top. Today, however, China’s political future is shrouded in uncertainty. The issue of succession is not an issue Chinese officials discuss in public, but neither can they ignore it. It is a problem that will need a solution sooner or later.