When China’s leader Xi Jinping takes the podium next week to mark the Communist Party’s centenary, expect an air of invincibility. He has plenty to be pleased about – in less than a decade, he has reinvigorated a party plagued by corruption and internal strife.
When Xi took power in 2012, there were concerns that the civilian leadership could lose control of the military.
The country was expanding economically at record speed, but the party was beset by graft, power struggles and the threat of fragmentation.
Few could have anticipated what followed. Through an unprecedented war on corruption, Xi rebuilt the party’s image, reconnected the masses with its roots, brought powerful cliques to heel and got the military under its thumb.
The coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019 briefly threatened to disrupt those gains, but the party machine swiftly kicked into action. By the end of 2020 China had not only contained the virus but was the only major economy to record positive growth, while the rest of the world was still mired in crisis.
At the start of this year, after Washington was rocked by rioting in a messy power transition, Beijing announced it had achieved something many would have considered impossible half a century ago – eliminating extreme poverty in the country of 1.4 billion.
Xi set the tone in a speech to top cadres in January. “The world is in a turbulent time that is unprecedented in the past century,” he said. “But time and momentum are on our side. This is where we show our conviction and resilience, as well as our determination and confidence.”
But beneath the confident talk, there is a looming challenge for the party: the issue of succession.
Power transitions have been a headache even for the party’s most capable leaders in the past century. Mao Zedong, who took the helm after some fierce battles, made several unsuccessful attempts to find a successor.
His final choice, Hua Guofeng, was quickly elbowed out the way by Deng Xiaoping. Later, Deng would have the same problem – he had to personally depose two leaders he had chosen before Jiang Zemin took over in what was largely a compromise reached between the party factions.
In the years since, leadership transitions have been relatively peaceful – when Jiang passed the baton to Hu Jintao, albeit retaining military control for a while longer, and when Hu handed over to Xi. That was possible because of tacit rules and conventions established by party elders at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
After Deng retired, power became more structured, with the leader holding all three top positions: party general secretary, state president and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Top leaders have also followed an unwritten rule for the past two decades, that they retire from the Politburo Standing Committee if they are 68 or older at the time of the party congress. But Xi – who turned 68 last week – has indicated that this and other unofficial retirement ages are too rigid.
Amending China’s constitution in 2018 to scrap term limits for the president and vice-president cleared the way for Xi to stay in power after his two terms end at the 20th party congress next year.
And with no clear successor in sight, observers expect Xi to remain as paramount leader during that reshuffle next autumn. However, the twice-a-decade party congress will shed light on how Xi plans to tackle succession and avoid a crisis within the party. It could prove to be his biggest challenge, and will shape the party for decades to come.
Xi has said that one way to evaluate a political system is to see whether the leadership succession is “law abiding and orderly”.
But unlike his predecessors, Xi did not endorse a successor at the end of his first term in 2017, and observers do not expect one to emerge in the new leadership line-up next year.
That could spell trouble for the party, according to Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
“When succession finally looms it can potentially be very destabilising, if the structure and/or process is not clear and well defined,” Tsang said.
His view was echoed by Nis Gruenberg, a senior analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies.
“By abolishing term limits and succession norms Xi has bought himself more time to establish his vision of the party state and his national project for China,” Gruenberg said. “But he has also inserted enormous uncertainty into the leadership system again, which in the end could destabilise the leadership system as soon as Xi – as unchallengeable power centre – has gone.”
The party has set lofty goals – it aims to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, to turn the country into an innovation powerhouse by the middle of the century, and become carbon neutral by 2060.
But to achieve the so-called Chinese dream of “common prosperity”, the leadership has to address a widening wealth gap, which also affects the legitimacy of the party. It has a rapidly ageing population to contend with, and a global image problem as tensions worsen with the US and the West over issues like human rights and its expanding military.
“Doing what is necessary to adjust course and keep the [party] united to advance China’s development will remain his administration’s underlying priority,” Neil Thomas, a researcher with MacroPolo, the in-house think tank with Paulson Institute in Chicago, said in a report in October.
That includes appointments that break unwritten conventions.
Luo Huining is one example. He was sent to head the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong last year when he was already 65 – the mandatory retirement age for cabinet ministers – in a move seen as a surprise choice since he had no experience with the city’s affairs.
“Xi has shown more flexibility and taken on complicated metrics for evaluating and selecting officials,” said Feng Chucheng, a partner with China-focused research agency Plenum in Beijing.
“The emphasis is on capabilities and track records – such as efforts to eradicate poverty, boost innovation, crack down on corruption and curb financial risks – rather than strictly following conventions such as age limits.”
Meanwhile, it is unclear whether trusted officials like Liu He, a Politburo member and economic adviser who turns 70 next year, and top diplomat Yang Jiechi, also a Politburo member who will be 72, will retire at the party congress or if they will be deemed too important to go.
That key meeting will see a reshuffle of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of power in China. As well as Xi, two other members – Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng – will have passed the usual retirement age of 68 next year. Among those tipped for promotion to the body are Hu Chunhua, vice-premier in charge of boosting rural areas and tackling poverty, Li Qiang, Shanghai’s party boss, Li Xi, party chief of Guangdong, and Chen Miner, party secretary of Chongqing and a confidant of Xi.
There are also two figures that observers say are likely to rise further up the political ladder: Yuan Jiajun, who went from a leading role in the Shenzhou crewed space mission to Zhejiang party secretary, and Yin Yong, a former deputy central bank governor who is now vice-mayor of Beijing.
Bringing in new blood will be crucial to avoid a succession crisis, something that would have a wider impact given China’s economic heft, according to a joint report by the Centre for Strategic International Studies in the US and the Lowy Institute in Australia.
“The global impact of a 21st century succession crisis would be immense,” the think tanks said in the April report. “But even assuming Xi does retire in 2027 or 2032 – in part or in full – it stands to reason that he would continue to exercise enormous power, as did Deng Xiaoping after 1989.”