Chinese President Xi Jinping has broken many of the norms we thought constrained Chinese leadership. Xi purged Zhou Yongkang, who became the first member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest governing body, to be imprisoned for corruption, and has made it clear that simple loyalty to the Party is no longer sufficient reason to keep your job.
The next norm Mr Xi seemed poised to break was China’s “seven up, eight down” tradition. In the late 1990’s, then-President Jiang Zemin implemented an informal policy: if a politician is 67 or younger, they may stand for another five-year term; 68 or older, they must retire. Mr Xi reportedly considers the age limit “not absolute,” especially in relation to Wang Qishan, 69, who leads Mr Xi’s signature anti-corruption movement. Mr Xi’s apparent desire to retain his top political lieutenant is taken as a sign of Mr Xi’s intention to further break convention and pursue a third five-year term in 2022, when he will be 69.
Seemingly to that end, he recently purged Sun Zhengcai, the Party Secretary of Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities, a potential challenger, and replaced him with Chen Min’er, 56, a political ally. Additionally, recent Party publications have started referring to Mr Xi as “core leader,” a term also used to refer to Xi’s predecessors Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin.
There is, precedent for a Chinese leader centralizing power and promoting political allies. Mr Jiang established a political faction called the “Shanghai Clique,” while his successor Hu Jintao did the same with his Communist Youth League faction, albeit less successfully. Mr Jiang, who stepped down after two five-year terms, has remained incredibly powerful politically, even today at age 91. Similarly, Deng Xiaoping remained “Paramount Leader,” that is, incredibly powerful, if informally, until his death in 1997.
This is the precedent Xi seems more likely to follow: maintaining power through political networks, influence, and having his ideology enshrined in the constitution like his predecessors – not through formal structures. It is critically important to remember that most of what we know about the inner-workings of the Communist Party is what they intentionally release though strategic leaks and state-run media. For instance, as Jessica Batke and Oliver Melton point out, we simply do not know the process that led to Mr Xi being deemed “Core Leader.” We do not know if Mr Xi pushed for this title, if there was resistance from Party elites, or what the purpose of the designation is.
Similarly, there is evidence that Mr Xi is not quite as powerful as he seems: he lost the political battle to retain Wang Qishan, though he did install an ally in his place, and did not promote either of the presumed candidatesfor succession, Chen Min’er and Hu Chunhua, to the Standing Committee, though both ascended to the Politburo itself.
One very reasonable interpretation of Chen and Hu’s absence from the Standing Committee is that Xi, in not formally naming a successor, is indicating his intention to remain for a third term. However, China’s political opacity makes any such conclusion premature at best. A more critical reading would imply that Xi was simply not powerful enough to overcome Party leaders skeptical of Chen and Hu, especially given that no Chinese leader has ever unilaterally chosen their successor.
Thus, the lack of a clear heir could just as well indicate a lack of unity among the famously consensus-based Party elites, who instead deferred to following seniority. It is also possible that Chen’s appointment as Chongqing Party Secretary is meant as a test, one which Sun failed. The CCP wants to scrub Chongqing of the “evil legacy” of disgraced former Secretary Bo Xilai, and the Party may be waiting to see how well the (relatively) young Chen does before elevating him to the highest office.
What we do know is that the Chinese attach significant importance to their history, and any moves to undermine China’s founding revolutionaries and party elites will be met with significant opposition. Deng Xiaoping could not fully repudiate Mao despite the tens of millions of deaths Mao’s policies caused, instead saying Mao was “70 percent correct, 30 percent wrong.” Deng himself is widely considered the reason for China’s rapid political and economic growth since the 1980’s. In a society and government where history is paramount, it seems anathema for Mr. Xi to say that the rules that applied to Mr. Deng do not apply to him. And losing a public battle for a third term is likely to cripple him politically.
It seems certain that Xi will remain incredibly powerful; he has no reason to risk his influence in pursuit of formalising it.