China in 2022: Xi’s Time is Only Beginning, But Where Will it Lead?

The seven members of the incoming Politburo Standing Committee at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, from left to right: Han Zheng, Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang and Zhao Leji (source: Xinhua)

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) official narrative holds that China is at a decisive moment. In the CCP’s telling, China’s long-sought goal of “national rejuvenation” is within reach, and can be attained by rallying around General Secretary Xi Jinping’s leadership to fully implement “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” (6th Plenum Communique, November 11). Not since Mao Zedong has a leader dominated China’s political life to the extent that Xi currently does. For example, when the CCP’s paper of record- The People’s Daily includes photos above the fold on its front page, they are invariably of Xi giving remarks, meeting with other senior officials  or holding video-conferences with foreign counterparts (People’s Daily, December  15, 16). If Xi is not pictured, excerpts of his statements usually headline page one. This summer, seven new research centers devoted to the study of Xi Jinping Thought were established in key state bodies including the National Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, and provincial governments  (Xinhua, June 26). These new centers joined the eleven Xi Jinping Thought research centers that had already been inaugurated.

Xi has used mounting domestic and international challenges, the global pandemic and geopolitical competition with the United States and its partners, to justify his drive to transform China’s economic model. Xi’s policies seek to increase self-sufficiency  through “dual circulation” (双循环, shuang xunhuan) and to reduce socioeconomic inequality through “common prosperity” (共同富裕, gongtong fuyu) (China Leadership Monitor, September 1; Jamestown Foundation, October 26). Under Xi, the party and state have also begun to reassert themselves in citizens’ personal  lives. This has included increased government monitoring to enforce the Zero-COVID policy; and restricting social behavior that contravenes socialist morality including youth video gaming, celebrity worship and gender nonconformity (China Brief, November 5).  Xi has also used the occasion of the CCP’s centennial to orchestrate only the third resolution on history in the party’s existence, cementing his status as “core” leader for at least the next decade, if not life; and establishing Xi Jinping Thought as the nation’s guiding ideology (China Brief, November 12). In this context, 2022 will be a politically decisive year for Xi that culminates with the 20th Party Congress in the fall, which will set the trajectory for Chinese politics in the next decade (2022-2032) and beyond.

The End of Institutionalized Succession

When the twice decade National Party Congress convenes in Beijing next fall, no inter-generational transfer of power will occur in an even year/numbered party congress for the first time this century. At the 16th Party Congress in 2002, Hu Jintao assumed leadership of the party and state from Jiang Zemin, who nevertheless retained the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) chairmanship until 2004. With the 18th Party Congress in 2012, Xi assumed all three top leadership roles: CMC Chairman, General Secretary and President. The 20th Party Congress will be the first to open since a constitutional amendment in March 2018 that eliminated the ten-year Presidential term limit (no term limits exist on the more powerful roles of General Secretary and CMC Chairman) (NPC Observer, March 11, 2018). This paves the way for Xi to retain the three core leadership positions beyond 2022.

At age 68, not only does Xi clearly have no intention of retiring, there is also no apparent successor in the top leadership body- the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and Politburo. In a decade, Xi has effectively unwound the careful progress that Deng Xiaoping made to ameliorate a key structural flaw in one-party Leninist states, which is lack of a clear succession processes that produces uncertainty and fosters factional struggle.

Factional competition did occur in the runup to the two most recent leadership transitions from Jiang to Hu in 2002, and from Hu to Xi in 2012. Hu never obtained a complete grip on power due to Jiang’s residual influence, as exemplified by his leadership of the CMC until 2004 (RUSI, March 18, 2005). Jiang continued to exert political pull even after his retirement, including through his protégé, Zeng Qinghong, who served on the PBSC from 2002-2007. As a result of Hu’s relative political  weakness, factional struggle intensified during his second term. Xi’s ascent to power in 2012 came at the expense of rival Bo Xilai and his ally, security Czar Zhou Yongkang, both of whom were purged and sentenced to lifetime prison sentences (South China Morning Post, January 13, 2019).

Although leadership term-limits and retirement norms did not eliminate factionalism, they did facilitate two central leadership transitions in 2002-2004 and in 2012-2013, which were largely free of the open political turmoil that shook the system to its core during the processes to determine Deng’s successor in the late 1980s, and the struggle to succeed Mao in the last decade of his life during the Cultural Revolution period (1966-1976). Xi’s reversal of the progress made in institutionalizing the succession process, and his apparent desire to rule China for life introduces the specter of factional strife and political crisis whenever his health begins to wane.

The 20th Party Congress: Will Xi Stack the Politburo?

Xi’s continuation as core leader at the 2022 Party Congress next fall is almost certain. However, the composition of the PBSC, Politburo, and Central Committee will provide a barometer of how much power Xi will wield in the next decade. Xi has eroded retirement age norms established during the Jiang and Hu eras: 68 for Politburo and Central Committee members, and 65 for provincial leaders and ministers, by making exceptions to these conventions for himself and key allies. However, despite widespread speculation that Xi’s then right hand man Wang Qishan would make the politburo at age 69 in 2017, the norm of “seven up, six down” (七上八下, qi shang ba xia) was upheld in 2017. The “seven up, six down” rule stipulates that leaders aged 67 and below are eligible for another term on the Politburo or Central Committee, whereas those aged 68 and above are not. While nothing is certain, this pattern will likely continue at the 20th party Congress with the substantial exception of Xi, who will be 69 years old next fall (SupChina, December 8).

If the “seven up, six down” norm holds for promotions and retirements from the top leadership bodies in 2022, National People’s Congress (NPC)  Standing Committee Chairman Li Zhanshu (born 1950) and Senior Vice Premier Han Zheng (born 1954) will be at or above the 68-year retirement age, and will likely step down from the PBSC [1]. Both Li and Han are close associates of Xi, and he has entrusted them with sensitive portfolios. For example, Han leads the Central Leading Group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs (Beijing News, June 3, 2020). However, their retirements may also provide an opening for Xi to address another political obstacle, which is that Premier Li Keqiang, a close affiliate of Xi’s rival Hu Jintao and leader in the Communist Youth League (CYL) faction, will only be 67 when the 20th Party Congress is held. Li will not be eligible for another term as Premier due to the two term-limit on the office- a restriction that was incidentally not lifted with the 2018 constitutional amendment. Nevertheless, Xi could still find it too politically costly to push his factional rival into complete retirement. However, Li Zhanshu’s retirement opens the door for Li Keqiang to take over as head of the NPC, technically a promotion to the number two role in the system, but in reality, a more ceremonial position. This would still keep Li Keqiang on the PBSC, but reduce his role in  policy-making. Jiang Zemin orchestrated this kind of maneuver in 1997 when conservative hardliner Li Peng was transferred from Premier to NPC Standing Committee Chairman [2].

Li Keqiang’s lack of eligibility for another term as Premier provides Xi an opportunity to place a loyalist in this key head of government role. A more pliant Premier would enhance Xi’s ability to command state organs and overcome bureaucratic inertia to implement his policy directives, particularly on economic matters. When the Xi-Li administration first assumed power, China adopted a more reform-oriented set of economic policies based on Li’s technocratic approach that came to be known as “Likonomics”, which focused on structural reform, deleveraging the financial sector and reducing reliance on economic stimulus (East Asia Forum, July 8, 2013). However, Li’s influence on economics, which typically falls within the Premier’s portfolio as State Council head, has lessened as Xi has consolidated his power. In a clear sign of Li’s diminished role, he was notably absent from a planning symposium for the 14th five year plan in August 2020 (BBC, September 28 2020). As Xi has become stronger, China has also departed from Li’s relatively liberal economic approach, allowing state owned enterprises to continue to dominate the economy, accruing high debt levels, and using regulatory and political pressure to reallocate resources from the private sector for the provision of public goods.

Assuming that Xi and the other leaders aged 67 or younger, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Wang Huning and Zhao Leji remain on the PBSC at the 20th Party Congress, this would leave two openings that Xi can fill with proteges. It is also unlikely, but not impossible that Xi could increase the  PBSC to nine members, or decrease it to five. A precedent exists for both expansion and contraction of the PBSC. For example, if Xi wants to further consolidate his power, he could reduce the PBSC  to five members as was the case from late 1987-1989,  keeping allies Wang Huning and Zhao Leji in place to balance Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, leaders in the now greatly- weakened rival CYL faction (Marco Polo, June 17). Xi could also oversee an expansion of the PBSC to nine members, which Is how the leadership body was structured from 2002-2012. This would allow him to fill the top leadership body with additional supporters.

Per Joseph Fewsmith, there are currently eight Politburo members eligible for promotion to the PBSC in 2022, six of whom are close associates of Xi [3]. Potential candidates for elevation to the PBSC include Li Qiang, the Party  Secretary of Shanghai, normally a stepping stone to top leadership who served under Xi in Zhejiang and will be 62 in late 2022; long-time Xi loyalist and Chongqing Party Secretary Chen Min’er who will be 61; and Tianjin Party Boss Li Hongzhong who will be 65 and has displayed obsequious loyalty to Xi Jinping, when many other powerful national leaders have been more lukewarm (China Brief, December 14)

The rollout of the PBSC lineup at the 20th Party Congress will attract the most media attention, but the composition of the 25-member Politburo and 200-plus member Central Committee will also be instrumental in determining the sustainability of Xi’s power. It is in these bodies that a potential successor to Xi might emerge at a relatively young age that would allow them to spend sufficient  time at the top-levels of power in preparation for top leadership. For example, Xi first joined the Central Committee at age 49 in 2002 and the Politburo/ PBSC at 55 in 2007. As Willy Wo-Lap Lam observes, Xi will probably remain in power through at least 2032, which is likely to result in the sixth generation of CCP cadres, those born in the 1960s, being skipped over entirely for top leadership (China Brief, November 12). As a result, early-career promotions of cadres in the Seventh Generation (those born in the 1970s) to the Central Committee and/or high provincial level positions should be monitored closely, as China’s next leader is likely to emerge from this group.

Is the “Chairman of Everything” Wearing Thin?

Xi has long been called “the Chairman of Everything” and now there is “Xi Jinping Thought” on an expanding array of issues (diplomacy, economics, ecological civilization). For example, last week, the CCP’s Institute of Party History and Documentation released a new volume of Selected Excerpts from Xi Jinping on Respecting and Protecting Human Rights introducing the prospect of “Xi Jinping Thought on Human Rights” (People’s Daily, December 8). Despite, Xi’s ubiquity, his popularity among fellow elites in the party, state, military, academia and business is in considerable doubt. As Willy Lam recently noted, despite the “hagiographic language” applied to Xi in the resolution on history, relatively few provincial and military leaders have taken up the tradition of making lengthy paeans to the core leader- “biaotai” (expressions of public fealty) (China Brief, December 14).

Furthermore, for ordinary Chinese people, the last two years have been dominated by the realities of living under the government’s stringent zero-COVID policy. Lockdowns, travel limitations,  mandatory testing, and state-supervised quarantines have blunted the epidemic, but have also imposed considerable economic and social strain on the populace (HKFP, November 20). Under these conditions, key set pieces for the regime such as the Winter Olympics, which opens in Beijing on February 4 and also coincides with China’s biggest national holiday- the Spring Festival for which the “Golden Week” runs from January 31 to February 6, are unlikely to generate much enthusiasm. Many Chinese people have traditionally used the Spring Festival holiday’s “Golden Week” to travel to their hometowns and visit family. However, this is already being discouraged due to COVID concerns and the Olympics. For example, several municipalities, businesses and universities, especially in and around Beijing, have already begun calling for people to “stay put” during the Spring Festival holiday to stem the spread of COVID-19 (Global Times, December 12).

China’s relative isolation due to its Zero-COVID orthodoxy, which looks set to continue through 2022, will also challenge Beijing’s efforts to tamp down continued pushback from the U.S, Europe, Japan, India,  Australia and others (China Brief, November 19). Economic challenges, including unmanageable debt in the property sector will also loom large. If these challenges persist they will likely continue the trend of passive resistance, and only pro forma support for Xi from most of his fellow elites, but few consumers of state media will have any notion of the sour mood at the top levels. Ultimately, Xi may believe that he can always fall back on his strong reputation for “clean governance” among the laobaixing (common people), but whether this will persist indefinitely as economic challenges pile up, and draconian COVID-19 limitations drag on for another year remains to be seen.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].

Acknowledgement

The author would like to thank China Brief intern Yani Najarian  for research assistance.

Notes

[1] All leader birth years and positions are taken from China Vitae.

[2] Joseph Fewsmith, Rethinking Chinese Politics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021, 81

[3] Ibid, 162