Did Xi Jinping Secure “Leader for Life” Status at the Sixth Plenum?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 22

General Secretary Xi Jinping addresses the Sixth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP in Beijing (Source: Xinhua).

The words “leader for life” do not appear in the communique summarizing the Resolution on History passed at the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee held in Beijing from November 8 to 11 (CPC, November 11). Nevertheless, there is little doubt that President Xi Jinping has won the approval of the ruling Central Committee to stay in office for one, if not two more five-year terms. The major task of the plenum, which convenes 197 full Central Committee members and 151 alternates, was to pass a Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century (hereafter- the Resolution). The Resolution amounts to an unqualified affirmation of the achievements of the CCP’s three titans: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping (Xinhua, November 11; Chinanews.com, November 11).

The Resolution coincides with the ongoing centenary celebrations of the CCP’s establishment. Major excerpts of the Resolution are included in the Sixth Plenum communiqué, which was released on November 11. The Resolution divides Communist Chinese history into three major periods (for the full text of the 6th plenum communique see CPC, November 11; for an English translation see CGTN, November 11).

A Third Resolution on Party History

According to the Resolution, the 1949-1976 era under the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong laid the foundations for socialism with Chinese characteristics after a long and painful civil war to unify the nation. The second period is the era of reform and opening (改革开放, gaige kaifang) inaugurated by Deng Xiaoping, who is lauded for liberating minds with his pragmatic philosophy of “seeking truth from facts” (实事求是, shishi qiushi). Deng is particularly credited for shifting the focus of the party to economic development and for marketizing the economy. The names of Xi’s two predecessors – ex-presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – also appear as leaders who helped to implement Deng’s ideas.

More than half of the communique on the Resolution is devoted to praising President Xi as having made contributions at least as weighty as those of Mao and Deng. Xi is eulogized for single-handedly founding “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” “This is the Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21st century,” observes the Resolution. The document observes that Xi Jinping Thought “embodies the best of the Chinese culture and ethos in our times and represents a new breakthrough in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context.” Thus, if Mao and Deng were the helmsmen charting the CCP’s course in the last century, Xi and Xi Jinping Thought pave the way for the “great renaissance of the Chinese nation” in the present century. Due to these contributions, the Resolution states that “the Party has established Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole.”

Unlike the party’s two previous historical resolution documents – the 1945 resolution tabled by Mao Zedong and the 1981 summation of history orchestrated by Deng Xiaoping – the newly passed Resolution consists mostly of approbation for the work of past leaders. In 1945, however, Mao used The CCP’s Resolution on Certain Historical Questions to denigrate early party founders such as Chen Duxiu, Qu Qiubai, Zhang Guotao and Wang Ming, who were faulted for either ultra-leftist or ultra-rightist blunders (The CCP Central Committee, April 20, 1945). Deng’s Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of our Party since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China cast aspersions on Mao’s ultra-radicalism, particularly the damage he did to the party and the country during the Cultural Revolution (China.org.cn, October 29, 2018). The 2021 Resolution does mention Mao’s aberrations, especially the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), which it says resulted in “the most serious setback and loss suffered by the people” since 1949. Nevertheless, the Resolution’s  critique of Mao largely follows Deng’s 1981 resolution document, and does not touch upon the fundamental defects of the CCP system. The Resolution also mentions the Tiananmen Square incident, but follows the party’s time-honored characterization of the 1989 student movement as anti-CCP “turmoil” (dongluan,动乱), which occurred due to the “support and instigation” (zhichi he shandong, 支持和煽动) of anti-Communist and anti-socialist forces in the West.

“Chairman of Everything”

The Resolution praises Xi for “his many profound thoughts and scientific theories and their implementation… and a series of original and new concepts and strategies on governing the nation.” Achievements attributed to Xi include the anti-graft campaign, the abolition of extreme poverty and the attainment of a “moderately prosperous society” (xiaokangshehui, 小康社会); the “substantial progress [regarding the goal of] common prosperity”; the further development of Deng’s open-door policy; “the modernization of China’s [ruling] system and capacity for governance,” as well as the improvement of China’s global status. However, many of these claims seem dubious. The Sixth Plenum has apparently achieved what it set out to do, which is establishing Xi’s role as the sole guiding force for the party, the government and the army in the 21st century. However, it remains in question whether ten or more years of Xi’s ironclad rule will improve the party’s statecraft as well as its international status.

Take, for example, the Resolution’s claim that Xi has improved the country’s governance systems and institutions. One fallout of the Sixth Plenum decision may be that the phenomenon of the “one voice chamber” – one man making all the decisions – will continue at the top echelons of the party-state apparatus. This is despite Xi’s oft-repeated claim that “I shall become ‘selfless’ in order not to fail the people… I am willing to go into a state of selflessness so as to devote myself to China’s development” (People’s Daily, November 11). Over the past year, central policymaking reflects how Xi, nicknamed “the Chairman of Everything,” has made apparently impetuous decisions without broad consultation of fellow leading cadres in the party and government. Examples include the sudden decision to prevent Jack Ma’s Ant Corporation from being listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in late 2020; the withdrawal of support from the taxi-hailing company Didi Chuxing, which successfully listed on the New York Stock Exchange earlier this year; and the surprise announcement in July that all private tutoring schools must become non-profits (SCMP September 7; 136.com, July 16; BBC Chinese, July 15). As Xi is Chairman of the Central Commission for Finance and Economics – the nation’s highest decision-making body on financial and economic matters – these decisions could not have been made without his imprimatur.

Implications for 2032 and Beyond

Backed by the Resolution, it is very probable that Xi (born 1953) will serve for ten more years as CCP General Secretary, Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), and State President until the 22nd Party Congress in 2032, when he will be 79 years old (US President Joe Biden will turn 79 later this month) (Wall Street Journal Chinese Edition, November 12; Radio French International, November 11). After the 22nd Party Congress, Xi might emulate Deng by remaining CMC Chairman – the post with the most power in China – while relinquishing the titles of party General Secretary and/or State President. This scenario, however, will upend the party convention of orderly generational succession as stipulated by Deng. Cadres belonging to the Sixth Generation (6G) —those born in the 1960s —will have a relatively slim chance of succeeding Xi, who represents the Fifth Generation, in 2032 because by then, those born before 1964 will have reached the usual retirement age of 68 for PBSC members. Moreover, most 6G candidates will not be young enough to serve for two successive five-year terms on the PBSC (Creaders.net, May 23). As a result, the chances of a Seventh-Generation (7G) cadre succeeding Xi as supreme leader are rather high.

At present, only a few dozen-odd 7G officials, who were born in the 1970s, have attained Vice Minister rank. Due to their relatively junior positions, none of those neophyte “rising stars” have yet to demonstrate that they have what it takes to reach the Politburo or higher. Leading 7G cadres include the Secretary-Generals of the Shanghai, Jiangxi and Shandong provincial or municipal party committees, respectively Zhuge Yujie (诸葛宇杰, aged 50), Wu Hao (吴浩, 49) and Liu Qiang (刘强, 50) as well as the Head of the Jiangsu and Yunnan provincial Political and Legal Affairs Committee, respectively Fei Gaoyun (费高云 50) and Liu Hongjian (刘洪建, 48) (South China Morning Post, June 26; China Brief, April 9, 2019).


In terms of economic policy, the Resolution claims that “with regards to reform and opening up, the Party has consistently promoted broader and deeper reform across the board.” However, this claims conflicts with the Xi leadership’s ongoing crackdown on a host of quasi-private conglomerates – which include Alibaba, Tencent and Bytedance as well as several huge real-estate corporations –that has included placing more party cells in these firms and giving more decision-making powers to relevant party functionaries (BBC Chinese, September 16, 2020). Indeed, Xi’s most consistent dictum on running the economy is “top-level design” (dingcheng shezhi 顶层设置) and devoting more government resources to 95-odd giant state-owned-enterprise conglomerates (Qiu Shi, January 30). Furthermore, Xi’s penchant for setting industrial policies, subsidizing export-oriented firms as well as forcing foreign companies with footholds in China to share their intellectual property with local counterparts have become areas of contention in trade negotiations with the U.S. and other Western countries. Moreover, while the Resolution asserts that the Chinese economy has achieved satisfactory “comprehensive, balanced and sustained” growth, Xi has essentially followed the Jiang and Hu strategies of relying on injections of state funding in to infrastructure and real-estate projects to jack up GDP numbers. This approach has generated unprecedented debt accumulations at all levels of government, and has also contributed to enterprises and consumers incurring large debts (Deutsche Welle Chinese, October 6; Sohu.com, January 8).

In foreign policy, Xi is praised for raising China’s profile internationally through slogans such as attaining a “human community with a shared future” and leading “major-country diplomacy” with the other great powers. However, it is well-known that Beijing has used its investments to bolster relationships with a host of client states in the developing world. Meanwhile, China has become quite isolated in the global arena in part due to the Biden administration’s relatively successful efforts to assemble coalitions such as the Quad and AUKUS that seek to rein in China’s overweening power projection (163.com, June 8; Sina.com.cn, May 30). This may have spurred Xi’s recent call to officials to build up an image of China as a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable” country (China Daily, June 2; Hong Kong Standard, June 2). The Resolution does not mention Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum of “taking a low profile and never taking the lead” in world affairs, which many consider a more rational dictum to guide China’s foreign policy (Chinatimes.com, April 29).

According to veteran U.S.-based Sinologist Chen Pokong, Xi has encountered opposition to his one-upmanship at the plenum. This helps to explain why one relatively long paragraph in the communique on the Resolution is devoted to the policies of ex-presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who are well-known as Xi’s political rivals. The unexpected inclusion of Jiang and Hu in the Resolution may be a concession to their followers, many of whom still hold positions at the ministerial level and above (Radio Free Asia, November 11). Furthermore, Xi has continued to use the anti-corruption campaign as a weapon to eradicate real and potential enemies particularly in the sensitive political-legal apparatus. This lack of party unity below the surface indicates that despite the hagiographic language used to lionize Xi’s exploits in the Resolution, the future of his leadership may well depend on whether he can solve the multi-faceted problems that bedevil China.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on November 17, 2021 following the release of the full-text of the resolution on CCP history.

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor in the History Department and Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of six books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, was released by Routledge Publishing in 2020.