“Helmsman” Xi Jinping primed to rule at least until the early 2030s

Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 20

Image: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Han Zheng attend the fifth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in Beijing (Image source: Xinhua/Wang Ye).


The Fifth Plenary Session of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Committee, which took place from October 26 – 29, has elevated the status of President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping to that of Helmsman, a title once reserved only for the late Chairman Mao Zedong. [1] Strong signals were also sent that the Central Committee—comprised of 198 full and 166 alternate members—supported the 67-year-old supreme leader’s desire to continue exercising power for an additional ten years or more.

During the session, the Central Committee passed the main points of the 14th Five-Year Plan (FYP) (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and the 2035 Long-Range Objectives (中共中央关于制定国民经济和社会发展第⼗四个五年规划和⼆〇三五年远景⽬标的建议, ZhongGong Zhongyang Guanyu Zhiding Guomin Jingji He Shehui Fazhan Di Shisi Ge Wunian Guihua He ErLingSanWu Nian Yuanjing Mubiao De Jianyi). These can be understood as a general and detailed outline of the 14th FYP. The actual plan, including specific, quantifiable targets for economic development, will likely be published sometime in March.

A communiqué summarizing the four-day plenum, released on October 29, underscored the fact that the party and country’s policies and objectives would closely abide by “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for the New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想,Xi Jinping Xin Shidai Zhongguo Tese Shehui Zhuyi Sixiang). The communiqué noted that, “Experience has repeatedly indicated that with comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the “central party authorities” (中央, Zhongyang) and with the core of the party being the “navigator and helmsman” (领航掌舵, linghang zhangduo) … we can definitely win over various difficulties and impediments on the road ahead” (Xinhua, October 29; Cpc.people.com.cn, October 29).

The goal of the new Five-Year Plan (FYP) is that “economic development will reach new [levels of] achievements and efficiency,” and encompasses pillars which include improving the people’s welfare, protecting the environment and promoting the digitalization of industry and everyday life. “The economy will continue to develop healthily under the premise of the clear raising of [the] quality [of growth],” the communiqué said. Despite the economic impact of COVID-19, the communiqué maintained that China remains on track to double its 2010 per capita income figures and become a “moderately prosperous society”(小康社会, xiaokang shehui) by 2021, the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the CCP (Xinhua, October 17, 2017). The communiqué also laid out the goal to “basically realize socialist modernization” by 2035. Details on how such “socialist modernization” will be attained are scant, but the timing is interesting—2035 falls midway between the “Two Centenaries,” goalposts for China’s rise and development first set by Xi in 2012. By 2049, the 100-year anniversary of the country’s founding, China is set to become “a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful.”

In a post-plenum press conference, Han Wenxiu (韩文秀), Deputy Director of the General Office of the Central Commission on Finance and Economics 中央财经委员会办公室副主任 (Zhongyang caijing Weiyuanhui Bangongshi Fu Zhuren) — the nation’s highest decision-making body on the economy — disclosed that the FYP and the long-term objectives were drafted “under the direct leadership of General Secretary Xi Jinping.” Han added that Xi had personally consulted at the grassroots level in different provinces to gain an understanding of China’s economic situation, and that he had made ample modifications to the documents to enhance their quality (Xinhua, October 30). Given that President Xi has emphasized the “top-level design” of economic and social policies since coming to power in 2012, it is expected that, health permitting, the new Helmsman will remain the party’s core at least until the CCP’s 22nd Party Congress in 2032 (New York Times Chinese Edition, March 20, 2018; Apple Daily, October 28, 2017).

Image: Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and PRC President Xi Jinping learns about progress in consolidating poverty eradication at a villager’s home in the village of Shazhou, Rucheng County, Hunan, on September 16. Image source: Xinhua).

Known for his overarching ambitions and aspirations, Xi nonetheless seemed reluctant to divulge details regarding either the 14th FYP or the blueprint for the year 2035. The expected annual GDP increase in the 2021 to 2025 period, for example, was missing. The communiqué has, however, doubled down on goals already cited by official media in the past year. Without mentioning China’s difficult relations with the U.S. and its allies, the possible decoupling of the Chinese and American economies or Washington’s boycott of a number of key Chinese high-tech companies, the communiqué merely stated that, “the international situation has become more complicated by the day and that its unstable and uncertain nature has obviously increased.”

It is under these circumstances that Xi has, in the past few months, raised the concept of the “dual domestic-international circulations but with domestic circulation as the main [consideration],” commonly shortened as the “dual circulation” system. This refers to the fact that while the open-door policy underscoring China’s economic opening up remains valid, and that Beijing will make the two circulations complement each other, the leadership has shifted its attention towards prioritizing the domestic market to stimulate future economic growth. “Domestic circulation” refers to the reliance on China’s nearly 1.4 billion people market for consumption and includes an emphasis on driving innovation in high technology related fields (Xinhua, August 31; BBC Chinese Edition, August 10).

Perhaps implicitly responding to how a number of Western countries have refused to sell core technologies to companies such as Huawei and ZTE, the communiqué highlighted Mao Zedong-style self-reliance: “We must insist on innovation as the core of our country’s modernization,” the document said. “Technological self-sustainability is the strategic pillar of national development.” In addition to the general 14th FYP, the central government also issued a specific FYP for technology at the beginning of this year (Global Times, January 20). High-end areas such as AI, computer chips, robotics, genomics, green technology and space-related know-how are expected to be particular priorities for state-backed development. “China has a deep understanding of its shortfalls in technology, economics and the standard of living that could be targeted by the U.S.,” said Xie Maosong, a politics specialist at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences. “It is only when the shortfalls are met that China can be impeccable” (South China Morning Post, October 30).

Reflecting Xi’s belief in the synergy between high-tech development and defense, the communiqué also included a full paragraph on military modernization. “We must speed up the modernization of national defense and the armed forces so as to realize the synthesis of a rich country and a strong army,” the document said. The Central Committee laid special emphasis on the “simultaneous elevation of the capability of defense and the economy.” It also urged “the unity of the army and the government and the unity of the army and the people.” Under the Chinese system, whoever controls the army and the police is the de facto supreme leader, and Xi is known to devote a good chunk of his time to ensuring officers’ loyalty to himself (abc.net.au, October 26, 2017; Radio French International, October 14, 2017).

It is a mark of Xi’s perception of insecurity – in regards to both China’s national security and the stability of Chinese society in view of the economic downturn – that the Central Committee comprehensively addressed the issue of safety at all levels. “We must uphold a security view of the whole country, implement national security strategies, comprehensively handle conventional and unconventional security, and let the development of security run through various arenas of national development,” the document said. Ultimately, of course, Xi’s own security – his ability to remain both the party and the nation’s “core for life” – depends on whether he can withstand pressure and challenges from both abroad and within China.

Given that the plenum was held behind closed doors in a heavily guarded military hotel, it is difficult to find out whether any Central Committee member expressed views different from those of Helmsman Xi. This unfortunate reality was heralded in late September, when the authorities passed a set of “Work Regulations of the Central Committee.” The regulations pertain to six areas: the leadership status of the Central Committee, leadership systems, the frame of reference and powers of the leadership, leadership methods, decision-making procedures and “self-construction” (自身建设, zishen jianshe). Without going into substantive detail, the document laid emphasis on “resolutely upholding the authority of the zhongyang and its concentrated and unified leadership with comrade Xi Jinping as core” (People’s Daily, October 13; Apple Daily, October 1).

Xi’s overweening thirst for power has not only rendered checks and balances impossible, but has also dealt a telling blow to one of the most fundamental institutions put together by the Great Architect of Reform Deng Xiaoping: that top leaders must observe fixed tenures and pay attention to grooming their successors (People’s Daily, August 12, 2014). Given that all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee are from the Fifth Generation (cadres born in the 1950s), Xi should have identified at least a few potential successors before now, according to party tradition. While there are several ordinary Politburo members who were born in the 1960s, none seems to have been given the portfolio and exposure needed to be groomed as a forthcoming top leader. The Fifth Plenum has traditionally been a venue for identifying future top cadres (HK01, October 30; Radio French International, October 29). For example, Xi was made a Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission – usually a stepping stone for the No. 1 spot – at the Fifth Plenum of the 17th Central Committee. If, however, it is true that the Helmsman plans to rule at least until the early 2030s, then there is no hurry for him to pick a successor. Political and institutional reforms, after all, were hardly an important concern for the Fifth Plenum.

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 at the Center for China Studies, the History Department, and the Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five 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 July 2019.


[1] Mao’s title can be translated as “Great Helmsman” (伟大的舵手, weida de duoshou). In comparison, Xi’s new title might more literally be translated as “core navigator and helmsman” (核心领航掌舵,hexin linghang zhangduo).