Xi Jinping is Poised to Become “Leader for Life” in Exchange for Sharing Politburo Seats with Rivals

President Xi Jinping walks in front of Premier Li Keqiang, (source: CPC)

Introduction

President Xi Jinping has presided over a dramatic enhancement of his own personality cult in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress this autumn. The latest sign of this hero worship is that national media have bestowed on Xi the title of lingxiu (领袖). Lingxiu is usually translated as “leader.” But in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) lexicon, lingxiu is a more esteemed and grandiloquent version of “leader.” Throughout the CCP’s history, only the “Great Helmsman” Mao Zedong attained this elevated designation. Xinhua, CCTV and other major media have started running 50 video episodes highlighting Xi’s career, particularly his “momentous contributions” to the party and the country. According to Xinhua, Xi has “sketched out the big picture of the domestic and foreign situation, put forward reform, development and stability… and [is] responsible for progress in running the party, the country and the army” (Ming Pao, May 23; Xinhua, April 18).

Hagiographic references to Xi, who already gained the important title of “leadership core” in 2016, seem to debunk speculations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the overseas Chinese community that the 69-year-old Shaanxi native is gravely sick and facing ingrained opposition from political foes –led by Premier Li Keqiang –on both economic and foreign policy. Famous overseas key opinion leaders (KOLs) such as New York-based Chen Pokong are adamant that the pro-market policies of Premier Li and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Chairman Wang Yang are trumping Xi’s quasi-Maoist views on the party’s near-absolute control over the economy (Chen Pokong Youtube, May 18; Radio French International, May 12). Some have even gone so far as to speculate that Xi has been forced to yield his number one position in the party and state to Li (Radio Free Asia, May 18; VOA Chinese, March 27).

The practice of referring to Xi as lingxiu traces back to last April, when the supreme leader went on an inspection trip to Guangxi Province. The provincial media started eulogizing Xi as “the core of the whole party and the people’s lingxiu.” “The emotions of the people’s lingxiu are tied to Guangxi residents; his great thoughts are shining over the entire province,” local newspapers said. Guangxi media also indicated that the people would “forever support the lingxiu, protect the lingxiu, and follow the lingxiu” (Nanning Daily, April 28; HK01.com, April 20). In a recent meeting, senior cadres in Guangdong intoned that China was becoming wealthy and strong only due to “the power exercised by General Secretary Xi Jinping in making [sole] decisions [through his] personal authority and giving the final word [on policies]” (Rthk.hk, May 21; Hk.finance.yahoo.com, May 21)

There is therefore little question that President Xi, who is also General Secretary of the CCP and Chairman of its Central Military Commission, will secure at least one more five-year term as supreme leader of China at the 20th Party Congress later this year. It is also probable that his status as “core and lingxiu [of the leadership] for life” will be officially recognized and that he will be handed a fourth term at the 21st Party Congress in 2027. This means that Xi will rule until at least 2032, when the conservative, quasi-Maoist leader will be 79 years of age.

Xi Plays a Strong Hand

Xi’s continuation in power looks set to continue despite widespread speculation that he has been severely criticized by party elders such as former premier Zhu Rongji, or that current Premier Li – who will serve as head of government until next March – may be scheming to undermine his powers. In a May 25 televised conference with thousands of national and local leaders, Li doubled down on the imperative of arresting the palpable signs of economic decline that have become particularly glaring in March and April. Li saluted Xi’s leadership and the importance of the latter’s “zero tolerance” COVID policy, but also urged officials to “complete their task of economic and social development even as they do a good job of preventing and controlling the pandemic.” “We must have a firm grip over the overall situation [of the country] and avoid “focusing on only one goal (单打一, dandayi) and “imposing rigid uniformity on policies (一刀切, yidaoqie),” Li added. The Premier further noted that logistics and supply-chain snarls must be curbed “so as to resume production and meet [economic] targets.” As Xi’s zero-COVID policy approach has been widely criticized for maiming the economy, Li seems to be mounting a not-so-subtle challenge to the supreme leader’s authority (Xinhua, May 25; United Daily News, May 25).

However, the fact of the matter is that as Mao Zedong said regarding internecine bickering among factions: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Xi is the only Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member with control over the People’s Liberation Army, the People’s Armed Police, as well as the ordinary police and the intelligence establishment. Xi’s confidante Ding Xuexiang, the Director of the CCP General Office, assigns drivers, secretaries and security details to most of the Politburo members and party elders. Ding also maintains a surveillance system over both civilian and military leaders, which includes phone-tapping and close monitoring of their out-of-office activities (The Diplomat, February 1; South China Morning Post (SCMP), March 11, 2015). The General Office of the CCP Central Committee issued a directive on May 16  warning party elders not to “give improper opinions” (妄议, wangyi) on the central party leadership (i.e., supreme leader Xi). Former top cadres must also respect the country’s recently tightened immigration regulations when seeking to go abroad. Both retired and serving cadres have also been asked to divest themselves of their overseas assets – and to bring this precious foreign exchange back to the country (Radio Free Asia, May 17; Xinhua, May 15).

A Bargain with Rivals?

Due to the fact that the economy is facing problems such as flagging consumer spending and tepid manufacturing – which have been exacerbated by Xi’s uncompromising stance on his “zero tolerance” pandemic policy – the supreme leader has apparently agreed to make compromises on both economic policy and personnel issues (Caixin.com, May 25; China Brief, May 5). As the official China News Service underscored in a May 19 commentary, “the direction of the wind is changing and the e-platform economy is witnessing one encouraging sign after another” (China News Service, May 19). Premier Li has repeatedly stressed the importance of upholding economic growth and employment while ignoring the kind of ideological obsessions that are the hallmark of Xi. As a result, Xi has had to significantly moderate his policy of upholding the party’s ironclad control over technology conglomerates (China Brief, May 5). This policy shift is demonstrated by the relatively liberal statements that his key advisor, Politburo member and Vice Premier Liu He recently made on how regulations over IT firms must be “based on [the principles of] marketization, legalization and internationalization” and that control mechanisms must not harm the market (People’s Daily, March 16; Gov.cn, March 16).

On the personnel front, members of the Xi Jinping Faction are apparently facing challenges. Chances are high that the political fortunes of Politburo member and Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang – who is reportedly Xi’s favored candidate to succeed Premier Li – have been damaged due to negative fallout from the extended lockdown in Shanghai. Other Xi protégés who have run into trouble include the former party secretary of Hubei Province Ying Yong and the former party secretaries of the key cities of Hangzhou and Zhengzhou, respectively Zhou Jianyong (周建勇) and Xu Liyi (徐立毅) (Cnstock.com, April 20; Radio Free Asia, March 30).

The upshot is that while Xi still towers over all other Politburo- and ministerial-level cadres, he has to make concessions in the key area of personnel arrangements to be endorsed by the 20th Party Congress. Take, for example, the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), China’s de facto, highest ruling political body. The projection of the make-up of the seven-member Standing Committee to be confirmed by the party congress is as follows: General Secretary Xi Jinping; Head of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee Ding Xuexiang; and either Li Qiang or Chongqing Party Secretary Chen Min’er. Two seats are expected to be reserved for the rival Communist Youth League Faction (CLYF) led by Premier Li. Li is pushing for the Vice Premier in charge of agriculture and CYLF stalwart Hu Chunhua to succeed him. According to party convention, one key qualification for the premiership is that the successful candidate must have served as vice premier. None of Xi’s preferred cadres to carry Li’s mantle is a current or former vice premier. Either Premier Li or CPPCC Chairman Wang, both of whom will be one year shy of the usual retirement age of 68 at the 20th Party Congress, may remain on the PBSC. If Li were to stay in the supreme council, there is a good possibility that he might move to the National People’s Congress as Chairman. The sudden prominence that Premier Li has enjoyed in the media over the past two months can be seen as an effort to strike a bargain with Xi. Namely, Li will not oppose the extension of Xi’s tenure at the Party Congress in return for Xi’s support for fellow CYLF members such as Vice-Premier Hu and CPPCC chief Wang (VOAChinese, March 22; Heritage.org, March 7; The Diplomat, August 4, 2020).

Zhao Leji (born 1957), the youngest PBSC incumbent who heads the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China’s topmost anti-graft body, will also get a second term as Standing Committee member despite having gone from being a Xi confidante to the latter’s political foe (Facebook.com, October 28, 2020; VOAChinese, January 9, 2019). The last slot may be given to a rising star with no obvious factional affiliations. If this were to come to pass, the Xi faction will control three out of seven PBSC spots. However, changes in the line-up of both the Politburo and the PBSC are likely in the run-up to the Congress.

After Xi, Who?

In light of the possible composition of the PBSC, one of Xi’s top priorities after the 20th Party Congress will be to thrash out a mechanism for his succession. If Xi were to rule until the 22nd Party Congress in 2032, a good number of Sixth-Generation rising stars –those born from 1959 to 1969 – including Li Qiang, Chen Min’er and Ding Xuexiang will have reached the retirement age of 68 by the early 2030s. As a result, the senior cadre who eventually succeeds Xi might come from a member of the Seventh Generation (7G) of CCP leadership born in the 1970s (China Brief, November 12, 2021). At this stage, however, it is too early to speculate who among the 7G affiliates – who have only risen to the rank of vice minister, vice provincial governor or vice mayor – have a chance of making it to the top (Thinkchina.sg, December 6, 2021; (SCMP, June 26, 2021). Clearly, Xi’s bid for lifetime tenure – and the fact that his economic and pandemic policies are meeting strong opposition within the ruling elite – demonstrates the highly undemocratic and non-transparent institutions of the party and state. It also shows the dangers of the Xi leadership’s ignoring institutional reforms pioneered by Greater Architect of Reform Deng Xiaoping and reinstating the earlier norms inaugurated by the late chairman Mao Zedong.

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.