China’s Communist Party is 100 years old – and will celebrate itself on July 1st. Xi Jinping is the undisputed number one in the party – and is likely to remain so for some time.
Beijing / Munich – Xi Jinping holds a video conference with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, speaks to the three Chinese astronauts on China’s new space station and congratulates engineers on the official launch of the first water turbines with a gigawatt output at a dam in southwest China. A few days before the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, the head of state and party is omnipresent. He shapes the image of the country and the party like no other Chinese party leader since Mao. A nationwide propaganda campaign has been underway for months to strengthen the legitimacy of the party and Xi Jinping.
When Xi took power in 2012, the party was worn down by power struggles and an impending fragmentation into factions. The economy grew at record speed, but at the same time the system was eroded by corruption. There were concerns that the civilian leadership might lose control of the military, which had built a vast economic shadowy empire.
Xi Jinping immediately started a popular campaign against corruption, with the help of which he got political opponents out of the way. He put powerful cliques cold and brought the military under his control, among other things by replacing corrupt generals with his own confidants. The outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan and its initial cover-up at the end of 2019 threatened to temporarily disrupt these successes, but the party machine quickly took action: with a hard hand, the government managed to contain the virus and counter the displeasure of some citizens with a success narrative. China was the only major economy in the world to see positive growth in 2020 while the rest of the world was still in crisis. In February 2021, Xi announced that China had succeeded in eradicating absolute poverty. Xi set this goal in 2013. According to the official Xinhua news agency, the country has invested nearly 1.6 trillion yuan in poverty reduction over the past eight years – around 210 billion euros.
China: 100 years of the Communist Party – and the eternal Xi. There are no successors in sight
The party celebrates itself for all of this. But there is one challenge that it does not address: the question of the successor to Xi Jinping. So far there is no one in sight. In the past two decades, the princes were named early and introduced to their future role over a period of five years. So far it looks like Xi wants to stay at the top of the party and state beyond the usual ten years. In 2018, he had the constitution changed specifically in order to be able to remain president for more than two terms.
“Europe should assume that Xi Jinping will remain unchallenged in power for at least another five-year term,” expects Nis Grünberg, Senior Analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS). “He has gathered important allies and eliminated potential candidates for leadership,” he writes in one Party anniversary study. In recent years he has filled the headquarters of the party and the state as well as leadership positions in the provinces with loyalists.
Xi has made himself indispensable by making practically every topic a top priority, from economic issues to diplomacy. His “Xi Jinping Thoughts” were included in the CCP constitution. He has centralized power again more strongly in Beijing and does not tolerate dissenting opinions or cultures under the banner of “national security”. China is undoubtedly ruled more authoritarian under Xi than under its predecessors. The well-being of the party is paramount.
Chinese Communist Party: Xi’s withdrawal at the next party conference unlikely
But what then? The next party congress will take place in October 2022 – it only meets every five years. According to the previous tradition, Xi would then make room for a crown prince named in 2017. But it doesn’t even exist yet. Jude Blanchette from the American Center of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) sees several scenarios. “An orderly transition in 2022 is probably the least likely,” he believes. Rather, Blanchette believes that Xi’s departure at one of the following party congresses in 2027 or 2032 is possible. “It is conceivable that Xi will name a successor in 2022, which he can then build,” said Blanchette at a recent webinar. Scenario 3 would be a coup against Xi. “Those in power are often pushed aside by the elite,” says Blanchette. That already happened in China, as in other authoritarian states. But the logistical challenges of organizing a coup should not be underestimated – and they are probably too high, especially since Xi has been practicing “coup prevention” for years, for example by controlling the military. A sudden death would remain in office.
Just as the founder of the state Mao Zedong overtook him in 1976. Power struggles between radicals and moderates in the party followed. Mao’s successor, Hua Guofeng, was ousted from office by Deng Xiaoping. Deng initiated China’s great economic opening and introduced the term limit in order to prevent a new dictator for life. It was the most important political reform of the time. Deng chose a successor for himself twice – but replaced both one after the other because they were too liberal for him in the end. The second, Zhao Ziyang, ended up under house arrest in 1989 because of his understanding of the democracy movement. After the violent suppression of the protests, with many dead, Jiang Zemin ended up as a compromise candidate on the executive chair. He finally initiated the orderly transfer of power of all party and state offices: Jiang was followed by Hu Jintao in 2002, and Hu was followed by Xi in 2012. Graduated upper age limits were adhered to for various offices between 65 and 70 years of age.
Xi Jinping: hard-won standards in China overridden
Xi overrides these hard-won rules. “The more a ruler erodes the norms, the greater the risk for himself,” warns Jude Blanchette. Because then others no longer necessarily followed the rules. “Rivals could think about how they can accelerate Xi’s exit – in a non-constitutional way.” And: It is by no means the case that Xi has no rivals, adds Richard McGregor from the Australian Lowy Institute, who has one with Blanchette Study on the subject wrote. There are two groups that are annoyed by the abolition of the term limit. McGregor calls them “good enemies and bad enemies”. The former are liberals, entrepreneurs or publicists; the latter are those who got caught in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.
What it looks like in a post-Xi China depends on how the change of power takes place, says McGregor, the British correspondent for many years Financial Times was in China. “If Xi stays in office until 2032, the next one at the top would be 50 or 55 today. That means an entire generation of aspiring leaders has been skipped.” It sounds like a recipe for internal party displeasure. It is therefore crucial to get the next generation on board in order to avoid a succession crisis, write the experts.
Xi Jinping: “Chinese Dream” of the People’s Republic’s growing prosperity
This would jeopardize the “Chinese dream” of “common prosperity”, which Xi himself proclaimed. Even without a CP crisis, the challenges are big enough. The party must tackle the growing wealth gap despite the successes in fighting poverty. China’s population is aging rapidly; the country has an image problem abroad and is in conflict with the US and Europe on many issues from human rights to technology and trade issues.
The People’s Republic of China will be 100 years old in 2049. Until then, Xi wants to make the country a prosperous and powerful nation. He himself would then be 96 years old. “If there are no major disasters, it is likely that China will overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by the early 2030s,” said Sebastian Heilmann, Professor of Political Economy of China at Trier University, in a recent statement MERICS interview. “And as long as the West does not get the curve by restoring social and political cohesion, strengthening its innovative strength and developing an effective counter-strategy to China’s advance, we should prepare for a Chinese superpower with global reach.” (ck)
Also read the first text on the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party about the Xi and the “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.