The Rise of Xi Jinping and China’s Superpower Future

From a Wall Street Journal story by Chun Han Wong headlined “Xi Jinping’s Succession Problem—and China’s”:

During China’s last imperial dynasty, Qing emperors held court at the Palace of Heavenly Purity, an imposing edifice of red walls and yellow-glazed roof tiles deep inside Beijing’s Forbidden City. The monarch would consult courtiers and receive guests in the lavish main hall, still visible to tourists today, where his “dragon throne” sat on a dais decorated with intricate motifs. Above the seat of power hung a horizontal tablet that concealed the most sensitive of imperial secrets: the identity of the next emperor.

The practice started with the monarch Yongzheng, who ascended to the Qing throne in 1722. It was born of his bitter experience battling his many brothers for power while his father was still alive. Yongzheng’s solution was to choose an heir but to have his identity revealed only after his own death, a choice that courtiers would verify by comparing two copies of the edict—one kept behind the tablet and the other on the emperor’s person. This way, he reasoned, the incumbent could reduce the risks of open conflict between potential successors, avoid becoming a lame duck and forestall a ruler-in-waiting from usurping power.

Three centuries later, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong seems to favor similar secrecy. Xi Jinping is free to determine who succeeds him and when, but he declined to reveal his hand as he began a third term as Communist Party chief last year. He has reversed the efforts of his predecessors to move toward 10-year leadership cycles, while packing the party’s inner sanctum with allies who lack the necessary combination of age and experience to mark them out as viable successors.

For Xi, who turns 70 in June, this is a mystery by design. The uncertainty over his succession plans keeps the party elite on their toes, helping him to maintain control and buying him time to assess potential heirs. But keeping the suspense for too long could backfire, alienating protégés and antagonizing enemies enough to undermine the leader or even sow the seeds for a coup d’état. Xi, whose family suffered the vicissitudes of party infighting during the Mao era, knows such risks all too well. He also knows that a 21st-century succession crisis in China—with one of the world’s biggest populations, the second-largest economy and one of the most powerful militaries—would unleash shock waves domestically and globally.

Xi’s ability to engineer a smooth succession could determine whether his vision of a rejuvenated China will survive him. The party exalts Xi as the linchpin of China’s renaissance and justifies his strongman style as a stabilizing force in a tumultuous world. A leader seemingly fixated on his own place in history, he takes credit for all major policies and every instance of national success. But his top-down control suppresses initiative and flexibility, while encouraging rote compliance and red tape. Even Xi himself has complained that progress often doesn’t come unless he intervenes with direct orders.

Xi may have delivered the semblance of steady governance, but stability isn’t the same as resilience. As demonstrated by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which many in the West failed to foresee, a seemingly sturdy government can prove surprisingly fragile. “Our party is the world’s largest political party,” Xi once told officials. “I think the only ones who can defeat us are ourselves, nobody else.” By remaking the party around himself, Xi may have become the weakest link in his own quest to build a Chinese superpower.

Xi confronts a timeless conundrum that scholars call the “successor’s dilemma.” Autocrats tend to prefer installing successors whom they trust to uphold their legacy and protect their interests in retirement. But leaders-in-waiting must start building their own power base ahead of time, if they are to avoid being deposed or rendered ineffectual after taking office. Once a clear successor emerges, the political elite will naturally start realigning their loyalties—a process that can undermine the incumbent leader, who may come to fear that the heir apparent is plotting to usurp power.

Authoritarian leaders also have to expect grave consequences should they lose power involuntarily. Even autocrats who retire on their own terms have few guarantees for their safety, other than their ability to maintain leverage over their successors. In a 2010 study, political scientists Alexandre Debs and H.E. Goemans reviewed the fate of more than 1,800 political leaders worldwide, categorized by regime type, from the late 1910s to the early 2000s. Some 41% of the 1,059 autocrats suffered exile, imprisonment or death within a year of leaving office, compared with just 7% of 763 democratic leaders. A review by political scientist Yuhua Wang of the 282 emperors who reigned across 49 Chinese dynasties found that monarchs who anointed heirs were much less likely to be deposed than those who didn’t.

China has gone through multiple transfer-of-power dramas since the Communist victory of 1949. During Mao’s mercurial rule, one would-be successor was purged and tortured before dying in detention, while another perished in a plane crash after allegedly leading a failed attempt to seize power. As Mao told close associates on his 73rd birthday, the enemies who would betray his revolution and legacy lay deep inside the party, for “the fortress is easiest to capture from within.”

His eventual chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, had to topple a rival faction led by Mao’s wife—the Gang of Four—before he himself was ousted by Deng Xiaoping. And although Deng developed norms for power-sharing and timely retirement, he ended up purging two protégés and dominating politics until his death in 1997.

For a while after that, China seemed to have cracked the succession code. Deng’s passing spurred an outpouring of emotion but no political turmoil, with his successor Jiang Zemin already well ensconced as party chief. The next two leadership handovers also proceeded with relative calm, despite some intrigue along the way, persuading some scholars that the Communist Party was at last capable of regular, predictable and peaceful transitions.

Things changed with Xi. Since becoming party chief in 2012, he has accrued personal clout to a degree unseen since Mao. He designated himself the party’s “core” leader and greatest living theorist, ensuring that he can remain China’s pre-eminent politician until he passes on, or as party insiders say, “goes to see Marx.” He scrapped term limits on the largely ceremonial presidency and upended retirement norms honed by his predecessors, obliterating the most important political reforms of the post-Mao era.

Leadership changes can prove precarious even in democracies with established procedures for transferring power, as the U.S. demonstrated in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. In China, the dangers of power struggles remain vivid memories for people who lived through the Mao and Deng eras. The collapse of the Soviet Union also looms large. Xi has publicly blamed it in part on bungled successions that allowed the rise of weak leaders who were not “man enough” to save the regime.

When Xi took a second term as party leader in 2017, he declined to elevate a potential successor into the party’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee. It was the first clear sign that he was preparing to retain power beyond the 10-year leadership cycle that his predecessor had set. The party canon of “Xi Jinping Thought,” also adopted that year, gives his words the strength of holy writ.

Then Xi repealed presidential term limits the following spring, surprising ordinary Chinese and even party insiders. Just months before, in late 2017, one of China’s top constitutional scholars had published an article saying that term limits had effectively curbed the party’s problems with life tenure, overconcentration of individual power and personality cults—the very issues that Xi came to embody.

On paper, the party prohibits life tenure. Its charter states that cadres in leadership positions “do not hold posts for life and can be transferred from or relieved of their posts,” and regulations bar officials in leadership roles from staying in the same post beyond 10 years, or at the same level of the party for more than 15 years. But none of that seemed to matter in 2022 when Xi enjoyed what officials hailed as unanimous support for his taking a third term as party chief.

An important factor in Xi’s succession planning is how much time he believes he needs to achieve his goals. Although he would be 74 by the end of his third term as party chief in 2027, Xi would still be two years younger than Jiang Zemin was when he stepped down as general secretary in 2002. Some party insiders say Xi could choose to stay on until at least 2035, the official target date for completing some of his signature initiatives, including economic development and military modernization. Xi would be 82 by then—around Joe Biden’s age at the end of this presidential term.

There are some signs to watch for to spot a succession plan taking shape. To ensure a smooth transition, Xi would need to prepare any potential successors with stints in the Politburo Standing Committee; a sole heir apparent would likely be named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and deputy head of state. Though supreme power in China hasn’t always been vested in formal titles, Xi has placed a great premium on them, in part because he lacked other sources of legitimacy, unlike Mao and Deng, who boasted revolutionary pedigrees and wielded personal clout. Some party insiders suggest that Xi could resurrect Mao’s title of party chairman, possibly as a post he could hold for life, while handing over day-to-day responsibilities to his chosen heir.

Who could succeed Xi? Much attention has fallen on senior officials who were born during the 1960s, making them around 10 years younger than Xi’s own 1950s-born cohort. Some of his so-called “post-60” protégés already hold senior roles—including three of China’s four vice premiers and the party chiefs of the four provincial-ranked municipalities of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing. But Xi, in extending his own reign, could skip the post-60s and tap potential heirs from a younger crop of officials.

Unfettered by term limits, Xi seemingly can take as long as he needs to decide who should take over. And he has shown that he is keenly aware of the stakes. “Realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” he told officials in 2018, “requires cultivating generations upon generations of reliable successors.”

Foreign intelligence agencies stepped up their scrutiny of Xi’s health—a closely held state secret—after he repealed presidential term limits in 2018, according to a researcher who discussed the issue with intelligence officials from two governments. “Their concern is that the party doesn’t have a well-thought-out succession plan,” the researcher told me. “We can’t say we know what would follow if something happens to Xi.”

There are no clear procedures and few precedents to fall back on should Xi leave office suddenly, whether by death, illness or resignation. In theory, the Central Committee would assemble to select a new party chief and military commission chairman, while the vice president would step up as head of state. In practice, without a designated heir in place with broad support from the party elite, the process of choosing a successor could be politically fraught. As Mao’s health and faculties faded in his final years, rival officials schemed against one another as they vied for his favor in hopes of becoming the chosen heir.

Xi, for his part, has taken few chances in protecting his power. Similar to Mao and Deng, he has sought to dismantle alternative power centers, intimidate potential rivals and undermine even close colleagues who didn’t appear to pose serious threats or have ambitions of challenging the leader. He has used party disciplinary probes against his perceived opponents, sometimes directly but often simply to undercut them by tearing down their political networks.

Elite struggles in Marxist-Leninist regimes are like a “knife fight with weird rules,” according to the historian Joseph Torigian, who wrote a book analyzing Soviet and Chinese succession struggles after the deaths of Stalin and Mao. Those succession fights upended politics in both countries, where the winners repudiated despotism and built new power structures that they hoped wouldn’t succumb to one-man rule. Neither Stalin nor Mao, for all their might, could ensure their systems of governance outlived them. The biggest threat to an autocrat’s legacy may well be himself.

Chun Han Wong has covered China for The Wall Street Journal since 2014. This essay is adapted from his new book, “Party of One: The Rise of Xi Jinping and China’s Superpower Future,” which will be published on May 23 by Avid Reader Press.

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