As 2022 begins to unfold, mainstream global media – including the “gossipy” Chinese language Asian press, are agog with news commentaries and op-ed pieces speculating how difficult it is going to be for Xi Jinping to “win” a third term. However, people often forget the thumb rule for leadership succession in communist China. Which is, the consensus on the next leader is arrived at within the central committee much before the party Congress.
Though Xi Jinping is expected to continue his third term of leadership, the world press and China watchers have not stopped using “ifs” and “buts” on his chances to succeed. As Washington-based founder president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, Jianli Yang, has recently observed in an opinion piece in thehill.com, “the year 2022 will be a big year for Xi but he must fix China’s economic slide.” In its advanced publicity flier for online panel discussion on the theme ‘Towards Xi’s Third Term: China’s 20th Congress and Beyond,’ scheduled on January 20, Washington-based Brookings Institution speculated “Xi has led the country for almost a decade,” but the big question is “what lies ahead of his anticipated third term?”
Likewise, last week, Singapore’s Epoch Times seasoned commentator on mainland Chinese politics, Wang Youqun wrote in his widely read column: “CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping has not stepped a foot outside China in the past 23 not due to Covid-19 but because Xi fears that if he goes abroad, there will be a “coup” in his country.” A month ago, popular Canadian Chinese language news website creaders.net had asked: “Is Xi Jinping’s winning a third term really ironclad? Is there no suspense in his re-appointment?” Earlier in November 2021, commenting on the 19th Central Committee’s four-day 6th Plenum elevating Xi to a stature alongside Mao Zedong, the New York Times wrote: The decision to place Xi among the country’s historical giants will bolster the view that only Xi is capable of steering China toward superpower status. But can this glorifying help fireproof Xi against challenges to his third term succession?
Interestingly, these past months of uncertainty and speculation on whether President Xi will really enjoy a third term or longer, actually began in March 2018 at the “Two Sessions” when it was announced that the two-term restriction on presidency had been abolished. Moreover, clouds of uncertainty and speculation regarding Xi’s third term had much to do with the suspense over whether it was Xi Jinping himself who got the CPC to abolish two-term limit or whether it was the CPC which enshrined Xi in the position as it (the party) needs him at the top in order to overcome both internal and external challenges. Apparently, the 6th Plenum seems to have settled the succession suspense for once and all. The CPC communique released at the end of the plenum has not only reinforced the centrality of the CPC in the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation – the signature theme of Xi Jinping since he became the party general secretary a decade ago, but the communique also clearly indicated to everyone (including the rival ‘Iron Cap Princes’ factions within the party) that “Xi is now the Party and the Party is Xi.”
However, as mentioned, many China watchers are still not ready to grant Xi a complete victory over his rivals. Well-known Chinese political affairs analyst Zhang Jie refuses to accept the message from the historic 3rd Resolution adopted at the 6th Plenum, i.e. Xi has been ensured he will remain at the helm of the party for a third term. Zhang was blunt in challenging such a view in his Chinese language column, and wrote: “The CPC Third Historic Revolution intended to designate Xi Jinping as the highest authority or ding yu yi zun, but judging from the information state media disclosed later, it was a compromise document that was far from Xi’s expectations.” [Italics added]
Besides conflicting interpretations of the Third historic resolution, overseas Chinese language critics have also pointed out that no specific mention of Xi’s third term in the 6th Plenum CPC Communique is a reflection of further intensification of internal factionalism. The Epoch Times political affairs analyst Wang Youqun (mentioned above) too has been writing about the mounting political pressure on Xi to quit by combined efforts of Jiang Zemin (Deng’s compromise choice, now 95, who led the Party and the country following the Tiananmen Upheaval up to 2002/3) and Zeng Qinghong (82, a former Chinese vice president, 2002-2007 who is believed to be leading the anti-Xi faction and a long-time key figure in factional power struggles, is backed by his former boss Jiang Zemin). Both Jiang-Zeng are known as Iron Cap Princes (or Tie mao zi wang – a Qing dynasty term meaning “hereditary and irreplaceable king and who enjoys more privileges and favorable treatment than ordinary princes).
But then there are those China watchers in Hong Kong and in Singapore who have spent long years studying China’s political “tea leaves”, and who claim Xi has actually spun a “political coup” and has emerged as the CPC ‘New Helmsman’ over the past few years. In the words of widely respected seasoned China analyst David Bandurski, director of the Hong Kong based China Media Project, “the 6th Plenum Communique very clearly lays down the foundation for Xi’s elevation next year and his continued leadership of the Party.”
Yan Danxu, Beijing correspondent of Singapore-based Chinese language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, in her remarkable article last December unraveled the inner political intricacies of Xi Jinping’s decade-long “overhauling” of the Party’s provincial leadership. According to Danxu, Xi has successfully engineered toning down of two major rival factions – children of first generation CPC leaders, “second generation reds” or Hongerdai (also known as “party princelings”) and the Communist Youth League or Gongqingtuan. Up until the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, the two “warring” factions were represented by Jiang Zemin/Zeng Qinghong and Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, respectively. But in the ensuing years, the CPC has often emphasized ‘Two Upholds” – upholding Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and upholding the Central Committee’s authority and its centralized, unified leadership, she further noted.
Echoing Yan Danxu’s viewpoint, Peking University political science professor Yang Zhaohui recently observed: “Under the current Chinese political landscape, if officials are unable to adhere to the ‘Two Upholds’ and fail to establish ‘Four Consciousness’, that would be the end of their political career.” It is precisely with this aim, Xi Jinping has been picking up young and talented post-70s generation provincial leaders. As Yan Danxu wrote: “In majority of provinces that have recently had a leadership change, there are 26 post-70s generation (province-level) standing committee members, of which over two dozen are new faces.” Of these new faces, some successfully made it to the 19th Central Committee in 2017, and several more are destined to enter – even at the level of the 25-member political bureau standing committee – into the 20th Congress.
To conclude, what generally remains unnoticed in the world media is most of the post-70s generation province-level leaders being promoted into the Central Committee are expert-type officials. These provincial-level leaders have been personally picked up by Xi based on their experience and merit. Analysts too agree more expert-type officials entering politics not only helps reduce the bureaucratic tone of the cadre team and broadens their horizon, but reduces factionalism in the political arena. Also, do not forget 11 standing committee members in the current 25-member political bureau will step down due to age-limit at this year’s 20th Congress. To many younger expert-type officials, Xi Jinping is a model leader to look up to. As Eric Li, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist and political columnist recently wrote in Foreign Policy: “Xi is a strong leader. Xi certainly has had his share of detractors. Western media and governments have attacked his regime for crushing political dissent in Hong Kong and for controversial policies towards Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. But his stewardship during this once-in-a-generation-crisis has raised Xi’s popularity and his government’s credibility. China is fortunate to have the right leader at the right time. Xi is now being seen in China as ‘a good emperor’.”