China’s Xi Jinping Creating Succession Turmoil

On Monday, China’s Communist Party began its Sixth Plenum, a closed-door four-day gathering during which the party is considering disciplinary rules and membership standards.

The meeting is also a run-up to next year’s crucial 19th Party Congress, where various succession issues will be decided. And, because some believe that General Secretary Xi Jinping is attempting to break decades-old norms designed to ensure stability and continuity, the meeting will be scrutinized for clues as to the degree to which he has consolidated power inside the ruling organization.

Deng Xiaoping, the successor to founder Mao Zedong, sought to regularize the succession process. He and his successor, Jiang Zemin, put in place various guidelines designed to reduce the scope of disagreement as power passes from one ruler to the next. One such guideline was limiting the party’s general secretary, the most powerful post in China, to two five-year terms.

In recent times, the successor to the then-serving leader was named in the middle of the leader’s ten-year stint. Xi, selected in 2012, was expected to leave his post in 2022. That means his successor, if rules are followed, would be designated next year.

There is, however, talk that Xi is bidding for a third term and has been trying to prevent the naming of a successor next year.

There is also speculation that, in a bid to control the Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful Communist Party body, Xi is trying to jettison another norm, popularly known as “seven-up, eight-down.” Introduced in 2002, this guideline requires Standing Committee members to step down if they are 68 years or older at a congress.

Wang Qishan will be 69 next fall, the expected time of the 19th Congress, and under the rule would be forced to retire. Yet Wang, a Xi ally, runs the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which has been used to relentlessly target Xi’s opponents.

At the moment, little opposition to Xi’s bold moves has been expressed publically, but there appears to be infighting behind the curtain, something evident especially this March and May.

For one thing, many in the party are personally opposed to Xi, but there is also general concern about his attempted breaking of the rules that have kept party unity for about a generation.

Almost all analysts believe Xi consolidated his position early in his term, but those judgments now look to have been premature. Why? In large part because Xi, even if he was as powerful as claimed, has roiled the party by trying to ignore the guidelines, conventions, and understandings that have largely avoided discord. Moreover, as Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College has written recently, Xi’s maneuverings, especially the so-called anti-corruption campaign, have “destroyed the internal unity of the regime.”

There are hints that Xi in fact has fallen short in his attempts to impose his will. For instance, he has not been officially named the “core” of the party’s leadership, a term reserved for predecessors Deng and Jiang.

There have been a series of publicly aired predictions that Xi will be named “core” soon, perhaps at the Sixth Plenum, but the oft-quoted Zhang Lifan, the Beijing-based commentator, has gone on the record saying that the appeals for him to be so designated suggests he failed to obtain his goals this summer at the informal Beidaihe conclave of senior leaders.

Similarly, in recent weeks, there have been major propaganda announcements about the need for a strong leader, and this could also be a sign that Xi has not been able to obtain compliance from others in the party apparatus.

In any event, it looks as if the institutionalization of the party, which many foreigners have hailed as a sign of progress, is under attack from a wilful leader determined to keep power, perhaps at all costs.


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