Andrei Lungu | 7 October 2021 As China continues its economic, technological and geopolitical rise, its leadership’s unstated goal seems to be overtaking the United
Xi Jinping said it and the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) confirmed it: it’s a new era, including for the party and its process of institutionalization. Xi entered the congress as a very powerful leader, but one who still respected almost all of the traditions and precedents that guided Chinese politics over the past two decades. While comparisons with Deng and Mao were common in the West, Xi’s power had shown clear limits.
In his entire five-year term, Xi purged just one of the Politburo’s 25 members. Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, his most recent predecessors, did the same. In fact, they did it earlier in their term than Xi. What made Xi special was the anti-corruption campaign that targeted four former Politburo members, including a retired member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the party’s most powerful body. While these moves were widely read as a testament to Xi’s personal power, the campaign started just one month after Xi came to power, with the backing of the party leadership, who was aware of the threat corruption posed to the CPC’s legitimacy. Instead, the campaign also showed the limits of Xi’s power: out of more than a dozen retired PSC members, only one was investigated. While four of the 25 members of the previous Politburo were found guilty of corrupt, just one current Politburo member was investigated, a strange discrepancy. Xi hunted wounded tigers and refrained from fighting with the current leadership, either because he lacked the power or because he wanted to avoid chaos.
Another aspect that was widely interpreted as sign of Xi’s statute was his prominence in official propaganda. But, again, this was most likely a party decision. The boost in Xi’s image came before Xi managed to place his ally, Huang Kunming, in the upper-echelons of the propaganda apparatus, which was controlled for the entire term by people who weren’t close to Xi.
Finally, when it came to appointments, Xi was active in promoting allies, but without braking the limits. Some Xi allies, like Liu Yuan or Xia Baolong retired when they reached the traditional retirement age. The “New Zhijiang Army” has received a lot of attention, but Hu Jintao also promoted his Youth League faction, while Jiang Zemin promoted the Shanghai clique. The question was how many Xi allies will become Politburo members at the 19th congress.
All in all, during his first term, Xi looked stronger than his immediate predecessors, but the data for comparisons with Deng or Mao wasn’t there. If we take a look at the outgoing Politburo, out of 25 members, Xi seemed to have only 4 allies: Wang Qishan, Li Zhanshu, Zhao Leji and Xu Qiliang. In the previous five years, Xi also became very close to Wang Huning, who had been an adviser to both Jiang and Hu. So Xi had just 5 allies out of the remaining 24 Politburo members. No quite the stuff of a strongman.
This is how Xi entered the congress. The institutionalization of the Communist Party, which took place over the past 20 years, still looked alive, even if there was speculation that it was in grave danger. The rumors focused on the possibility that Wang Qishan, Xi’s only ally in the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) might stay beyond the retirement age of 68, or that Xi will not designate a successor. There was also talk that Xi might inscribe his eponymous theoretical ideasin the party constitution as a guiding ideology, or that he might reinstate the position of Party Chairman. At an extreme, there was even speculation that Xi might replace Li Keqiang as China’s premier. So what did the 19th congress tell us about institutionalization and Xi’s power?
Based on an analysis of the patterns and precedents that could be observed in the formation of the Politburo Standing Committee over the past 20 years, the new PSC should have looked something like this: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Han Zheng, Li Yuanchao, Chen Min’er, Li Zhanshu, Hu Chunhua. It seemed probable that Li Yuanchao, whose political fortunes didn’t look very good, might be replaced by Wang Yang.
But, when the new members of the PSC stepped on stage on October 25 (Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, Han Zheng), it became clear that some old traditions were abandoned, even if three of the five new members were predictable (Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang and Han Zheng). The most obvious problem was the lack of successors. Odd-numbered congresses were seen as the moment when a successor was clearly indicated, through his promotion to the PSC. A successor should have been young enough to rule between 2022 and 2032, so he needed to be born after 1960. But all seven PSC members are born in the 1950s. Thus, the tradition of a five-year long transfer of power, one of the key processes of institutionalization, seems to have been abandoned. But the new PSC raises other important problems as well.
Traditionally, once somebody reached the Politburo, he either remained a member until retirement, or ascended to the PSC. This is history. Li Yuanchao, Liu Qibao (both associated with the Communist Youth League) and Zhang Chunxian are all under 66 years, but none has remained in the Politburo. Li Yuanchao, a two-term Politburo member, has been pensioned off. Liu and Zhang are still members of the Central Committee, but lost their power. What’s even more striking is that Liu, who was head of the Propaganda Department, stood a good chance of ascending to the PSC, to become the propaganda chief. This is what Liu Yunshan did in 2012 and this was the traditional working of things. However, the new propaganda chief is Wang Huning, who is only 62 years old and who hasn’t worked in China’s propaganda apparatus.
Wang Qishan’s absence from the new PSC is a sign that informal retirement norms are still respected. The 68 retirement age is alive. But age was far more complex in the process of PSC formation. Out of the pool of Politburo members under 68, the most likely to be promoted to the PSC were the politicians who were between 63 and 67. The reason is simple: somebody who is 62 will have another chance to be promoted five years later. This is how things have worked for over 25 years. This process reduced competition and made it possible for more Politburo members to ascend to the PSC for just one term. This is history as well.
Out of five new members, three (Zhao Leji, Wang Yang and Wang Huning) are 62 or younger. This means that they could serve another term in 2022. Ignoring the leaders of the generation, like Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang or Hu Jintao (who, by tradition, complete two terms), in 30 years between 1987 and 2017, out of 21 PSC members, only five served two terms. Three of them (Wu Bangguo, Jia Qinglin, Li Changchun) did so not because they took the seat of an older politician, but rather because there was nobody else in line to be promoted to the PSC in 2002.
If the three young members will serve two terms, not only did some older Politburo members, like Li Yuanchao or Liu Qibao, lose the chance of promotion, but many new Politburo members will also fail to reach the PSC in 2022. The old mechanism that prioritized age seniority in order to increase the number of Politburo members who reach the PSC is dead.
One precedent that seems to have survived is the promotion of the Shanghai party chief to the PSC. Han Zheng is the latest in a long line of Shanghai politicians who reach the PSC. This has been seen by some as a sign that Xi offered some space to Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai clique, just like Wang Yang’s inclusion looked like a nod to the Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League. But this doesn’t seem to be the case.
We need to remember that, in the old Politburo, Xi had just three allies (Li Zhanshu, Zhao Leji and Xu Qiliang) and a new friend (Wang Huning). Xu Qiliang is an air force general and no military man has joined the PSC in over two decades. All the other three allies of Xi have been promoted to the PSC. This is a 100% success rate. Xi simply had nobody else to bring to the PSC. He could either keep Wang Qishan past retirement age or bring an ally from outside the Politburo. While this has happened before, it only happened with young politicians who jumped from the Central Committee to the PSC because they were groomed to become leaders (Hu Jintao and Zhu Rongji in 1992, Xi and Li in 2007). Anyway we put it, Xi had to break a very visible precedent (retirement age or promotions only from the Politburo) in order to bring another ally to the PSC. He either couldn’t or didn’t want to. So he promoted Han Zheng, with whom he worked for 7 months in 2007, and Wang Yang, with whom he shares some views regarding economic reform. It doesn’t look so much as a gift to Jiang or Hu, but as the best possible solution for Xi in the given circumstances.
Looking at the precedents and patters of the past 20 years, the only change in the formation of the PSC is the promotion of politicians younger than 63, which seems a trivial difference. But this factor is very important.
The 63 years limit allowed a greater turnover in the PSC, as most members served just one term. This brought a renewal in leadership every five years. More importantly, it offered an important carrot to Politburo elites: wait patiently for your turn and you’ll reach the PSC, with all the added perks. This carrot is gone. If you’re a Politburo member, you might end up in early retirement (Li Yuanchao), kicked from the Politburo (Liu Qibao), investigated (Sun Zhengcai), or just never promoted (the fate that might await nine Politburo members in 2022). This old system of institutionalization that promoted loyalty of the Politburo elite is gone. Politburo members can no longer wait for a promotion – they need to earn it, by being loyal to the party core, Xi Jinping.
Probably just as important as the PSC is the new Politburo. Over here, Xi’s dominance has become clear. Normally, just 11 former Politburo members should have retired. Yet the Politburo has 15 new members. Whether through corruption investigation, early retirement or demotion, more seats have been cleared. And they have been filled with Xi allies: 11 of the new members seem to be Xi allies (old friends or former subordinates from the provinces), while two (Li Hongzhong or Yang Jiechi) are probably loyal to Xi. From somebody who had just one ally in the PSC and five allies in the Politburo, Xi now has majorities in both bodies. He is in complete control.
The outcome is no longer surprising once we also learned that the underlying process has changed. In the past decade, the Politburo and PSC were decided after taking into account internal elections in the upper ranks. But these elections were replaced with one-on-one discussions, a system that offered Xi greater power. The elections were blamed for resulting in “arbitrary voting” and “votes for votes” collusion between disgraced politicians like Zhou Yongkang and Sun Zhengcai. What’s interesting is that Xinhua offered the precise number of people Xi consulted: 57. Not 50 or 60, but 57. We have no idea who they are, but we can speculate who they should have been: 23 Politburo members (one can presume Sun Zhengcai wasn’t consulted before his arrest), 15 elders present on the congress presidium, 15 incoming Politburo members (it makes sense to consult people before offering them a promotion), 4 members of the new Central Military Commission (the two vice-chairmen are included in the Politburo cohorts). Precisely 57. Whether they are the ones, we will never know (maybe others were consulted instead of incoming members). But we know what the consultations led to: “several senior leaders voluntarily offered not to seek reappointment”. In a way, it shouldn’t be surprising that Li Yuanchao, who once said that China might have “competitive public elections” for Politburo or even PSC seats around 2030, had to bow out, together with the system he supported.
If this wasn’t enough, the congress also amended the party constitution with some important ideas. The new guiding ideology of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era has already been intensely discussed by observers. This addition is important both because the concept includes Xi’s name and because it became a guiding ideology after just five years of Xi’s rule. But one question about Xi’s Thought is why did it take so long to decide on the name? Jiang’s Three Represents and Hu’s Scientific Outlook on Development were developed and publicized years before being enshrined in the constitution. Xi’s Thought became public one week before this step was taken. For over a year, the party promoted “the spirit of important speeches of General Secretary Xi Jinping” and “new concepts, new thinking and new strategies”. These formulations didn’t make it in the constitution. Why did it take so long to establish consensus and why was the new concept rushed in without prior promotion? This seems consistent with the view that Xi’s power had clear limits in the first years of his term, but his control was greatly strengthened in the year before the congress.
Another important break with the past, which really justifies the idea of a “new era” is the fact that numerous other amendments were added to the constitution. The principal contradiction facing society, a Marxist concept, has been changed to the contradiction between “the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life and unbalanced and inadequate development”. The old contradiction dated from 1982, when Deng introduced economic reforms. This new contradiction should promote some economic reforms and quality over quantity when it comes to economic growth.
But the new constitution contains something else, which is really atypical: the idea of democratic centralism was modified to include the need to “firmly uphold the authority and the centralized, unified leadership of the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core”. This is a new development which firmly consolidates Xi’s power. It also raises a question. The constitution is usually amended to add new ideas and only rarely are things removed. Will this mention of Xi as the core be erased in 2022 when Xi is supposed to step down, or will Xi remain core leader for as long as he desires?
The speculation that Xi might stay in power after 2022 is a few years old. But if you objectively looked at the evidence, it was lacking. Over the past five years, people retired when they were supposed to, Xi repeatedly promoted an ally born in 1960 (Chen Min’er) and even when he purged a possible successor (Sun Zhengcai), he spared the other one (Hu Chunhua). Maybe Xi really told close associates that he wants to have a third term, but the evidence just wasn’t there.
In fact, it seemed that Chen Min’er was groomed as a successor. Like Xi between 2002 and 2007, he climbed the ladder in the provinces, from governor to party secretary. Like Xi, Chen was just a member of the Central Committee, who had also served a previous term as an alternate member. Like Xi, he was promoted to a direct-controlled municipality just a few months before the decisive congress. At the 2007 congress, Xi made the jump from the Central Committee to the PSC. But Chen didn’t follow him this time around. Both Chen and Hu Chunhua, his main competitor for promotion, remain Politburo members, where they have a new colleague born in the 1960s: Ding Xuexiang.
Right now, only Xi knows what will happen in 2022. Or maybe Xi himself hasn’t yet decided what to do. Nonetheless, there is no more road map. The lack of successors in the PSC could be interpreted as a sign that Xi plans to serve a third term. This is indeed the clearest proof yet of this theory. But the successors are still there, just not in the PSC. In fact, there are three possible successors, making it possible for Xi to name two allies as general secretary and premier, if he so desires.
Predicting what will happen in 2022 is now impossible. In 2012 we knew five PSC members were supposed to stand down after one term. This time, who knows? Maybe Li Keqiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning and Wang Yang, all under 67 in 2022, will get another term and Xi will stay with them. Or maybe all (except for Zhao) will go into retirement, only Xi remaining. Or maybe all members will step down and the sixth generation will take over, with the PSC expanded to nine seats, of which Xi allies will have eight. Literally anything is possible and only time will tell.
One sign might come in March 2018, when we will learn the identity of the new vice president and vice premiers. Hu Chunhua seems likely to become one of the lower-ranked vice premiers. But the vice presidency is more uncertain. It would also be strange for Hu to move to the centre, while Chen Min’er remains far away in Chongqing. If we look at the new Politburo, there seems to be no slot for the vice president, like there was one for Li Yuanchao. There are three possibilities: somebody else receives the vice presidency as an additional portfolio (Wang Huning being the lead candidate), the vice president will no longer be a Politburo member or there is a switch in expected portfolios. The second possibility seems in line with the rumours that Wang Qishan might become vice president. In the third case, either Liu He becomes vice premier (he seems likely to become director of the Central Policy Research Office), Yang Jiechi becomes vice president (he seems likely to become vice premier), or some other permutation. Something that used to be rather predictable in the past (the vice presidency) is now a complete mystery. Such is the new era.
Whatever are his plans, in the next five years Xi will have an important task: either design a new succession mechanism or figure out what to do with the presidency. In 2022, Xi will no longer be eligible to serve as President of China, because of a limit of two consecutive terms. Thus, he can either name an ally as president or he will have to modify China’s Constitution (which is different from the party constitution, that contains no precise term limits).
While not only sugar and honey, the context back then was undoubtedly more stable than what we have seen since 2008. The Sunshine Policy was showing signs of working. It was able to move further despite provocations, and even if some components failed, the policy stood strong. For a strategy in place for only 10 years, out of which 5 were lacking support from North Korea’s main enemy, the US, its successes are hard to ignore.
Today, North Korea has tested four nuclear weapons in the last four years, a period during which it has launched an average of almost two missiles a month. If in 2008 the international community was talking about the success of Kaesong and their hope for a more opened North Korea, from then on the spotlight was stolen by provocative acts ending in losses of lives (such as the sinking of the Cheonan, when 46 South Koreans died) and war declarations. If, at the beginning of the century, unification seemed possible, today it is brought up only in the context of North Korea’s collapse. On the other side of the 38th parallel, South Korea is enhancing the range and payload of its missiles and preparing options to decapitate the North Korean leadership, while asking the United States to bring back tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. No foreign leader is contemplating a visit to Pyongyang. There is no more Kaesong, no more Kumgang and no more interaction between the two Koreas.
Critics of the Sunshine Policy call it limited, and they are right in some respects, for it couldn’t convince North Korea to ditch its nuclear weapons. However, some goals-adjustment is needed if we ever want to solve the problem with the North. Any workable policy needs to acknowledge that the possibility of Kim Jong-un agreeing to dismantle his nuclear program is close to, if not, zero. Nuclear weapons assure the survival of his regime. Today, no matter how much the US considers war a viable option, it would bring about a horrible fight ending with an uncountable loss of lives, no matter the side of the parallel you’re on. Additionally, nuclear weapons serve Kim Jong-un with a negotiation tool that is extremely valuable to a regime that has very little leverage. Kim Jong-un knows very well who Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were, and would hate to share their fate. As such, one should naturally infer that his nuclear weapons are simply too valuable to renounce.
If a policy must start from the premise of a nuclear-armed North Korea, how can we work around the threat it poses? We need to assess the probability of the North using its nuclear weapons, because only then do they become a real problem. North Korea knows that its nukes are a workable deterrent, but it also knows that any war waged, with or without them, will ultimately lead to the regime’s demise. Since that isn’t in Kim Jong-un’s interest, we can conclude that North Korea will choose war only if the regime’s demise is unavoidable either way. That is, either somebody (the US) decides to attack the North or the North is dying on its own from years of decaying economy and no friends to call for help. That is the scenario that the present economic sanctions, deterrence and aggressive rhetoric are in the process of constructing, and it benefits no-one. However, the Sunshine Policy would do the exact opposite.
What a difference one year makes. In September 2016, Xi wasn’t even core of the leadership. One year later, his core status is in the party constitution, next to his theoretical contribution. And Xi is now the leader, with majorities in the party’s two main bodies.
Over the past two decades, the Chinese political system had undergone a process of institutionalization and diffusion of power, becoming far more predictable. The 19th party congress proves that this process of institutionalization has stopped, though it hasn’t yet unravelled. From now on, the most important factor will be Xi’s will. But this doesn’t mean that China has reverted to strongman rule, as some believe. This might happen one day, but right now Xi’s power has limits (which he either imposed himself or were forced by others). Xi is still general secretary, not chairman, as some rumours suggested before congress. Wang Qishan retired. Xi kept Li Keqiang as premier. Promotions to the PSC came only from the Politburo. Thus, some precedents survived. In time, Xi’s power will grow, but how much, it remains to be seen.
Yet, in the next five years, almost anything could happen. While many of the older informal norms of institutionalization are gone, Xi will have the power to design new ones, if he so desires. Whatever his plans, one day he will also have to deal with succession and create a new mechanism for a peaceful and efficient transfer of power. In the meantime, he has the chance to implement his vision for China in his second term. And the 19th party congress will go down in history as the beginning of a new era for China.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): Xi Jinping next to Li Zhanshu (right) and Wang Huning (left) (Flickr/Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador), Xi Jinping graffiti (Flickr/thierry ehrmann), Xi Jinping at the BRICS Xiamen Summit in 2017 (Flickr/Palácio do Planalto), The Museum of the Communist Party of China (Flickr/Patrick Rasenberg).
Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.
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