Xi Jinping’s “unprecedented” third term: the unknown consequences for China & (possibly) the world
The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (NCCPC) - a week-long conclave that establishes the CCP’s leadership and broad direction for the next five years - granted Xi Jinping an “unprecedented third term” as General Secretary of the CCP and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CCM).
Such a move is exceptional and confirms Xi Jinping’s strong grip on power within the party. This is because “the actual power and authority” rests with the CCP, meaning the General Secretary holds the most influential position within China. Furthermore, there is an “unwritten consensus” amongst senior officials that the General Secretary and CCM leadership should be limited to two five-year terms; a norm that also includes a “seven up, eight down” age limit - requiring leaders to retire at 68. Xi is 69 himself, meaning he has “flouted” all aspects of the convention; loyalty, then, has become the new principal criterion for advancing one’s political career. This is evident by the (now 24-member) Politburo - the top leadership body of the 96 million-member CCP - and its makeup: Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, was promoted despite being age 69, whilst General Zhang Youxia, aged 72, remained on the Politburo. Furthermore, within the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) - the “apex of political power” which presides over the broader Politburo - the retirements of Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, both aged 67 and from rival political factions, were notable.
Such revisionism follows a long-term trend which has seen Xi Jinping further concentrate his control; amassing a “Mao-like power” in China. Indeed, in 2017, the 19th NCCPC incorporated into the party constitution “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” as a guiding principle; this was followed by the National People’s Congress (NPC) enshrining “Xi Jinping Thought” into the state constitution in 2018. This confirmed Xi as a ‘great’ leader; no other chairman since Mao Zedong has had an “eponymous ideology” embedded into the constitution whilst in office. An important element of “Xi Jinping Thought” is its emphasis on stability via a “party first” mantra. The reversion of Deng’s political reforms that occurred in the 1980s is epitomised by the abolition of the constitutional presidential limit (two five-year terms); a measure - not long after Mao’s death in 1976 - which sought to “put an end to the virtually lifelong tenure of leading cadres, [and] change the over-concentration of power”. In justifying this change, the CCP has identified the long-term political stability associated with a “trinity” of leadership: CCP (via General Secretary), Military (via CCM), & PRC (via Presidency).
The end of collective leadership is therefore apparent, with the 20th NCCPC signifying Xi has become the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. Amid this reality, it is necessary to examine Xi Jinping’s extraordinary rise to power in order to understand the potential consequences for China and the world.
Xi Jinping’s extraordinary story and rise to power
Despite Xi being one of the most powerful people in the world, he is still very much a mystique figure. As Sue-Lin Wong, the China Correspondent for The Economist notes in her recent (and widely available) podcast series “The Prince”, his life-story is hidden behind a vast censorship and propaganda machine. Wong successfully explores Xi’s real childhood; his rise through the CCP; and how he uses the lessons he learnt.
Xi’s childhood and early life:
Xi Jinping was born a ‘princeling’ in Beijing in 1953; his father, Xi Zhongxun, was a founding father of modern China, fighting alongside Mao in China’s civil war and features regularly in party propaganda about this period. Indeed, Xi Zhongxun was a high-official and within the inner-circle of the CCP during this period. Xi Jinping’s mother, Qi Xin, also fought in the Chinese civil war and worked at the central party school, training party officials. She is still alive - at the age of 96 - and is described as a “quiet councillor” for Xi. Xi Jinping’s early years were therefore spent in the “Big Yards”, residential compounds reserved for influential figures. From here, he attended an exclusive boarding school. But this comfortable upbringing was not to last.
In 1962, Xi Zhongxun fell out of favour after the publication of “Liu Zhi Dan” by Li Jiantong - a novel documenting the life of North Shaanxi guerrilla leader and “revolutionary martyr”, Liu Zhidan, who died on the Shanxi front in 1936 during the Chinese civil war. This novel became a “political case” for it held competing interpretations such as ‘reversing the verdict’ on Gao Gang, a senior CCP figure who was purged in 1954-5 in what was the “biggest scandal in the Chinese communist movement from the mid-1930s to the 1960s”. Xi Zhongxun was therefore accused of ‘anti-party’ activities due to his past connections with Liu Zhidan, Gao Gang and others, as well as his informal editorial contribution to the novel itself, which was viewed as portraying himself favourably to serve as “political capital”. As a result, Xi Zhongxun was banished from the party’s leadership and sent away to a labour camp. This was a formative time for Xi Jinping, belonging to a family that was a loser in the Chinese political system. This ostracisation, however, was only the beginning.
The cultural revolution saw a period of turmoil and chaos afflict China. Xi Jinping’s half-sister committed suicide during this period. At the age of 15, Xi himself was sent away to the rural countryside to complete hard labour, along with millions of young urban Chinese. He did not return from rural Yanchuan County until he was 22. This is an important period in Xi Jinping mythology; the official narrative is it forged Xi from an entitled ‘princeling’ to a capable adult attuned to the concerns of the commoners. But perhaps the real importance of this period was the power of the CCP and the ‘game’ within it: “Xi wouldn’t just have to play the game, he’d have to win”.
His rise through the CCP:
In 1973 Xi began his “impressive political journey” by applying to join the CCP; it apparently took 10 attempts before he was accepted as a result of his ‘bad’ family background. From here, Xi Jinping was one of a select-group of students chosen by local leaders to study chemical engineering at Tsinghua University (1975-1979), although this was during the Mao-era so ostensibly was heavily influenced by Mao Zedong Thought. He started his working career at the Central Military Commission as former defence minister Geng Biao's private secretary. After three years in this job, however, Xi left Beijing to become the deputy-party secretary of a rural county in Hebei province. This marked the advancement of a two-decade political career through
various county, municipal and provincial leadership positions across China. This included 17 years in Fujian province, where he rose through the party ranks.
In 2002, a wave of retirements made room for a new generation of leadership and this included Xi, who was promoted to party secretary in the neighbouring Zhejiang province; overseeing strong economic growth. In 2007, the CCP sacked its party boss from Shanghai, and Xi was chosen in what became his final test; the party secretary of Shanghai is considered a ‘high-value’ position for it is one of six provincial-level jurisdictions that “outrank their counterparts” due to their concurrent responsibilities of being members of the Politburo. Just seven months later, Xi was promoted to the PSC and subsequently named vice-president. This indicated Xi was preferred to succeed Hu Jintao as President; would he continue to make China less restrictive through deeper political reforms?
Much optimism surrounded Xi Jinping during his vice-presidency. Perhaps, as Sue-Lin Wong recalls, this was due to the time-period (2007-12) being a ‘high-point’ of the liberal international order; his vice-presidency overlapped with the 2008 Beijing Olympics - viewed as the “coming out party” for China - where he was put in charge of the final preparations for the games. Xi Jinping also “endeared himself to China’s liberal commentariat through his family pedigree”; Xi Zhongxun was a champion of Deng’s economic ‘reform and opening’, as well as being a vocal supporter of Hu Yaobang - a reformist leader - during the 1980s. Xi Jinping’s reputation as a “meticulous technocrat shaped by the brutality of the Cultural Revolution”, as well as his own personal connection with the US - having visited in 1985, 1992, 1993, 2006 and 2012 - further entrenched domestic and international interpretations of Xi as a ‘liberal’.
However, amid this hope and optimism, an informal conversation in 2011 involving Xi, as well as (then vice-president) Joe Biden and Danny Russell - former Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Asian - is telling. Russell recalls Xi “talked at considerable length about the Arab Spring”, unpacking the key lessons for the CCP: that corruption constituted a considerable threat to those in power for a sustained period of time. When coming to power in 2013, it is clear what vision Xi Jinping had in-mind for China.
Xi Jinping served across four provinces and in the municipality of Shanghai in varying levels of governance. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)
The Communist Party is said to have almost 90 million members. (ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser)
Consequences for China’s future
Xi Jinping’s trip to the 2022 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan was reported to be a “decisive confirmation” of an absence of party rivals. In spite of this, it is evident Xi still faces a number of immediate challenges - there is certainly “no time for a victory lap”.
Will Chinese society accept a Mao-like figure?
Domestically the CCP’s fundamental pillar of legitimacy - delivering rising living standards - has been undermined by a “beleaguered economy” due to a struggling property sector, as well as Xi’s two “signature policies”: (1) a Marxist-Leninist economic agenda - “common prosperity” - which has reduced the Chinese private sector’ enthusiasm, and (2) the zero-Covid policy. According to Professor Steve Tsang, “Xi is now showing that he is making quite a few very important wrong calls, which are causing the Chinese economy to get into greater difficulties”. Poor decision-making, as a result of excessive power concentration, has long been considered potentially destabilising for the CCP. Amid this reality a flow-on effect could arise. One example was the recent (and rare) protest in Beijing - just days before the 20th NCCPC.
This marks a considerable change from even just a year ago, where Xi was “without qualification” very popular across China - “much more than inside the Communist Party itself”, according to Tsang. Indeed, Xi attracted broad-based popular support across Chinese society through a greater emphasis on ‘socialism’ in “socialism with Chinese characteristics”; a high-profile anti-corruption campaign; and a more nationalistic posture. His popularity was epitomised by “Xi Dada” pop songs - “spontaneous tributes” dedicated to Xi Jinping. It remains to be seen whether recent events will alter Chinese society’ acceptance of a return to a Mao-like figure.
What comes after Xi?
Another outcome from the 20th NCCPC was the absence of a clear successor. This has fostered an “unprecedented” situation, according to Chen Gang, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute: “This new lineup is not a product of power sharing or horse trading among different factions, but basically it is the result or consequence of Xi’s authority”. It seems increasingly likely, therefore, that Xi desires a fourth term and moreso, to be a leader for life. The inner-workings of Xi’s plan, and his ability to execute it, were showcased on October 23, when the top leadership made a choreographed appearance in order of importance. In addition to ‘packing’ the CCP’s top leadership with his most loyal allies, the youngest member of the 20th PSC - Ding Xuexiang - is 60.
This is significant as a leader-in-waiting should be in their mid-50s, enabling a total of 15 years on the PSC for gradual progression: one five-year term as a junior leader, before taking on more senior roles for the next 10 years. Furthermore, and as noted above, age norms were designed to ensure smoother power transitions through dividing the Chinese leadership into ‘generations’. Such disruption is why the 20t