Xi Jinping is stronger than ever, but China’s future is uncertain

At the 20th CCP Congress, more Xi loyalists will take top positions, but ‘who after Xi’ questions will grow.

Xi Jinping CCP Congress
Chinese President Xi Jinping, seen here on a giant screen, is expected to emerge from the Chinese Communist Party's 20th Congress, which starts on Sunday, with a third term in charge of the party. But a leadership void afterwards could set the stage for uncertainty in the coming years [FILE: Andy Wong/AP Photo]

The 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will start on Sunday, October 16, 2022, in Beijing. CCP General Secretary and China’s President Xi Jinping is all but guaranteed to stay at the helm for a third term after the congress.

Yet while he will emerge from the congress more powerful than ever by placing more loyalists in the party’s apex bodies, the Politburo and its Standing Committee, both Xi and the CCP face difficult questions that have no answers at the moment.

The extent to which Xi is able to reshape the CCP’s leadership group and bring major changes to policy directions depends on how much support he has among the 2,296 delegates attending.

What is clear is that no heir apparent to Xi will be identified at the congress. Such a succession void may increase uncertainties for a future power transition — an issue central to the power play that guides Chinese elite politics.

Ahead of the congress, China has tightened travel restrictions and information flow around Beijing. However, the outcomes of the summit, held once every five years, will resonate far beyond the capital city.

At the 19th CCP Congress in 2017, Xi successfully had his political vision, officially worded as Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, written into the CCP’s constitution. That made him only the third leader — after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping — to have his political doctrine incorporated in the party charter.

Over the next few days, Xi’s effort to further consolidate power and set up what he has described as a “new normal” for China’s economy and politics will determine the future path of the world’s second-largest economy in his “new era”.

The new ‘new normal’

Since coming to power at the 18th CCP Congress in 2012, Xi has shaken up China’s politics, including through a relentless anti-corruption campaign, stern ideological control and crackdowns on tech and property gurus.

Still, though Xi Jinping Thought was included in the CCP’s fundamental documents at the 19th congress in 2017, he at that time appeared to have made compromises with other party elders. Among those accommodations was the continued strict adherence to an informal age criterion, which required new members of the Politburo and Standing Committee to be younger than 68 when the congress is convened.

As a result, the new Standing Committee in 2017 was filled with leaders from diverse political backgrounds — including the Communist Youth League, coastal regions and inland provinces — not all of whom owed their political rise to Xi.

This time Xi has set the stage to break with that pattern. In September, the CCP published new regulations on the promotion and demotion of leading party cadres, which removed the mandatory retirement ages and term limits for the appointment of senior officials.

The new rules play down the importance of age limits significantly and open the door to the promotion and retention of leaders older than 67 in the Politburo. This has added more uncertainties to the final line-up of top leaders on the eve of the CCP Congress as all the seven incumbent Politburo Standing Committee members could, in theory, stay on.

However, a new set of promotion criteria is in play to reshape the leadership team and avoid disruptive power struggles, with the following apparent order of priority — loyalty to Xi, performance, technocratic backgrounds and age.

Succession void

Under this approach, Xi’s loyalists will gain in numbers in the Politburo and its Standing Committee. However, no clear successor to Xi will be anointed. That could set the stage for future uncertainties — and potential tensions.

The issue of successions has affected the country’s political stability since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In particular, power succession in the 1980s did not go smoothly, as evidenced by the ousting of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, leaders who were seen by the party orthodoxy as being too politically liberal in the face of a rising tide of student protests.

Since then, the party leadership has made enormous efforts to institutionalise elite politics. Many formal institutions have been established, but informal rules continue to play a role in handling power succession.

By breaking with those rules, Xi now must use his personal authority to eventually set up a “new normal” for the selection of his successor. That won’t necessarily be a smooth process and might be challenged by intense intra-party competition.

The next Number Two

In the meantime, the CCP will not totally dismantle its collective leadership model at the top, despite Xi’s ever-growing power.

Economically liberal candidates who are not linked to Xi may still join the Politburo Standing Committee. Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, a Politburo member with a Communist Youth League background, is well-positioned to be a candidate for next premier, with incumbent Li Keqiang already making clear that he does not expect to stay on. Hu may favour further marketisation and the opening up of the economy.

Another vice premier, Liu He, trusted by Xi and supportive of market reforms and opening up, also has the chance to become the next premier.

What’s next for China?

While the party will continue to exercise its strict ideological control after the congress, the crackdown on businesses might subside for a while to urgently boost and stimulate a sagging economy. Some restrictions over the property, finance and tech sectors may be relaxed.

Although there are few signs to suggest that China will ease its draconian zero-COVID policy soon, the conclusion of the CCP Congress will make the leadership more confident about cross-border travel. Xi and his colleagues will go abroad more often to seek international influence, while lower-level visits to other countries may gradually resume after the composition of the State Council, China’s cabinet, is approved by the annual parliamentary sessions in March 2023.

Xi’s signature diplomatic strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), will continue unabated. However, in recent years, China has emphasised the improvement of people’s livelihoods more than the scale of infrastructure projects in participating countries.

Xi himself has highlighted issues like climate change, sustainable development and digital connectivity along the Belt and Road. New slogans such as “green silk road” and “digital silk road” will likely emerge for the promotion of the BRI after the party congress.

Despite Xi’s unprecedented power at the 20th CCP Congress, the “road” ahead for China might be more than green, silky or digital — it might also be uncertain as its once-institutionalised politics and economy have entered uncharted waters.

The new rules on promotion and demotion of cadres have made leadership reshuffling less predictable, while the unabated anti-corruption campaign in the name of “self-revolution” is paralysing millions of bureaucrats into risk aversion and may dampen their enthusiasm for economic growth.

Xi can’t afford that in his third term. If enough officials opt for “lying flat” — or tangping — they could send China’s development drive into a similar state of stupor.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.