Although the top leader of the Chinese regime, Xi Jinping, has been busy strengthening his power during the almost ten years he has been in office, the possibility of continuing in office or his reelection for a third term is not entirely clear.

During the upcoming 20th CCP Congress, to be held in the fall, Xi would run for a third term. However, this aspiration would frustrate potential candidates’ ambitions for the Chinese regime’s highest office.

Xi himself took on a major challenge by reforming the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) provision that limited the number of terms allowed to lead the party to only two, each of five years.

Since the Chinese regime prohibits the democratic system, it becomes challenging for other Chinese officials to reach the highest positions in the country. 

In principle, the most frustrated would be the “princelings,” descendants of the first-generation revolutionaries. Consequently, as enemies, they would be the most interested in preventing Xi’s continuity in power.

The exercise of political power in the Chinese regime

Before studying Xi Jinping’s possible rivals for power, it is worth looking at the current internal political hierarchy in the Chinese territory. 

It is worth remembering that the person who monopolized, from the beginning, the highest power in the country was Mao Zedong, who retained office for more than 27 years until his death in 1976. To him is attributed the phrase: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

Likewise, historian Alexander Pantsov says of Mao that he was also one of the most brutal dictators in history, responsible for the death of more than 40 million people. 

This background sets the context that characterized the beginnings and the first decades of the CCP’s exercise of power. 

Upon Mao’s death, the surrounding leaders distributed the main administrative areas of the country, which included the major sources of income. 

The new structure, called “one party, two coalitions,” represented a significant departure from the “all-powerful strongman” model of politics during the Mao era.

Of course, this system does not function like the executive, legislative and judicial branches in a democratic system. Instead, it is the division of the nation’s vital administrative and economic areas between two factions, tacitly antagonistic. 

Hence, the risk that if the balance between them is not maintained, the defeated faction is likely to use its political and socioeconomic resources to undermine the influence of the dominant one.

Consequently, the precarious stability of the country, beset by several economic and social crises, would be undermined. 

However, the ten years of Xi Jinping’s rule suggest a return to the dictatorial form of leadership practiced by Mao.

Repression of opponents

For some analysts, Xi’s relentless persecution of corruption is interpreted as a justification to purge his opponents extensively.  

“His political rivals have been all but eliminated during his decade in power, and he has absolute control over every facet of society including the military, the police and the media,” The Australian Financial Review reported in April. 

According to The Brookings Institution fellow Cheng Li: “One coalition was led by Jiang Zemin and the Vice President, Zeng Qinghong venturing home with two core factions: the Shanghai Gang and the Princelings, ….”

Xi, for his part, weakened both factions, and also the so-called Tuanpai, led by officials of the Chinese Communist Youth League. However, their hostility remains latent. 

Finally, he surrounded himself with his protégés, mainly former collaborators from when he was head of the CCP in Zhejiang province. 

“Now, I estimate that eight or even nine of them will be part of the next Politburo, constituting 1/3 of the members. Two or three of them will probably enter the Standing Committee of the Politburo Standing Committee,” Cheng added. 

Xi thus emerges as the strongest of the leaders, largely emulating Mao and running counter to the more liberal leaders of the other factions. 

Unforeseen obstacles

Despite becoming the “all-powerful strongman” who seems to control all critical aspects of the country with an iron fist, some loose ends could cause serious unsuspected situations in Xi’s empire. 

It risks undermining the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation needed to drive the economy forward, engendering a contest between liberal and illiberal beliefs about the best way to achieve national success.

Moreover, if Xi fails to sustain and raise the economic level, the CCP’s ambition to overtake the United States as a world power would collapse, with possible negative effects for him and the communist regime.

On the other hand, the deep legitimacy crisis facing the communist regime and growing public resentment over nepotism, mass closures due to the “zero COVID” policy, and the abusive use of social control blocking Chinese people’s money in banks, could become unforeseen enemies that would strip Xi Jinping of power.  

“Domestically, the CCP leadership has recently suppressed numerous giant, private companies and confronted challenges such as economic structure changes and the huge cost of draconian measures to control COVID-19,” reiterates author and scholar Cheng Li.

In short, Xi Jinping’s enemies are numerous, acting both from the opposition faction, represented mainly by the followers of former CCP leader Jian Zemin, and those resulting from the dissatisfaction of the Chinese people. 

Corruption and the Chinese regime’s numerous internal and external crises also work against him. 

For his part, journalist François Bougon defines the situation as follows: “By seeking to make his country a leading industrial power by 2049 (…), Xi Jinping is unleashing the power they can deal with you.”

He adds: “A wealthy creation A powerful and innovative China may not be satisfied with the existing framework, and may support calls for political reform in the future. But how big? The fate of the ‘new’ emperor depends in part on the answer.”

Finally, the CCP’s difficulties dominating a country of the size and complexity of the Chinese nation could cause it to lose control. This could lead it to opt for the much-feared fate of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, dissolved in 1991 under Mikhail Gorbachev.  

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