After turning 68 last June, Xi Jinping has reached the retirement age customary for China’s Communist Party leaders, and 2022 should be his retirement year.

But Xi Jinping intends to stay in power for quite some time, and the world is watching for his official announcement at China’s National People’s Congress in March.

In 2018, Xi Jinping amended China’s constitution to abolish the two-term and 10-year limit for the presidency.

Ahead of its next scheduled term, the Politburo of the Communist Party of China approved a historic resolution on Xi Jinping’s signature policy of lifting people out of poverty—”common prosperity.”

This move by Xi Jinping places him on the list of the three greatest leaders in the party’s history and demonstrates his ambition by imitating Chairman Mao.

Potential ‘succession crisis’

The American scholar Myron Rush, the author of the Khrushchev Succession, wrote, “Of all the individual dictatorships or totalitarian regimes, one thing is certain. One day, a succession crisis will emerge.

“Before it comes, that bad day will cast a long shadow over the long-awaited dictatorship.”

Deng Xiaoping introduced a two-term limit. He recognized the dangers of the one-man rule and cult of personality that favors the group leader. 

China experts Richard McGregor and Jude Blanchette argue that by removing term limits on the president and not nominating a successor, “Xi Jinping has consolidated his power, sacrificing the most important political reform of the past four decades—a regular and peaceful transfer of power.

“Xi Jinping has pushed China into a potentially destabilizing succession crisis,” they wrote.

Over the past year, CCP members have also expressed concern that abolition of term limits could undermine the principle of collective leadership, which is designed to avoid a Cultural Revolution in which figures like Mao had been in power for too long. 

Members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and China’s policy-making body usually retire at the Party Congress, held every five years, if they are 68 years old or older. 

But Xi Jinping is not the only Politburo Standing Committee member to cross the age threshold. Li Zhanshu, 71 years old, Chairman of the National People’s Congress, is also too old. Meanwhile, China’s Vice Premier Han Zheng, 67, will reach this age threshold in April. 

Former party officials say that the age limit for senior leadership was introduced in the late 1990s by former Chinese President Jiang Zemin to crowd out his older rivals.

Consolidation of power

A critical factor in Xi’s stay in power is his sweeping anti-corruption campaign. The campaign was initially intended to tackle long-standing corruption within the party. The first step has helped Xi win the support of the Chinese public. But it was later seen as a campaign to wipe out dissent within the party. As Xi’s anti-corruption campaign continues, more than 100,000 party officials have been charged. 

A broader view is that Xi must stay in power to prevent retaliation from those he has defeated after he steps down. While China is building its image as a world superpower, its most powerful leaders fear the Chinese people. So they continue to restrict information through censorship and invest heavily in stable resources to quell dissent at home. 

Zhang Tan, former director of Guizhou’s United Front Work Department, reported to the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, after becoming a Christian in the early 2000s, he voluntarily ended his political career because his religious beliefs went against the principles of the CCP. 

Zhang said that under Xi Jinping, China has little room for dissent. and “This happens in China because the party sees the people as the enemy”. Zhang Tan argues that China is still a “kingdom” and that the law is used to consolidate and protect the power of “emperors,” namely Xi Jinping. 

Xi’s political mandate is more about domestic issues and nationalism than China’s foreign policy or foreign relations with other countries as he seeks a third term. As a result, Xi has been indifferent to alienating potential allies and trading partners in the diplomatic form. His most significant political goals are:

  • The “unification” of China and the self-governing island of Taiwan.
  • Addressing domestic unrest in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
  • Controlling coronavirus.

Challenge

China does not have a two-party system, nor does it have any meaningful opposition as a test of power, but the Communist Party of China has different factions. However, there are some concerns that Chinese-style accountability and the struggle between factions will disappear, primarily when Xi uses the same type of system he used in his anti-corruption campaign to silence critics. 

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping is facing one of the most challenging times in the history of the Communist Party. The US-China trade war and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the country’s economy could further shake confidence in the party’s leadership. 

Tensions between China and its Asia-Pacific neighbors, including Japan, South Korea, India, the Philippines, and Australia, are growing. 

With China’s economic growth at its lowest during the pandemic, Xi’s push for “common prosperity” as a political movement could help secure his political future. However, it involves the crackdown on China’s wealthiest groups, including tech giants, the education sector, and the real estate industry. Also, China’s coronavirus elimination policy has had an enormous impact on its economy. (AP: Tao Ming, Xinhua). 

There is a cult of personality around Xi Jinping and no room for criticism. Every newspaper and news broadcast must use Xi’s directive in daily headlines, and every city displays his image and propaganda slogans to legitimize his authority and message. In February, Xi Jinping will use the Winter Olympics to bolster the nationalist movement and support securing another five years in power—the same strategy used in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. 

With the National People’s Congress in March, the public is likely to see more struggles within the party, but of course, it is uncertain whether anyone will challenge Xi Jinping or what the consequences will be. 

What if they fail. Xi Jinping’s third term as president is far from certain. But he will do everything in his power to maintain his hold on power. Otherwise, he is prone to retaliation and has an uncertain future.

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