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Will Xi Jinping be China’s leader for life? The upcoming 20th Party Congress will provide important new clues.

Xi is all but guaranteed to secure a third term and emerge with even more backers in the party’s upper ranks.

Hear more from this conversation between Lili Pike and Victor Shih:

This is a significant moment for China. In recent decades, a norm has been established under which leaders hand over power after two terms. With Xi poised to continue leading China, some experts see him hanging on to power for life — and that means his agenda will continue to shape China over the coming decades.

On this week’s Global Grid, Grid China Reporter Lili Pike spoke with Victor Shih, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, who focuses on Chinese politics. They discussed Xi’s unexpected rise to power and the new policy priorities he might announce at the party congress. Shih weighed in on a key question: which officials will be appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee — the small group of China’s most powerful leaders that surround Xi. Shih said the details are hard to predict, but in almost all scenarios, Xi will emerge from the party congress with more sway over the Standing Committee — and therefore the country.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Xi Jinping, who still has a lot of contacts with other princelings in the military, very quickly eradicated the remainder of his enemies by launching an anti-corruption campaign. And also, for the first time since the Cultural Revolution, there was a wide-ranging purge within the military, which he carried out along with his friends and allies in the military. Hundreds of senior level official officers were arrested for corruption, and through a purge in the civilian world, he was able to completely dominate the party by 2017. So that was a surprising outcome, but he himself was very daring, and structurally, he didn’t have a lot of competition.

The party has only reinforced the leadership role of Xi Jinping through wave after wave of ideological campaigns. I don’t think it makes sense to talk about a successor when the party has been ordered to only care about the dictates of Xi Jinping for the past 10 years. So clearly, there’s no successor in sight.

This is not unprecedented in the party completely. [The former Chairman of China’s Communist Party Mao Zedong] was a dictator for life. But since the death of Chairman Mao, no secretary-general or party chairman has served for the three full terms. Each term is five years long. No one has served a total of 15 years as secretary-general. Even Jiang Zemin. He served sort of two and a half terms, but he never served the full three terms as secretary-general. If he were to obtain a continuation as the secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party, which we all expect him to obtain it at the Congress, and there’s no discussion of a potential successor then by the end of this five-year term, in 2027, he will have served three full terms, which would break with the post-Mao norm that had developed in the party. [Xi is often referred to as President in Western press, but his most important position is General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party].

Basically, once you claim a dictatorship, you either have two situations: one is that someone actually wants that position to replace Xi Jinping as the next dictator of China, but then of course, if Xi were to find out about it, he would very quickly purge that person. And then the other situation is, even when someone is nominated as an heir apparent, this person will try to avoid being purged by making himself — unfortunately, it most likely will be a man — as powerless as possible. This is the dynamic that I described in my book, in order to not make himself as a target of a purge before the death of the dictator. That also will introduce a lot of political uncertainty down the road because such a weak person after the death of a dictator, whenever that happens, will be a very weak figure still, and that will introduce a period of political uncertainty and turmoil.

The problem with introducing lifetime dictatorship is that in the short run, you’re very sure what’s going to happen — Xi Jinping is going to be in charge in the foreseeable future. But then what comes after that becomes completely unknown to everybody: people within the system, China watchers such as myself — I can’t tell you what’s going to happen — no one knows. Literally, no one knows what happens after Xi. And this is kind of the problem.

A lot of people say, “Oh, my God, it’s not possible for Li Qiang” because of the mess that he made in Shanghai. I look at it differently. From the party’s perspective, he didn’t do anything wrong. All the Covid-related policies that Shanghai carried out received permission from the central government. Whatever happened with the partial lockdown and then the lockdown was not his fault. His only shortcoming was more of a logistical one — not enough food was delivered to neighborhoods that had been in lockdown for weeks and weeks. But that of course, he can blame lower-level officials, and indeed some of the lower-level officials have been fired already. So I still think he has a good chance of moving into the Politburo Standing Committee.

The other scenario is if he chooses to exercise his full power and basically force Li Keqiang, Wang Yang even Wang Huning to leave the Politburo Standing Committee, even though by the current norm, they don’t have to — but of course, Xi Jinping can make them do it — if that were the case, I think then more of his followers will get promoted into the Politburo Standing Committee. We still would have Ding Xuexiang and Li Qiang, but then potentially, you would also have Cai Qi, Li Xi and Huang Kunming. Li Xi is a very interesting figure because on the one hand, he is typically identified as being a follower of Xi Jinping. He is currently the Guangdong party secretary, but his career did not overlap with Xi Jinping. He never worked in [the Chinese provinces] Fujian, Zhejiang or Shanghai. They have ties through Xi’s background in northwestern China. But this guy also is a pretty autonomous politician because he has a faction of his own — it’s not shared with Xi Jinping. So I think that would be interesting.

The final person who could get promoted, even in this kind of Xi Jinping dominance scenario is Hu Chunhua. I think it’s rational for Xi Jinping to promote Hu Chunhua into the Politburo Standing Committee as the next premier or executive vice premier of China because China is facing a lot of economic headwinds and if anything goes seriously wrong, it’s helpful to have someone who’s not in your own faction to blame. Hu Chunhua is the perfect person to play that role for Xi Jinping. Even in this more dominant scenario, Hu Chunhua is going to make it, but it’s going to be a very challenging job for him for the next five years.

LP: How does that fit into this thesis in your book — this “coalition of the weak” that Mao pursued? Do you see that as Xi pursuing that strategy to try to protect himself from other more powerful leaders?

I think the coalition of the weak strategy could come into play at the 21st or maybe even the 22nd Party Congress, but I don’t see strong signs of that today. With the exception of Wang Huning, a think-tanker all his life who has a very small faction and one that’s entirely shared with Xi Jinping himself. I think he’s the one weak person, if you will, in the Politburo Standing Committee today.

The advantage of selecting him as the next premier of China is not only because of his qualification and experience, but also because he can only serve a five-year term because he is 67. He would have to retire after the first party congress, so he wouldn’t be able to build up any kind of power base in the State Council in the next five years.

The other potential candidate actually is Li Qiang who’s run a major city, Shanghai, previously, also senior positions in Zhejiang. There are precedents for provincial officials to jump directly from State Council as vice premier or premier. Then finally Hu Chunhua, I think that’s the other natural candidate — a lot of local experience as well as State Council experience. In his case he’s younger, so he can serve two terms as the premier of China, which is allowed by the existing rules. He may be able to build up a little bit of a power base in the State Council, he will have to be very obedient to Xi Jinping himself.

Both people who are very close to Xi and those who are not as close in terms of economic policies can carve out economic policy as a space for themselves. Basically, Xi Jinping is not so interested in the economy, besides the big outcome, like growth, technological superiority — he wants these big outcomes to happen, but how they happen, he leaves it up to the experts to some extent. Although sometimes, the experts will carry out things that displease him, then they have to change. So I think for economic policy, there is some space regardless for these officials to try to carve out.

And then on top of that, you have exports, which have supported growth in China in the past two years, slowing because the economies in the rest of the world are slowing down because of central bank tightening. So it’s going to be quite challenging for China in the foreseeable future. The party really needs a clear vision of what they’re going to do about it. Mike Pettis [professor of finance at Peking University] and myself and other people have advocated for a more demand-side stimulus to try to help growth in China.

The challenge for that also is that there’s just a lot of debt in China already, including for the central government, and especially for local governments. If the local governments have to issue a bunch of debt to pay for demand-side stimulus, it’s going to add to the debt substantially, as well as interest payment pressure. In an environment of rising rates, China cannot cut rates that aggressively. To cut aggressively will just invite capital flight. It’s a tricky thing, and hopefully, there are going to be some good ideas on growth coming out of the Congress.

Besides that, the other major thing that people are watching for is wording on Taiwan policy, which has always been worded as “China first aims for peaceful reunification, and then, if there are no other options, armed resolution is always a possibility.” If the wording were to change to less emphasis on peaceful unification, that would be somewhat alarming. I think that’s the other thing that people would watch for.

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