By Hiroyuki Sugiyama / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer based in BeijingBEIJING — Ahead of the 19th Communist Party of China National Congress this autumn, speculation is growing that leader and general secretary of the party Xi Jinping, 63, will stay in office for a longer period than the current term limit. The further strengthening of Xi’s political base is likely, as even the current session of the National People’s Congress, which opened March 5, is based on the theme of “stability and obedience.”
‘10 more years’
The phrase “10 more years” has become very common in Beijing politics. “This will go on for 10 more years” or “Will this all be over in 10 more years?” are frequently heard.
The assumption here is that Xi, whose first five-year term as the party’s general secretary ends this autumn, will stay on for two more terms. The provisional regulation (see below) established by the previous administration led by Hu Jintao stipulates that the leadership is limited to two terms. According to this, Xi’s term should end in “five more years.” However, the feeling that Xi is approaching the homestretch hardly exists.
What does this mean?
Xi is the only one calling the shots in China. The decision of who assumes which post at the 19th party congress will depend on the groundwork he will lay in preparation for the 20th party congress set for 2022, which will coincide with the end of his second term.
For example, if Xi is to step down in 2022, it is very likely that he will make a young successor-to-be in his or her 50s a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the top leadership of China that comprises seven members.
If, however, he plans to stay on longer, Xi does not need to rush to a decision. He can spend time making his pick of a suitable successor, while focusing on strengthening his own faction, which is relatively weaker than factions led by former leaders Jiang Zemin or Hu.
In any case, with the power that Xi holds, making changes to the provisional regulation should be a walk in the park.
Those who say “10 more years” are of the view that Xi will stay on longer. What these people are in fact saying is that the one in charge will start pushing forward to build up a new order in his name.
Turning point nears
In recent years, the Chinese leadership, while taking a somewhat meandering path, has been heading toward “collective leadership,” “institutionalization” and “national rejuvenation.” The point of departure of this trend is the tragedy stemming from despotism — as seen during the Cultural Revolution — created by the People’s Republic of China’s founding leader, Mao Zedong, in his later years.
Xi, whose father was involved in the founding of the people’s republic, joined the Communist Party in a rural village in Shaanxi Province during the Cultural Revolution. Xi has been said to “take pride in guiding the party in the face of crisis as a legitimate successor to Mao.”
During his first term, Xi seemingly followed Mao’s example by working to consolidate his authority.
If a situation arises in which the one calling the shots and working to tear down the collective leadership is able to freely change the system, Chinese politics will once again reach a historic turning point. Such a situation will undoubtedly take on the character of regressing to the Mao era, as one intellectual put it.
It also seems Xi does not want to fix a retirement age for the Chinese leadership. Behind the scenes, there is some backlash against Xi, who has taken down political rivals and deprived the bureaucracy of special privileges in the name of anticorruption. According to a source familiar with the Communist Party, “Xi is taking the utmost care to protect himself.”
Overriding age limits
The party congress has another grave concern, which is as important as who will succeed Xi.
By practice, standing committee members age 68 or over at the party congress must step down. The other concern has to do with this practice. If the practice is annulled, then Xi’s ally on the anticorruption front Wang Qishan, chief of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, will be able to retain his post, enabling the administration to maintain the power it has. At the same time, Xi, who will turn 69 five years from now, will have eliminated an obstacle in retaining his position as party leader.
The practice is the pillar of efforts to move the party toward institutionalization. On the other hand, it has been overridden time and again and used as a de facto tool to eliminate political rivalry.
It is said that at the 15th congress in 1997, the retirement age was set at 70 to 71. Qiao Shi, then 72 and a rival of Jiang, was forced into retirement. At the 16th congress, which saw the inauguration of Hu’s administration, Li Ruihuan, who was then 68 years old and an influential politician, retired under pressure to bring about generational change. This became the norm for the 17th congress, in which Zeng Qinghong, close to Jiang and reputed to have been “more powerful than Hu,” retired at the age of 68.
In an era that sees a president of the United States taking office at the age of 70, it is becoming difficult to find a justifiable reason to maintain a retirement age of 68.
Xi has easily broken the unwritten rule of not bringing corruption charges against senior officials for the sake of maintaining the party’s stability and unity. Chances that Xi will change the retirement age are sufficiently high.
Stability, unity sought
Regarding his possible chance for long-term leadership, Xi’s Achilles’ heel is the prospect of prolonged economic slowdown.
The 1989 Tiananmen Square incident demonstrated that stability in the Communist Party cannot exist without economic and social stability. Pro-democracy movements expanded significantly against a backdrop of anger over runaway inflation and a split appeared in the party leadership, even under the absolute rule of Deng Xiaoping.
For Xi, the task of maintaining stability can be considered “an additional political battle.” According to a party source, “The paramount task for the party congress this year is to maintain stability.”
The target economic growth rate, which was announced on the first day of the National People’s Congress, was set at “around 6.5 percent,” a reduction from last year’s “6.5 percent to 7 percent.”
Achieving such a goal is not easy. Imports and exports are sluggish, private enterprises are struggling with fund procurement and there are even regions reporting negative growth rates.
As it did previously, the leadership is expected to rely on growth-supporting measures focusing on large-scale infrastructure investment while trying to keep fluctuations related to stock markets, exchange rates and real estate markets to a minimum.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade policy toward China is a large destabilizing factor.
In the reform of state-owned enterprises, China has to give consideration to unemployment issues. It will keep people-oriented policy lines, including measures against poverty, up front as a slogan.
Currently, the battle to maintain stability takes on the feature of an all-out defensive fight.
Amid this difficult situation, Xi gathered to Beijing in February high-ranking party, government, military and regional officials, who are also participants in the National People’s Congress, and commanded them to respect politics and to all obey the party’s concentrated, unified leadership.
Criticism of the leadership cannot be tolerated with the party congress approaching.
In addition to being a venue for policy planning toward the preservation of stability, the National People’s Conference was likely expected to be the stage for a mass chorus of obedience to Xi.
Weakening rival factions
After the Tiananmen Square incident that triggered a split in the Communist Party, Deng promoted Jiang to general secretary at the general meeting of the party’s Central Committee. The posts of president of China and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission were also given to Jiang, allowing him to establish his authority and promote stability and unity within the party.
Hu had been nominated as a successor by Deng, but Jiang, who resigned as general secretary in 2002 after Deng’s death, remained in the post of chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission and discord between factions intensified.
Because of this, in 2012, Xi, who was said to be less involved than many in factional concerns, became the general secretary after Hu. However, after taking office, Xi took out a succession of influential members from both the Jiang and Hu factions.
■Provisional regulation on term of leadership
In 2006, the administration of Hu Jintao set a rule that the term of office of the leader of the Communist Party and the government shall be limited to two consecutive terms, each five years in length. The provisional regulation is binding, but temporary. It carries less weight than the party platform, which has the character of a basic law and whose articles are determined at the party’s National Congress. The Constitution limits the maximum length of the presidency to a period of 10 years over two terms.