Since becoming China’s paramount leader in 2012, Xi Jinping has overseen enormous economic growth and solidified China’s standing as an economic and geopolitical superpower. He has also centralized his power over domestic politics. In 2018, Xi oversaw the repeal of the two-term limit on holding presidential office, which has opened a path for him to stay in power after 2023.
Xi is arguably the most powerful leader of China since Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the economic reforms that transformed China from a poor agrarian nation into a major economic powerhouse. Before Xi became the leader of China, the Chinese Communist Party had a system in place for the peaceful transfer of power. This system was, for the most part, adhered to by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the two leaders who preceded Xi in office.
In the past, a lack of faith in a succession plan for the peaceful transition of power has led to dissension within the ruling party, domestic political interference by the Chinese military and tendencies toward a greater centralization of power by Chinese leaders. Because of China’s major role on the world stage, the lack of a plan to succeed Xi is likely to affect other nations. It is causing uncertainty about issues including potential trade disruptions, foreign policy changes resulting from domestic instability and the potential for a military coup.
I’ve found in my research on Chinese economics and politics that knowing more about how peaceful transfers of power have taken place in the past in China is key to fully grasping what might happen if Xi Jinping does not name a successor.
How power is supposed to transition
Since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has held sole control of the government, and the general secretary, the top leader of the party, has ruled the nation. That role usually includes being chairman of the nation’s military, and holding the largely ceremonial title of “president.”
On paper, here’s how power passes without struggle from one top leader to another: At the National Congress, a meeting held every five years, delegates elect members to the party’s Central Committee.
This committee then elects the general secretary and a body called the Politburo Standing Committee to lead the nation for the next five years.
How power really transitions
Yet since the era of Mao Zedong, the founding father of Communist China and its ruler from 1949 to 1976, the nation’s top leader has typically wielded significantly more influence over these processes than the written rules suggest.
For many years, Mao did not name a successor. But in the final months of his life, Mao named and then discarded one successor after another. He was attempting to avert the ascension to top leadership of a powerful Communist Party leader named Deng Xiaoping, fearing that Deng would overturn the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s movement to forcefully eradicate all remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society.
Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, did become the nation’s top leader following Mao’s death in 1976. But he accomplished relatively little, and by 1977, pressure was on to oust him in favor of Deng. By 1981, Deng had seized power.
Deng instituted several social and economic reforms that created the foundation for China’s blistering economic growth over the past few decades. In the process, hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens have progressed from poverty into the middle class, and China has become the second-largest economy in the world.
When Deng stepped down in 1989, he created his own succession crisis. Deng tagged a relatively obscure politician named Jiang Zemin to succeed him but also declared that politician Hu Jintao should succeed Jiang after two terms. Jiang and Hu became powerful rivals for the next two decades.
Tensions with Jiang slowed Hu’s attempts to introduce reforms seeking economic growth in China’s western and northeastern regions instead of its more dynamic east coast. They also hurt Hu’s ability to carry out political changes desired by China’s liberal intellectuals.
The Hu era came to an end in 2012 with a peaceful transfer of power to Xi Jinping.
A potential ruler for life
Xi moved speedily to centralize power to an extent not seen since Deng. He purged political enemies from influential party positions. He also positioned his campaign against corruption as critical to the ongoing existence of the party and the nation.
Expert observers believe it likely that Xi is intent on keeping the power he’s amassed, by remaining in office for an unprecedented third term and possibly longer.
Xi’s authoritarian rule has stifled domestic dissent, resulted in the jailing of many of his political rivals, led to the widespread persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and alienated the Taiwanese people – whom the Communists wish would reunify with China.
Expert China watchers are now assessing the risks of a potential leadership challenge or a coup to oust Xi, which could be resisted by Xi’s own supporters. Observers believe this could lead to public turmoil and repression of the sort seen in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when peaceful student-led protests were harshly put down by troops armed with assault rifles and accompanied by tanks.
To prevent this, Xi has expanded the existing security regime into an elaborate surveillance state in which digital technologies and artificial intelligence are used to maintain the government’s totalitarian control.
Finally, the Chinese succession problem could also become a global problem. China has the world’s second-largest economy. Uncertainty stemming from domestic political instability is likely to hurt global markets and interest in investing in China. This could mean financial stress in China, trade disruptions and the rerouting of supply chains out of China. Nations closely tied to China would also see their trade and financial pictures change for the worse.
China has become a potent military power. A domestic power crisis may lead to a chaotic transfer of leadership, whether or not the People’s Liberation Army stages a coup.
Globally, China’s relations with the U.S. and its present desire for peaceful reunification with Taiwan may both change. In addition, China may be less able to manage unstable neighbors like North Korea, Myanmar, Kazakhstan and Pakistan.
In 1980, at age 75, Deng Xiaoping said, “We must take the long-term interest into account and solve the problem of the succession in leadership.” Unfortunately, this has not happened. Since instability in China is likely to have global impacts, Xi and the Chinese Communist Party have an obligation to establish a credible system for an orderly transfer of power.
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