Chinese leader Xi Jinping is poised to take advantage of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Community Party (CCP) scheduled for this fall, and to use the idiosyncrasies of the communist regime’s top-down structure of autocratic governance to further enhance his power, said panelists at a virtual hearing of a U.S. Congressional advisory body. At the twice-in-a-decade Party meeting, Xi is widely expected to launch an unprecedented bid for a third term in power.
While both ideology and personal ambition play huge roles in driving the moves of CCP officials up to and including Xi, the nature of the regime in Beijing has evolved over time, in the view of Joseph Fewsmith, a professor of international relations and political science at Boston University.
“The CCP is a hierarchical party structured along Leninist lines, meaning that it follows democratic centralism,” Fewsmith said during a hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on Jan. 27.
But over time, as corruption set in throughout the machinery of CCP rule, Xi chose to take advantage of this trend by launching a much-touted campaign against corruption whose real goal was to consolidate his own power, Fewsmith observed. As part of this effort, Xi has appointed trusted followers to critical positions within the Party hierarchy and has strived to minimize the role of, and to expunge, officials associated with other factions, such as that of Jiang Zemin, who ruled China from 1993 to 2003.
While the recent public confession of Sun Lijun, former vice minister of public security, was supposedly part of the anti-corruption campaign, Fewsmith saw it as an example of Xi’s consolidation of power. Sun confessed to taking bribes, but the real goal of extracting and airing the confession on the regime’s state broadcaster China Central Television in January was to eliminate a powerful official associated with Jiang’s network, Fewsmith contended.
“It appears that Xi Jinping is continuing his purge of officials related to Jiang Zemin. Even after having been in power for 10 years and purged many leaders, Xi still feels his control is insufficient,” Fewsmith said. “All indications are that Xi will win these factional battles and start a third term as general secretary this fall,” he added.
Fewsmith described China’s regime as a “highly personalized” system in which a leader carefully cultivates his own power, without the ability to pass it on to successors. When a new leader takes the oath of office in Beijing, what it really signifies is not so much the new leader’s power but that the old leader has lost all clout and influence and is out of the game.
“China has a Leninist system which has failed to institutionalize succession, which has led to a personalization of power,” Fewsmith said.
In agreement with Fewsmith about Xi’s relentless drive toward centralization was Jessica Teets, a professor of political science at Middlebury College. The consolidation of power continues apace under a guise of striking at the cronyism and shady dealings that have crept into the machinery of power.
“The central point I wish to emphasize is that Xi Jinping views centralization as a corrective to corruption and the loss of the central Party leadership role. Thus we shouldn’t expect any changes to this push to political centralization” as the 20th Party Congress unfolds in the fall, Teets said.
Teets views the factionalism that characterized Chinese politics in the past as having dwindled as Xi has asserted ever tighter control and awarded promotions based on personal loyalty as well as the ability to meet targets set by the regime. Visible policy disagreements within the CCP have vanished as Xi Jinping loyalists receive rewards and those who, like Sun Lijun, have a reputation for insufficient loyalty or for belonging to the wrong faction are forced out under one guise or another.
“Xi Jinping dominates the Chinese political system and is well placed to dominate the 20th Party Congress,” said another panelist, Neil Thomas, a China analyst for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. Thomas said he expects that on the opening day of the congress, Xi will issue a report that will provide a blueprint for CCP policymaking in 2022 and beyond.
If the plenum that took place last November is predictive of the future, Thomas said, it is likely that the Chinese leader will take the opportunity to advance his existing policy agenda rather than rolling out new programs.
“Xi will entrench his political leadership by installing more political allies at the top,” Thomas predicted, adding that Xi, at 69, is highly likely to exempt himself from age retirement norms.
Concurring with these points, Fewsmith described a political landscape where Xi did not take well to groups other than his own holding power. At the upcoming Party Congress, many of the officials who have demonstrated their loyalty to the current leader are likely to receive promotions to higher levels within the regime.
But this method of consolidating Xi’s own power, with a fiercely loyal inner circle, is not without problems of its own.
“It leads to the probability that there will be a lot of people who have felt passed over or marginalized by this, and they’re going to resent that,” Fewsmith said.