Inside Story

Is there life after Xi?

The Chinese president has rewritten the post-Mao rules, and the global implications could be profound

Richard McGregor and Jude Blanchette 30 April 2021 2281 words

Winding up the authoritarian dial: Chinese president Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People last month. Noel Celis/Getty Images

After nearly nine years in office, Xi Jinping is China’s overwhelmingly dominant political figure. But his achievement has come at a high price for the system he presides over. By removing term limits on the presidency and refusing to nominate a successor, he has solidified his authority at the expense of China’s most important political reform of the past four decades — the regular and peaceful transfer of power — and pushed his country towards a succession crisis with profound global implications.

Is Xi akin to Joseph Stalin after the Soviet purges of the 1930s — a leader who has so thoroughly eliminated rivals and cowed the system that he will remain in power until he can no longer perform the duties of office? Or will the system react against his all-encompassing power, forcing him out of office prematurely, or at least pushing him to set a timetable for his departure?

Political scientist Bruce Dickson has described China’s transition from one leader to the next as “the central drama of Chinese politics almost since the beginning of the People’s Republic in 1949.” During Mao Zedong’s leadership, from 1949 to 1976, succession battles were frequent and fierce. In the late 1970s, Mao’s handpicked successor, Hua Guofeng, was himself sidelined by Deng Xiaoping. Later, the two leaders Deng had chosen to take charge were unseated amid intense political turmoil and infighting among China’s elite.

But the instability and volatility extend much further back. Harvard University’s Wang Yuhua has calculated that roughly half of the 282 Chinese emperors across forty-nine dynasties were “murdered, overthrown, forced to abdicate, or forced to commit suicide.” Less than half of them designated a successor, the majority only in the final years of their reign, and these successors were frequently murdered by rival members of the political elite.

While the fallout from those power struggles was largely confined to China itself, a twenty-first-century succession crisis would ripple across the globe. Despite the dangers, though, Xi continues to concentrate political power and personalise his rule, steadily increasing the likelihood of a crisis.

If he clings to power well into old age — if he remains general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, chairman of the Central Military Commission and president of the People’s Republic — then China’s political system could calcify into rigid repression. The implications for the rest of the world could be profound.

Xi’s success in forcing through the constitutional amendment that allows him to stay in office indefinitely was the climax of a consolidation of power that began almost as soon as he took office in 2012. His high-profile anti-corruption campaign increased his popular appeal while sidelining rivals and instilling fear up and down the bureaucratic hierarchy. His ideological campaigns tightened controls over thought, expression and debate. His “modernisation” of governance eliminated the division between the party and the government, with the former subsuming the latter. And his personalised propaganda campaigns and self-designation as the “core” of the party’s central committee solidified his power in a way not seen since Mao’s death.

What happens next? In the report on which this article draws, we discuss four scenarios that might play out in Beijing over the next few years. Xi might surprise us by handing over the top job in 2022; he might prepare a plan to retire at the party congress in 2027 or 2032; he might succumb to a leadership challenge or coup; or he might unexpectedly die or become incapacitated. With the first option appearing increasingly unlikely and the fourth entirely unpredictable, we’ll focus here on the second and third possibilities.

The second scenario rests on the fact that Xi is aware of the importance of a well-functioning leadership succession process. As he declared at the 2014 National People’s Congress, “The best way to evaluate whether a country’s political system is democratic and efficient is to observe whether the succession of its leaders is orderly and in line.” Assuming this sentiment is sincere, Xi’s likely failure to retire in 2022 might not signal the complete breakdown of the succession process. Rather, Xi may have decided to delay retirement until he feels that he can safely retire and that his ambitious domestic and international legacy will be preserved by his chosen successor.

Xi might also believe that 2022 is too early to hand over power, especially to someone who hasn’t had time to prepare for higher office. All of the other current members of the Politburo standing committee will be past retirement age by 2027, so any potential successor would almost certainly have to be appointed to the leadership’s inner sanctum at next year’s party congress and be younger than sixty-three.

Ensuring a safe and prosperous afterlife ranks high on the list of concerns for any autocratic leader. Unlike the former leaders of most modern democracies, who can generally be confident they will remain at liberty and largely free to engage in political life, authoritarian leaders must do deals to protect their own safety, their family’s safety, and their financial assets once they step down. Political scientists Alexandre Debs and H.E. Goemans have found that 41 per cent of autocrats are exiled, imprisoned or dead within a year of leaving office, compared with 7 per cent for democratic leaders.

In China, all of Mao’s potential successors died or were brutally ousted. Deng’s two handpicked successors were both removed from public life, with one spending decades under house arrest. By contrast, the two Chinese presidents who relinquished power voluntarily, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, have enjoyed a safe retirement and have kept their immediate families out of jail.

What could give Xi the confidence to retire in 2027 or 2032? One possible path is for Xi to stay on as president of China while relinquishing his other two roles, thus giving him one important way of maintaining an element of control and oversight. Granted, the presidency comes with little actual power compared with the role of general secretary of the party. But Xi would keep some control over personnel appointments and officially represent China on state visits. In effect, he would retain a public role as the diplomatic face of China, even if a great deal of power had been shifted to his successor.

Alternatively, he could keep his position as chairman of the Central Military Commission, a position much more powerful than that of president, though without the same ceremonial role or visibility. Jiang Zemin kept this position in 2002, in a power play that trimmed the authority of his successor, Hu Jintao.

Xi might spend the period between 2022 and 2027 (or 2032) promoting a more thoroughgoing anti-corruption campaign to fully and finally clean house of any actual or would-be political opponents, using their dismissal as an opportunity to install an entire generation’s worth of cadres loyal to him. While this would not completely remove the possibility of a post-retirement purge, it would significantly mitigate it and allow Xi to “rule from behind,” much as Deng Xiaoping played kingmaker after he gave up his final remaining leadership title in 1989.

While Xi has already built a small-scale cult of personality, this could reach new heights after next year’s party congress, as he looks to elevate his status within the party’s political and organisational DNA to a level comparable to Mao’s. As Yale University’s Milan Svolik writes, “Under established autocracy, the dictator’s outward appearance of invincibility is as important as his actual power.” While such facades of power can and do collapse, Xi can increase the cost of a potential leadership challenge by imprinting his name and persona throughout the party’s ideological and organisational structure. Just as Xi has insisted on protecting the legacy of Mao Zedong, his successors might be bound to Xi lest they unravel the foundations of the Chinese Communist Party’s power.

But even if Xi does retire in 2027 or 2032 — in part or in full — he will continue to exercise enormous power, as Deng Xiaoping did after 1989. The record of once all-powerful leaders voluntarily and fully relinquishing power, formally or informally, is not robust.

Our third scenario — a plot to overthrow Xi and his administration — might sound like the product of fevered imaginations, but it’s a possibility that has been widely spoken of by senior Chinese officials, including Xi himself. Some of the talk dates back to the early months of 2012, underlining Xi’s belief that rivals wanted to prevent him from taking over the party leadership later that year. More recently, amorphous accusations of unnamed “plots” by anonymous “traitors” have surfaced, probably calculated to justify Xi’s shake-up of the party bureaucracy and his wide-reaching intra-party discipline campaigns.

In an internal speech published in 2016, Xi spoke of “political plot activities” designed to “wreck and split the party.” That same year, the then head of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Liu Shiyu, accused disgraced officials of “[plotting] to usurp the party’s leadership and seize state power.” Vice-president Wang Qishan echoed Liu’s remarks, warning that “some [senior officials] even sought to… seize party and state power.”

Of course, fears of political plots and coups are the norm for most authoritarian leaders, just as worries over election challenges are the inevitable concern of politicians in democratic systems. “An overwhelming majority of dictators lose power to those inside the gates of the presidential palace rather than to the masses,” says Milan Svolik. “The predominant political conflict in dictatorships appears to be not between the ruling elite and the masses but rather one among regime insiders.” While coups in one-party communist regimes are infrequent, the fate of authoritarian leaders who are overthrown are grim, with 73 per cent of defeated leaders facing exile, imprisonment or death, according to political scientists Erica Frantz and Elizabeth Stein.

While Xi’s consolidation of power is impressive, even the most powerful leader relies on the support of a coalition of key figures and interests. Their backing, always conditional, is based on shifting domestic and international variables. While the precise bargain between Xi and members of the political, economic and military elite is unknown, a dramatic economic slowdown or the repeated mishandling of international crises is likely to make Xi’s job of managing his ruling coalition more difficult and tenuous. In short: every coalition has a breaking point. This, of course, is why attempted coups are dealt with so severely: would-be challengers must be discouraged vigorously. As Gambian president Yahya Jammeh warned after a failed coup attempt in 2014, “Anybody who plans to attack this country, be ready, because you are going to die.”

Successfully organising a coup against an incumbent leader — especially one in a Leninist one-party state — is also a daunting challenge. An aspiring coup leader faces numerous barriers, beginning with the need to gather support from key members of the military-security bureaucracy without alerting the leader and the security agencies. In the absence of a systemic crisis, the chances of a coup against Xi at the moment are exceedingly small. Given the technological capabilities of the party’s security services, which Xi controls, such an endeavour is fraught with the risk of detection and the possible defection of early plotters who change their mind. Xi certainly has a host of enemies in the party, but the obstacles to organising against him are near insurmountable.

Yale University political scientist Dan Mattingly points to another important reality: Chinese leaders are well aware of possible coup threats and thus take explicit actions to prevent any such efforts. Using a dataset of more than 10,000 appointments within the People’s Liberation Army, Mattingly finds that Xi has overseen personnel rotations within China’s military that favour command-level officers “whose ethnic, class, and ideological backgrounds make them unlikely to back anti-regime protesters.” Xi’s ability to move lower officials into senior military leadership positions would go a long way to stopping a coup attempt before it could even begin.

A conventional leadership challenge, which would proceed according to a more formal process, shares some of the same problems. Xi’s increasing grip on domestic security services means communications between would-be challengers would be next to impossible. Despite their enormous power, senior members of the party and the army lack the basic ability to move about and communicate unnoticed by Xi’s all-seeing security apparatus.

A challenge could come seemingly spontaneously during a convening of the Politburo or the full central committee, but that would require several officials to trigger a cascade of disapproval of Xi’s leadership. This option also suffers from the basic fact that until colleagues raise their hands to register their dissent, it is impossible to know how many are willing to join the effort to unseat Xi.

Our four scenarios aren’t offered as precise or exhaustive blue-prints of China’s future. Other possibilities exist, including Xi’s retirement in 2035, at the midpoint between China’s two “hundred-year goals.” Instead, our aim is to highlight genuine problems in China’s political trajectory under Xi Jinping, most notably his challenge to the country’s process of transferring power in a peaceful and predictable manner.

For decades after Mao’s death in 1976, China’s political system seemed increasingly stable, the occasional outbreak of top-level turmoil notwithstanding. Today, though, its political path is shrouded in great uncertainty. While leadership succession is not a topic Chinese officials are willing to discuss in public, the world has a huge stake in how China deals with this emerging problem. •

Richard McGregor and Jude Blanchette’s report, “After Xi: Future Scenarios for Leadership Succession in Post-Xi Jinping Era,” was released this week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Freeman Chair in China Studies and the Lowy Institute.