Infighting runs throughout the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But the infighting seen in today’s CCP is fundamentally different from that of the past, as the Party sees that its worst nightmare—its demise—has become a tangible reality. The CCP needs a strong “core leader” and a method of securing a successor. Should a fight break out over the transfer of power, a worsening political crisis could accelerate the Party’s death.
Xi Jinping was named successor to the Party’s paramount leader position in 2007. The decision was the product of mutual compromise between various political forces at that time. He became the successor because he was a descendant of a former high-ranking official (known as a “princeling”), had no affiliation to a particular faction, and did not have any scandals. Xi’s proclivity to being a “Party loyalist” was also extremely valued.
However, it was not all smooth sailing for Xi. On the eve of coming to power, the Wang Lijun incident in February 2012 triggered a political storm. Since then, it’s been a life-and-death struggle: from the sacking of then-Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai to the downfall of then-security czar Zhou Yongkang in 2014, both who planned to stage a coup against Xi. To Xi, being recognized as the “core leader” at the 6th Plenary Session of the 18th National Congress in 2016; forming his leadership, namely, members of the Politburo Standing Committee, who were unveiled at the 19th National Congress in 2017; not naming a successor during the 19th congress; and successfully amending the country’s constitution in the spring of 2018 to remove the Party chairman term limit secured his power.
However, this series of “party loyalist” moves also violated the Party custom of appointing a successor.
On the one hand, Xi has strengthened the Party’s leadership in an all-round way, and even shadows of Mao Zedong’s cult of personality era flashes from time to time. This is gratifying to the CCP. But on the other hand, Xi has abandoned the unspoken rules maintained since the Deng Xiaoping era: the Party general-secretary is the leader for two five-year terms and appoints someone to succeed him during the Party congress. Lacking a successor has created a huge risk for the CCP: is the Party controlling Xi, or is Xi controlling the Party?
This is likely a main line of infighting during the upcoming Fifth Plenary Session to be held in late October—until the 20th National Congress takes place in 2022.
During the Mao era, there was also factional politics, though Mao set the tone. Since the Deng era, the Party has evolved into an oligarchy, with many “red princeling” families dominating China. For example, during Xi’s anti-corruption campaign that felled many of his political rivals, only Bo Xilai was a princeling. The other big “tigers”—high-ranking officials—ensnared in the campaign, such as Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou, Guo Boxiong, and Ling Jihua, were not from princeling families.
Perhaps Xi is acting tough on stage, but he is still being held back by other political factions.
In October last year, on the eve of the Fourth Plenary Session, rumors began circulating that the CCP’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, might add two more members. Although the rumors ended up being false, there is no way such hearsay could leak out without the approval of some factions who wished that to be the case.
Another year has passed. For the CCP, the political situation this year is much worse than last year, and it is also a year closer to the 20th National Congress, when the next succession of Party leaders will be determined. Judging from the past, although personnel adjustments are typically arranged at the First Plenary Session, the Fifth Plenary Session is also an important window of opportunity. Would the issue of Xi’s successor be a major focus of internal struggles during the Fifth Plenary Session?
Of course, Xi is likely unwilling to arrange a successor, or how could he spend so much effort to amend the constitution? Moreover, if a successor is arranged, doesn’t this give political opponents a chance to legally take power from him, not to mention the rumors of shifting loyalties among Xi’s camp?
However, the appointment of a successor matters to the Party’s longevity and to the core interests of political factions. The factions will naturally fight it out desperately. The Fifth Plenary Session is the first battlefield.
It is impossible for Xi to stop this fight. The best he can do is to not make trouble and ask everyone to “give a toast” and appear united with him, even if they stab him in the back later.
If Xi’s first five years was an uphill climb, then Xi’s second five-year term has gone downhill. In the political battles to come, he could get kicked off the slope and fall from the cliff at any time.
Wang He has master’s degrees in law and history, and has studied the international communist movement. He was a university lecturer and an executive of a large private firm in China. Wang now lives in North America and has published commentaries on China’s current affairs and politics since 2017.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.