Chinese leader Xi Jinping is poised to take advantage of the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist 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, panelists at a virtual hearing of a U.S. congressional advisory body said.
At the twice-in-a-decade Party meeting, Xi is widely expected to launch a bid for an unprecedented 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, according to 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,” he 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 said. 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.
“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,” he said. “All indications are that Xi will win these factional battles and start a third term as general secretary this fall."
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.
Jessica Teets, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, agrees with Fewsmith about Xi’s relentless drive toward centralization. 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," Teets said. "Thus, we shouldn’t expect any changes to this push to political centralization” as the 20th Party Congress unfolds in the fall.
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 the regime's targets. Visible policy disagreements within the CCP have vanished as Xi loyalists receive rewards and those who, like Sun, 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 political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. He 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.
“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 in which Xi doesn't take well to groups other than his own holding power. At the upcoming Party Congress, many officials who have demonstrated 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, isn't 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.