In 2022, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will be plagued with internal political instability as its leader, Xi Jinping, tries to secure a third—if not lifelong—term at the 20th Party Congress this fall.
Such a move violates the CCP’s tradition of upholding the two-term limit (each lasting for five years) of the presidency, which was stipulated in Article 79 of the 1982 version of the Chinese constitution. In 2018, however, Xi amended the constitution to delete this clause, which removed the legal barrier to his bid for perpetual power. Naturally, Xi is sure to meet stiff resistance from various quarters within the Party.
Several events suggest that 2022 is likely to be a turbulent one for Xi and the CCP.
The first such event is the mysterious absence of Xi's right-hand man, Li Zhanshu, at a tea gathering on New Year's Eve, a traditional occasion in which members of the country's top leadership showcase their solidarity. Although Li reappeared on Jan. 11, proving that he's politically safe, his absence still caused speculation that Xi is facing strong opposition.
Li ranks third in the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the supreme governing body in China. As chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China's rubber-stamp legislature, he was instrumental in amending the Chinese constitution to delete Article 79, the clause that set the presidential term limit to two.
Li’s absence wasn't caused by illness. Under normal circumstances, when a senior official is unable to attend an important meeting because of an illness, a communique stating that he applied for sick leave is released so that the absence doesn't lead to speculation. However, there was no such announcement on Li's absence.
Li’s absence could be the result of the anti-Xi faction trying to dislodge him, since he was the chief lawmaker who helped paved the way for Xi to retain power. Pressure against Li could have grown to the extent that Xi had to make some sort of compromise, leading to Li's temporary absence. This is a plausible explanation since during Li's absence, there was an article from China's top watchdog, the Central Disciplinary Commission (CDC), pointing obliquely at him when it mentioned that “a former leader of the Guizhou Province” had helped one of his family members subdue a business rival.
Li's reappearance on Jan. 11, sitting right next to Xi during a high-level meeting, suggests that the latter had somehow overcome pressure to unseat his protégé.
When Wang retired in 2019, Zhou Hongxu, deputy chief of staff of the Northern Theater Army, took over as CSB director. By tradition, this post was usually taken up by people from within the bureau. The only exception was in 1963, when CCP founder Mao Zedong ordered a field army general to head the CSB after he was forced to claim responsibility for his failed policy in 1962, the Great Leap Forward, leading to mass deaths from starvation. The move showed that Mao was afraid of being dethroned after he was forced to recede from the forefront of the political stage.
Thus, when Xi ordered a field army general to head the CSB, it showed that he didn't trust the bureau. However, after a short while, the former CSB chief was recalled from retirement to head the same bureau again. Wang, 67, is obviously past the retirement age of 60. Xi's decision puzzled everyone and indicated that there's some sort of uncertainty at the core of the CCP.
Sun owed his political rise to former CCP leader Jiang Zemin. Sun was the deputy director of the notorious “610 Office,” a Gestapo-like agency under the Public Security Ministry that was created for persecuting the spiritual group Falun Gong. He was promoted to deputy-ministerial rank when Zhou Yongkang, a powerful member of the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee (the top decision-making body), was secretary of the CCP’s Central Political and Legal Affairs, which controls the country’s police, procuratorate, and court systems. Shortly after Xi gained power, Zhou was sentenced to life in prison for his alleged attempt to stage a coup d’etat against Xi. This close connection with Jiang and Zhou made Sun an obvious target of Xi.
This is highly plausible when one takes into consideration that the communique issued by the CDC on Sun’s arrest on Sept. 30, 2021, enumerates his crimes such as the following:
Betraying the “two safeguards” and disregarding the “four awarenesses.” The “two safeguards” refer to safeguarding Xi’s position as the core leader of the CCP and safeguarding the centralized authority of the Party. The “four awarenesses” refer to political awareness (which means putting politics above all things else), awareness of the overall situation, awareness of Xi as the core of the Party, and awareness of the need to align oneself with Xi. These are the political slogans put forward by Xi as the standard for loyalty among CCP cadres. In the specific CCP lexicon, Sun’s political crime was his disloyalty to Xi.
Seriously endangering political security and seriously undermining the unity of the Party. In the CCP context, this could mean an attempted coup d'état.
Manipulating power to achieve personal political gain, including engaging in factional politics.
If the CDC found Sun guilty of these political crimes, then his “illegal possession of a firearm” suggests that he might have tried to assassinate Xi. In this regard, it's noteworthy that the CDC admitted publicly that there was a plot against Xi. On Sept. 13, 2021, two major media outlets in China published the same article that recapped a CDC “morning brief,” which disclosed that a “sinister gang” within the Public Security Bureau tried to make an attempt on Xi’s life.
It's no wonder that in his "2022 No. 1 Command for the Military Forces," a decree issued by Xi in his capacity as the supreme head of the military, he urged the military to prepare for a successful convening of the Party’s 20th Congress. Xi ultimately has to rely on the military to make sure that his ambition to perpetuate power won't be dashed.