Heads Roll in Beijing - Xi Jinping and the upcoming Power Transition in the CCP


The ball is now in motion for China’s 19th Party Congress next autumn after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held the sixth plenum of its Central Committee in late October 2016. The Congress is, in many ways, a rubber stamp for the meetings and government documents already crafted by a handful of top party elders spearheading Chinese policy. As is tradition in the Chinese political apparatus, paving the way for Congress, a communique was issued at the end of the recent plenum as a baseline for Beijing and CCP officials across the country. In it, Xi Jinping’s long-anticipated christening as the “core” of the Party’s Central Committee was juxtaposed alongside the norms of collective leadership and the overarching goals of protecting the Party’s authority and ensuring the Party’s orders are executed. The path to next year’s Congress depends largely on one man, rather than the collective sum of political leaders. If Xi Jinping as the “core” is able to secure and maintain adequate political power and push his agenda over the time-tested traditions of CCP politics, such a shift would signal an important turn away from the institutionalized mechanisms entrenched in the Party apparatus to prevent a Mao-esque strongman ruler.

While China’s autocratic politics remain famously opaque, recent developments nonetheless offer some clues about next year’s Congress. Ultimately, the 19th Party Congress is the single largest political test Xi has yet to face. It is a test of whether his agenda or the formal and informal apparatuses of the Party Congress will pave the way for the country’s future. The outcome of next year’s Congress will further shape the US-China relationship and how Washington shapes its strategy toward Beijing.

What is at stake?

    The National Congress of the CCP is held once every five years for political leadership to assess past work, outline future tasks, and lay down the Party line on all major policy issues. The October 2016 plenum established a baseline for Xi as the Party looks toward next year’s Congress and the trajectory of Chinese politics for at least the next five years. Most critically for Xi, the Party Congress is a chance to influence the choice of the next cohort of senior leaders. Without enough allies in top positions to further consolidate his power, Xi’s signature efforts - the “China Dream,” for instance - could easily founder.  However,  Xi’s far-reaching anti-corruption campaign has already created and will likely continue to create intraparty friction.

After the recent 6th plenum, the central government released an additional 160 rules to guide appropriate conduct of senior cadres’ political life and increase intra-party supervision. Corruption investigations will not only focus on senior political officials, but also their families and associates, any one who may have profited illicitly on the strength of political connections.  An intensified anti-corruption campaign will undoubtedly increase anxiety and opposition of the political, business, and military elite who have seen their influence steadily eroded by Xi’s concentration of power.

    Recent and anticipated personnel turnovers next autumn provide opportunity for Xi to reshape the top echelons of Chinese political power. Party chief positions in Yunnan, Hunan, and Tibet, as well as the acting mayor of Beijing have already been filled with Xi’s former colleagues and known allies; finance minister Lou Jiwei was also unexpectedly ousted and replaced with Xiao Jie, a former aide to Premier Li Keqiang. At the next Congress, Xi may choose to discard the party’s internal rules on mandatory retirements, clearing the way to place himself as more than first among equals through his own political power. Such a shift would supplant the legacy of Chinese political elders, creating implications for the promotion prospects for young politicians.

Currently, Politburo members must retire at 68. This would affect nearly 30 senior officials in top party and military positions, some of whom, like Wang Qishan, are close allies of Xi, and who would otherwise have to retire. Filling these openings will likely include such rising stars as Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua, both sixth-generation politicians already seen as contenders to succeed Xi and Li. It remains equally possible that no clear successors will emerge, further cementing Xi’s new status as the “core” of the Party. Beyond disrupting the traditions and institutionalized workings of the Party apparatus, this perceived absence of suitable successors should not yet be seen as a harbinger of an indefinite tenure for Xi. What such changes will signal, however, is a new era of political power at the highest levels of the party and state.   

Broader Implications

    If Xi is successful in appointing his loyalists to the Politburo Standing Committee, he will wield formal control over China’s top decision-making body -- the first leader to do so since Deng. And given Xi’s record of reshaping the political system to date, there is ample reason to anticipate and prepare for this trajectory. By contrast, absent such personnel changes, in-fighting and tensions among political factions will likely stall efforts to bolster the legitimacy of the Communist Party socio-economic policies. Populating the highest echelons of power with Xi loyalists also risks continued opposition from elites who have lost power and income, or fallen into disfavor. Such changes would likely further exacerbate the tensions across the political spectrum and between groups such as the Neo-Maoists, the Communist Youth League, and Xi’s own support base.  

    For the United States, the outcome of the 19th Party Congress should prompt a rethinking of how the US engages with China. The Sino-US relationship may be driven, more than ever before, by how one core leader envisions the future of the party-state and the Chinese nation. Xi will also likely continue to place himself at the center of policymaking, relying on advisors to manage the details but ensuring he has the final say on all major decisions regarding China’s relationship with the United States and others.

Previous eras of Chinese leadership have been defined by the legacies of past presidents and collective decision-making mechanisms. Xi’s robust rework of the political apparatus as the “core” may change the very principle US policymakers have operated under for the last several decades. If Xi is successful in reshuffling the political elite -- populating the innermost circles of the party with his political allies -- US policy will need to adapt to a reality of personalized rule in China, reconfiguring to the reality of a central strongman leader.