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How Xi Jinping could rule China for life

Claiming the title of party chairman would put the president in a league with Mao Zedong

Decorative plates bear images of Chinese President Xi Jinping and communist leader Mao Zedong at a shop in Beijing on Nov. 9.

In Beijing, the last major Central Committee meeting before next year’s 20th Party Congress is underway. Officially, the agenda for this week’s nonpublic meeting of China’s 200 or so party leaders focuses on an updated resolution on the history of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP.

The bigger story, however, is how incumbent CCP leader Xi Jinping will continue to rule China going forward. What are his options?

China experts Richard McGregor and Jude Blanchette suggest two approaches: The CCP could extend Xi’s tenure as the general party secretary for a third term — or Xi could retire from that office but continue to rule from behind the curtains.

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But my research suggests that Xi has another way to stay in power, by reactivating the office of the chairman of the Party Central Committee at the 2022 CCP Congress. For Xi, this path would achieve two goals simultaneously: He could continue to rule while micromanaging the succession process.

This was Mao Zedong’s title

The reactivation of the party chairman title would not only allow Xi to continue to rule but also to rule from a higher place. This is a revered leadership role, created in 1945 for Mao Zedong, who retained that office until his death in 1976. The CCP charter has never specified the scope of power the party chairman can wield, but records of party documents reveal that in preparation for his elevation to party chairman, Mao already enjoyed final decision-making power at the three-man Central Party Secretariat, an executive body of the Politburo at the time, in 1943.

After his elevation to the party chairman role, Mao made it clear that final decision-making power would stay with him. A written instruction he sent to CCP leaders Liu Shaoqi and Yang Shangkun in 1953 reads: “From now on, all documents and telegraphs that are issued under the name of the Party Centre have to be reviewed by me first before circulation. Otherwise, they are invalid. Please bear it in mind.”

Xi could then pick his successor

As party chairman, Xi would have many options on the pace and manner of the search for his political heir. To start with, Xi’s current position as general party secretary would become vacant and could be used to groom the heir-designate under the direct watch of the chairman. And as party chairman, Xi could now entrust his successor with the authority to oversee day-to-day CCP operations, yet retain veto power on critical matters of state. If he wanted to prolong the search, he could revoke the position of general secretary altogether so that a few equal candidates could compete within the Politburo Standing Committee. In addition, he might also consider nominating an heir by appointing a deputy party chairman, as Mao did.

Granted, the reactivation of the CCP chairmanship is no guarantee of a stable transition of power, as China’s history has revealed. But in an autocratic regime with no genuine commitment to constitutionalism and the rule of law, nothing can guarantee a secure tenure, let alone life tenure, for any leader or their successor, no matter how the succession process is designed. The reactivation of this office would, however, provide a convenient structure that allows Xi as the incumbent leader to control the succession process and accommodate trial and error in the process.

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Is China headed in this direction?

Two developments seem to suggest that the CCP is geared toward this move. The first signal, many experts think, is the 2018 constitutional amendment that lifted China’s two-term presidential limit. I share the same conclusion, but for a different reason. As I explained in this analysis, the CCP needed to lift the head of state’s term limit not because this constituted a normative constraint that would prevent Xi from staying in power.

Rather, this move was necessary because the term limit could effectively have separated the office of the head of state — PRC chairman — and the office of the head of the CCP, where the real power resides. Here’s why that could be a problem. Consider this scenario: An overambitious occupant of the office of PRC chairman could use that office to defect and turn its ceremonial functions to blocking powers, for instance, by holding off from promulgating laws, appointing and dismissing leaders of state institutions, signing treaties with foreign countries, etc., thereby significantly weakening the political dominance of Xi himself as party head.

The second and more compelling signal is the unfolding of an exceptionally vigorous ideological campaign to establish “Xi Jinping Thought.” This campaign bears great resemblance to Mao’s playbook before he became party chairman in 1945. As I’ve detailed in a recent article, Mao launched a four-year rectification campaign in Yan’an to build a namesake ideology. Mao used this campaign not only to canonize policies, orient actions and dispel political rivals and critics but also to demonstrate the excellence of Mao’s political, military, and administrative skills as well as intellectual capacity. The campaign culminated with the very first resolution on CCP history, which rendered Mao as an infallible political leader, established his absolute authority over all aspects of CCP affairs and also sealed the position of party chairman for him.

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As if in a mirror image, the ideological campaign to establish Xi Jinping Thought kicked off during Xi’s first term in office. My analysis explains how this campaign gained potency, as it was synchronized in speed and content with Xi’s signature anticorruption campaign.

Since 2017, the CCP’s propaganda machine has been running at full throttle to canonize Xi’s words and deeds into the theory of Xi Jinping Thought. This comprehensive theory, lauded in official statements as the “latest achievement of the Sinification of Marxism,” has been turned into textbooks and training materials for mandatory study by schoolchildren, college students, politicians and civil servants.

The adulation of Xi Jinping has been pushed to new levels by China’s official Xinhua News Agency and other official publications, as researchers have reported. But China watchers are keeping a close eye on any statements this week related to that updated resolution on the CCP’s first 100 years, which will probably contain important clues about what to expect in 2022, and what Xi’s future official role will be.

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Ling Li teaches at the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna. She has published extensively on topics related to corruption and anticorruption in China and her main area of research interest is Chinese politics and law, with a focus on the Chinese Communist Party, its apparatus and the political-legal institutions.