Was Chinese Premier Li Keqiang challenging President Xi Jinping’s “zero covid” policy when he toured a university in southwestern China without a mask in May? Did Xi briefly disappear from the front page of the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper to quash a rebellion? Is Li making a last-ditch effort to usurp Xi?
Speculation about political infighting and schisms at the top of the Chinese Communist Party are a common feature of its secretive system of appointing new leaders. But this year, political silly season has started early, and the swirl of rumor has been especially intense.
That’s unsurprising in the buildup to the immensely important, twice-per-decade Party Congress in the fall, which is shaping up to be the most significant transition of power in China since the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square movement in 1989 sparked a messy inter-factional battle for control.
Most close observers of Chinese politics have brushed aside the idea of a fierce battle for power at the top of the party, arguing that Xi’s hold is so strong that he is near-guaranteed to take on a third term at this year’s meeting.
What is more unclear is whether the rumors flying around Chinese business circles and overseas Chinese-language media suggest a degree of pushback that will force Xi to compromise on personnel choices and water down some of his more ambitious policy objectives as he enters a third term.
“What is unusual this time is that China as a whole is doing poorly ahead of a historic Party Congress,” said Minxin Pei, a political scientist studying Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College. “Its economy is in terrible shape; the zero-covid policy looks increasingly untenable; and China’s relations with nearly all Western countries are at historic lows. This of course does not reflect well on Xi.”
Chinese scholars, however, maintain that nothing is out of the ordinary. Victor Gao, a former interpreter for past leader Deng Xiaoping now at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank, said in an interview that the rumors are merely part of the cycles of Chinese politics and will soon settle.
Gao did note that this year was particularly important because the transition will include significant turnover in the 25-member Politburo and the 200-odd Central Committee, where he expects new faces for about half of the former and at least a third in the latter. “You’re talking about changes, lots of changes. People retiring, lots of aspiring people trying to get up, being promoted,” he said.
To glean a sense of whether Xi’s rule is under serious pressure, international scholars carefully track promotions and demotions as well as signals in party propaganda. At the center of this informed guesswork — often called “tea leaf reading” — is the question of just how much Xi’s centralization of control has upended past competition and the delicate balancing of interests within the party.
After Xi’s decade-long campaigns to clear corruption and ensure loyalty, it’s unclear whether any cliques remain unified and influential enough to challenge his rule. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Xi is unopposed.
“It’s a huge political party, and at the end of the day, Xi Jinping cannot populate all the mid-level positions with trusted followers,” said Victor Shih, a scholar of Chinese politics at the University of California at San Diego.
In a recent book, Shih argues that autocratic political systems such as China’s create an incentive for strongman leaders to adopt a strategy of building “coalitions of the weak,” where politically compromised or inexperienced officials are favored for positions of power as a way of guarding the top leader from challengers.
This, Shih suggests, was the approach Mao Zedong took and Xi may be beginning to adopt. But doing so could mean promoting inexperienced officials incapable of tackling acute economic and foreign policy challenges. Xi faces a trade-off between choosing competent leaders who might later challenge him or taking a “safe route, which is what Mao did, to ultimately have a coalition of officials who are highly dependent on him.”
The exact processes of power brokering that China calls “intraparty democracy” remain shrouded in secrecy, but it is clear that Xi’s campaign to end infighting within the party has changed dynamics of internal contestation. Previous features of Chinese political maneuvering, such as an annual visit to the seaside town of Beidaihe, are less prominent, if they now exist at all.
Xi’s control of the formidable party discipline and ideology apparatuses mean any challenger faces a steep coordination problem to challenge his power. “Getting rid of him would be a very significant political earthquake for the party,” said Olivia Cheung, a research fellow at SOAS University of London. “No matter how many of the elite do not like Xi Jinping, there is a consensus that the party wants to stay on in power.”
Restricted information has made it harder for experts to predict major turning points in Xi’s tenure. Few predicted the monumental decision to end presidential term limits, announced by Xinhua News in a terse statement only a month before it was voted on at the annual meeting of China’s legislature in early 2018.
Policymaking, too, has become less transparent under Xi, who has made greater use of “central leading groups,” many of which he personally chairs, to centralize control of decision-making. On issues including the pandemic, cybersecurity and curbing debt in the property market, Xi’s policies have in the last year repeatedly caused market panic, but there have been few signs any of them will be reversed.
Such upsets are rarely blamed on Xi but, rather, on local officials. Shanghai’s botched lockdown, for example, has not led to a shift in China’s zero-covid policy, but some analysts believe it may hurt the promotion prospects of Li Qiang, the city’s party boss and a Xi ally.
Similarly, Li’s recent prominence, read by some as an indication of a challenge to Xi, can equally well be explained as the premier being intentionally used as a figurehead in charge of resolving deepening economic woes.
A small uptick in Li’s mentions in state media doesn’t mean he is “surging back into power,” said Neil Thomas, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a think tank. “This is a way for Xi to make Li the face of economic policy in a year when economic policy is probably going to bring nothing but bad news.”
Mary Gallagher, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, said that Xi’s tenure has caused her to revise previous emphasis on China being unusual among authoritarian regimes, because before Xi, the party appeared to be moving toward institutionalized succession with top leaders bowing out after two terms.
“Having this expectation that every decade China’s leadership would change was really important in making China seem like a stable authoritarian regime,” she said. “Without those institutions in place, it not only makes investors nervous; it makes the next generation of leaders nervous.”
Dou reported from Shenzhen, China.