The Perfect Enemy | A Third Term for China’s Xi Jinping’s Isn’t In Doubt
August 11, 2022

A Third Term for China’s Xi Jinping’s Isn’t In Doubt

A Third Term for China’s Xi Jinping’s Isn’t In Doubt  Barron’s

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The World Bank revised China’s GDP growth to slow to 4.3% in 2022.

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

About the author: Seong-Hyon Lee is a senior fellow at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations and a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.

Is Chinese President Xi Jinping in trouble? Some analysts say his chance for a third term is in limbo, amid mounting domestic discontent. That is significant news, if true. In the months leading up to this fall’s 20th plenum of the Communist Party of China, where the announcement of Xi’s potential third term is expected, speculation is bound to intensify. 

But rumors of the fall of Xi are overblown. It is very unlikely that Xi will disappear from Chinese politics anytime soon—a denial of Xi would be a denial of the Communist Party itself. 

Still, current events are casting a shadow on Xi’s rule. The leader’s draconian Covid-19 controls and China’s worsening economic situation are finally inviting meaningful opposition from within the CPC. It’s up for debate how serious the situation is for Xi. Chinese leaders normally rotate out after two terms, but Xi has for years been expected to break tradition. Recent actions might be undermining his chances of staying on, the argument goes. There is also a view that Premier Li Keqiang, who previously contended with Xi for China’s top post, has been narrowing the power gap with him.  

Those who believe Xi is in trouble see problems at the grass-roots level. The accumulated disgruntlement due to rigid social control under the zero Covid mandate and the worsening economic situation has crossed a critical threshold. The controversial zero Covid lockdown policy has left more than 200 million Chinese residents under de facto house arrest, drastically constraining people’s movement and paralyzing logistical transportation. Meanwhile, unemployment among recent college graduates is rising, while urban residents have turned uncommonly vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction with the Chinese government’s harsh lockdown measures. 

China is also arguably facing the biggest socio-economic crisis since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The World Bank revised China’s GDP growth to slow to 4.3% in 2022—0.8 percentage points lower than projected in December. Meanwhile, in recent months, Li has been seen to be more visibly outspoken, sounding alarm over economic growth. Some interpret it as Li making veiled criticisms of Xi’s dogmatic Covid policy, which is sapping China’s economic vitality.  

Li may be narrowing the power gap with Xi, at least in terms of media power. In particular, the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the CPC, published a prominent 9,000-word speech by Premier Li on May 14. The article appeared again on the front page on the 17th and 18th; in contrast, news about the CPC’s top leader, Xi, was nowhere to be found. The state media’s prominent coverage of Li was unusual enough that The Wall Street Journal took note in an article headlined , “China’s forgotten premier steps out of Xi’s shadow as an economic fixer.”

To be fair, the intrigue surrounding Xi’s power is nothing new. However, that doesn’t automatically provide grounds for us to dismiss the latest round of discourse, given the socio-economic manifestations described above. Some say that if Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor as president, committed the same misrule as we saw under Xi, Hu wouldn’t have been able to stay in power. That is an interesting comparison. It’s analytically worth looking at what difference President Xi’s power has from President Hu’s.  

The biggest difference between Hu and Xi is the transition from a “collective leadership” under the former to “one-man rule” under the latter. To facilitate this goal, Xi has implemented an anticorruption campaign, and passed a historical resolution, which has institutionalized and further legitimized Xi’s power.  

The term “corruption” in China carries a political connotation that is not limited to material corruption, but also broadly implicates political infidelity to the CPC leadership. Since Xi is officially described as the core of the CPC leadership, corruption thus includes disregarding or not implementing Xi’s policies. The zero Covid policy is also Xi’s policy. Regardless of the effectiveness of the Covid quarantine—however draconian it is—Chinese local officials will be judged based on how faithfully they implement  Xi’s Covid policy. Their careers depend on it. So far, much of the problems we have been witnessing stem from local officials’ excessive eagerness to display their loyalty to Xi and resulting discontent by the public, not the lack of Covid policy implementation by the officials.  

The anticorruption campaign is a clever tool for Xi, and one that party officials dread, because once found guilty the incarceration term easily goes over a decade, if not life in prison. This year marks the 10th year of Xi’s reign, and the anticorruption drive is still going very strong. Xi recently called corruption a “tumor,” and stressed there is “no room” to make any compromise. The fact that local officials fear Xi clearly shows that he isn’t a lame duck. 

Xi’s historical resolution, adopted in November 2021, is important in terms of institutionalizing his monolithic power. Only the third of its kind, the resolution is intended to act as a historical communiqué, or update on party issues. A careful perusal shows that the resolution didn’t solve any historical issue because, after all, it wasn’t about history. Nonetheless, the CPC said in the resolution that Xi’s ideas were the essence of Chinese culture and Chinese spirit and achieved a “new leap forward” in the sinicization of Marxism.  

Under this circumstance, it will be very difficult for the CPC to remove Xi from power. To remove Xi would be to deny the historical resolution, which in turn would deny the history of the Communist Party itself. In other words, the CPC’s denial of Xi would come with a severe political price. An attempt to do so would lead to the weakening of the Communist Party system itself, and is undesirable from the point of view of the Communist Party’s collective interests. 

Still, one might point out the robust competition among China’s political factions and how a rival faction could rise to challenge  Xi’s power. This view is relevant, but ultimately can be dismissed. There are indeed factions that criticize Xi via overseas Chinese media outlets, which are then carried by English media outlets (that is why we “know” Xi is somehow in trouble.) Retired CPC officials, at a venerable age, are one such source. However, Xi has made painstaking efforts during his rule for a decade to reduce factions to granules, effectively demoralizing them. Many scholars thus agree that the traditional factional taxonomy no longer nicely square with today’s Chinese politics.     

Regarding Li’s recent prominence and seeming ascension in authority, we also need to deploy a new method of analysis. In short, his sudden prominence in the state media was engineered, as he was mobilized and put in charge of “reviving the economy.” And importantly, if  Li fails the mission, then it is likely to be seen as his own mistake, not Xi’s. In other words, Li could become a political martyr. We should also not forget that in March Li announced his retirement later this year, after serving two five-year terms. 

It’s also meaningful to scrutinize the political fidelity trend among up-and-coming CPC officials. From October 2021 to the end of July 2022, 31 Chinese provinces held their respective provincial party congresses, shuffling the leadership and electing delegates. The move was seen as a preparation ahead of the 20th CPC Plenum in the fall. The once-every-five-year event typically comes with major changes in leadership.  

How Xi was addressed was notable. In the political reports, written by various provincial officials, Xi was addressed as “people’s leader” as many as 36 times. Not since Mao Zedong and his successor, Hua Guofeng, has a CPC czar been given the title. It was clearly seen as an elevation of Xi’s status on par with Mao. It could be also gleaned that those rising provincial officials are eager to display their allegiance to Xi. Political reports are important in the CPC system because they are a symbol of ideological unity. And clearly  Xi is at the center of that unity.  

It should be noted, finally, that even those who predict Xi’s eventual downfall usually believe that his getting a third term wouldn’t be a problem. The uncertainty is what comes afterward. And there may be a lot of real uncertainty.  

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