China is undergoing significant social, political and economic stress at a precarious point in time for the reign of President Xi Jinping. A man who rose to power with great fanfare in 2012, Mr. Xi has spent the last decade aggregating as much power as possible in his hands — defying the patterns and preferences judiciously established by every Chinese Communist Party leader since Deng Xiaoping. Initially, when things were going well in China (especially compared to the hard times that China’s great American rival had fallen on in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008), Mr. Xi enjoyed immense political benefits for the success that China experienced in the early part of his presidency.
Yet, in defying the standards for rule that Deng and his successors had spent decades laying down for future Chinese rulers to follow, Mr. Xi ensured that, if things started going badly in China under his watch, he alone would bear the burden of blame. Since late 2019, when the novel coronavirus mysteriously erupted from Wuhan, China, Mr. Xi has been made to look increasingly bad. In the last few weeks, as a new strain of COVID-19 spreads throughout China, Mr. Xi looks even worse because he has instituted draconian “zero COVID” policies that have locked the country down and set up the conditions for political unrest, both on the streets and inside the halls of power in Beijing.
Already, Mr. Xi’s old nemesis, the 95-year-old former Chinese president Jiang Zemin and his so-called “Shanghai Gang” have been making moves at undermining Mr. Xi’s presidency in response to his unpopular lockdown of Shanghai. However, Mr. Jiang and his clique are old. While they certainly can do damage to Mr. Xi’s political future, a bigger threat looms behind him: his number two, CCP Premier Li Keqiang.
Mr. Li is part of the Youth Faction League, which is nominally led by Mr. Xi’s immediate predecessor, the man who pioneered China’s “Peaceful Rise” strategy of the 2000s, Hu Jintao. Mr. Xi and Mr. Hu could not be more different from each other. Whereas Mr. Hu lived by the creed of biding one’s time and hiding one’s capabilities to keep your enemies off-balance, Mr. Xi has demonstrated a consistent dedication to overt — and increasing — displays of Chinese force abroad. In the words of Gordon G. Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” “Li Keqiang would be less ideological” than Mr. Xi. In fact, according to Charles Burton of the MacDonald Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada, during the transition of power from Mr. Hu in 2012, it was Mr. Xi who outmaneuvered Mr. Li for the role of president — despite the fact that Mr. Li was next in line to succeed Mr. Hu, since Mr. Li was from the Youth Faction League that Mr. Hu led.
Mr. Chang believes that, despite the rising antipathy to Mr. Xi’s rule from within powerful factions of the CCP, Mr. Xi is likely to be given a historic third term as China’s president. The 20th National People’s Congress of the CCP will be held this fall, in which the potential third term for President Xi will be decided. But given the rising anger over Mr. Xi’s policies, not only regarding his draconian COVID-19 policies but about Mr. Xi’s outspoken support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deeply unpopular (and illegal) invasion of Ukraine, readers should not be surprised if a challenge to Mr. Xi’s potential third term occurs at the party congress this fall. If a challenge is mounted it will be done by elements belonging to both the Shanghai Gang and the Youth Faction League — and one can anticipate that Mr. Li will be their preferred choice for president.
The writing may be on the wall for Mr. Xi’s future, as official CCP publications have increasingly highlighted Mr. Li as a vital component for China’s success going forward. As Mr. Chang asserts, the spotlighting of Mr. Li in official CCP organs is “another bad sign for Xi.” Mr. Li has spent much of his political life in the shadows. Even when he was displaced as the next leader of China and was made Mr. Xi’s number two in China’s government, Mr. Li remained in the shadows — until the extent of the unpopularity and damage to China’s economy that Mr. Xi’s “zero COVID” policies became clear. Now, Mr. Li is increasingly stepping out from behind Mr. Xi’s shadow.
Recently, as though recognizing that he had erred (without fully admitting it), Mr. Xi announced a shift away from his “zero COVID” policy to a “dynamic zero COVID” policy, which will effectively allow for the restoration of some degree of economic freedom in China, even though the coronavirus in China is not yet under control. And while Mr. Xi is clearly moving to mitigate whatever damage his policies have caused in China, it is possible that Mr. Xi will delay the next National Congress. After all, as Mr. Chang told me, “There is no hard-and-fast rule that says there has to be a Twentieth National Congress this year.” Sensing danger, Mr. Xi could always get the CCP to delay the event until the results of Mr. Xi’s new “dynamic zero COVID” policy are better understood and if Mr. Xi’s new pal, Mr. Putin, can achieve a modicum of victory in Ukraine.
Although, Mr. Xi’s decision to possibly delay the National Congress this fall could trigger a wider crisis as Mr. Xi’s enemies in the Shanghai Gang and the Youth Faction League want to challenge Mr. Xi at that time. Should Mr. Xi be replaced and Mr. Li succeed him as many are beginning to speculate, one can expect China to become less ideological (although nonetheless repressive). Since 2021, reports have surfaced from China suggesting that Mr. Xi, like his hero, Mao Zedong, was engaged in a “Cultural Revolution 2.0” that was designed to root out “irrational star-worshipping behavior” and to “consciously abandon vulgar and kitsch inferior tastes” in a move that Jianli Yang likened to Mao’s criticism of “the Peking Opera Hai Rui Submits His Memorial,” which was subsequently banned by the CCP and likely triggered Mao’s vicious Cultural Revolution that had laid low China. It not only weakened the CCP but damaged Mao’s credibility in the eyes of his fellow party members (prompting widespread, vicious crackdowns from Mao in order to stave off a challenge from less ideological elements in his midst).
Like Mao during the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Xi may be better suited for the kind of power struggle that the Youth Faction League and Shanghai Gang are spoiling for. After all, in Gordon Chang’s postulation, “[CCP] politics have a logic, and it is now brutal. It’s a kill-or-be-killed system.” Mr. Li did not have it in him in 2012 to prevent Mr. Xi’s successful bid for the presidency — despite being the favored successor for Mr. Hu — and it remains to be seen whether Mr. Li can muster the gumption to successfully challenge Mr. Xi.
One thing is certain: Mr. Xi’s threshold for risk is low. As greater challenges to his reign mount in the run-up to the 20th People’s Congress, and if Mr. Xi’s political situation at home does not improve, the more likely that Mr. Xi is to engage in aggressive behavior with Taiwan or India or another Chinese rival in the Indo-Pacific. Specifically, in regards to Taiwan, the United States must recognize the dangers that political instability in China pose to the besieged island democracy and move quickly to shore up Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against a Chinese strike.
Napoleon once said, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will wake the world.” China’s rise in the last 50 years has already fundamentally changed the balance of world power irrevocably. A vicious power struggle in Beijing could shake an already brittle international order to its very foundation — and initiate a world war the likes of which we’ve never experienced.
• Brandon J. Weichert is a geopolitical analyst and the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers). He manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. Mr. Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.