Succeeding Xi Jinping

September 28, 2021
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Does Xi Jinping’s China face a looming succession crisis? Some analysts argue that it does because Xi’s elimination of the term limit on his leadership position and the concentration of power therein would precipitate such a crisis. Others are more skeptical, pointing out that the political significance of Xi’s moves is exaggerated.

The ultimate benchmark of any succession crisis is whether the military gets involved. Consequently, examining the possible role of the People’s Liberation Army in China’s leadership succession may help us to understand whether a crisis is looming.

Since the Communist Party came to power in 1949, two critical instances stand out in China when the military became heavily involved in domestic politics, including in leadership successions. The People’s Liberation Army played a crucial role in the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) under Mao Zedong. It also massively intervened to quell the popular rebellion in 1989 under Deng Xiaoping.

 

 

Certain institutional conditions incentivized the involvement of the military in domestic politics in those instances. The first was the “symbiotic” relations between the Communist Party and the army. Top leaders such as Mao and Deng possessed extensive and entrenched personal networks or factions within the People’s Liberation Army, and they counted on them for support in political crises. The second condition was the civilian governance failures that caused severe political divisions among the ruling civilian elite. The ensuing political crises drove the top leaders to mobilize the military to intervene.

China is not now facing a succession crisis because the military is unlikely to intervene in deciding who replaces Xi whenever he leaves office. More effective civilian governance in China since Deng has disincentivized the military from intervening in elite politics. Moreover, senior party leaders no longer enjoy the deep personal networks within the People’s Liberation Army that would allow them to use the army for their own domestic political purposes. Xi’s successor will likely come from the ranks of the Politburo Standing Committee members, and will be approved by the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee through voting. Simply put, it will be a big deal when Xi leaves office, but it won’t be a crisis.

From Symbiosis to Institutionalization

China does not currently face a succession crisis because the country’s top leaders do not possess their own extensive and entrenched personal networks or factions within the People’s Liberation Army, a result of the change of Chinese civil-military relations from “symbiosis” to institutionalization. For symbiotic political-military factions to solidify, top leaders must spend a substantial part of their careers in the military so that personal networks can form and grow. Unlike Mao and Deng, who founded the People’s Liberation Army and spent a major part of their careers therein, post-Deng top leaders such as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao never served in the army, while Xi served for only three years, from 1979 to 1982. Similarly, unlike the eras of Mao and Deng when China was run by “dual-role” elites or revolutionary veterans who were experienced in both civilian governance and military operations, post-Deng China is managed by technocrats who specialize either in civilian governance or in the military profession, with minimal circulation of elites across civil-military institutional boundaries. Military officers do not have experience of working in civilian institutions, and few civilian officials have had military service experience.

This post-Deng development toward civil-military bifurcation has clearly fostered an environment that prevents the formation of symbiotic political-military factions. It may explain why the informal networks that post-Deng leaders have assembled to support themselves, such as Jiang’s Shanghai network, Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League network, and Xi’s Zhejiang network, are made up of civilian officials.

Top leaders in the post-Deng era have been highly insecure about their lack of personal networks within the People’s Liberation Army. It is accepted as conventional wisdom that they attempt to buy off the military with higher ranks and more money to cultivate such networks, which can then be used in power struggles against their political opponents. However, this conventional wisdom is flawed for two reasons.

First, all leaders after Deng have regularly promoted senior officers in the People’s Liberation Army and have increased the defense budget to fulfill their responsibility as chair of the Central Military Commission. However, candidates for promotion are mostly recommended by military professionals in the commission, not picked by top leaders. Top leaders would interview the most senior candidates, but their knowledge of these officers is limited since they have not worked together before. Moreover, evidence to show that military officers are mobilized for intra-leadership power struggles is sketchy in the post-Deng era, but military modernization has nonetheless accelerated during this period. Officer promotion and budget increases can thus be explained better by functional and professional reasons than by personal and factional ones.

Second, top leaders are careful not to depend on the military for political support and survival. Such dependence would suggest a failure of civilian governance and incompetence on the part of these leaders to resolve major political and social crises. This kind of vulnerability could be exploited by the military for political advantage. Furthermore, any expansion of the military’s political role also makes it difficult to reestablish effective civilian control of the military. In the end, a new threat may emerge against these leaders: a military that is itself politically ambitious. In this regard, leaders have inevitably learned the lessons from the Lin Biao incident under Mao and the Yang brothers incident under Deng.

Chinese leaders in the post-Deng era thus have adopted a two-pronged policy toward the military. First, rather than employing the military to engage in power struggles, they confine the People’s Liberation Army to perfecting its functional and technical expertise and fulfilling its external missions. And second, they adopt a policy that stresses effective civilian governance to prevent and preempt the major political and social upheavals that may incentivize the intervention of the military in politics.

Xi and Civilian Governance 

China also does not face a succession crisis because civilian governance in the post-Deng era has become more effective, which has disincentivized the military from intervening in elite politics. Post-Deng top leaders have all endorsed Deng’s basic line (基本路线) of “upholding economic development as the central task of the party,” which was codified in the Party Constitution in 1992. Civilian governance that promotes economic development along with political and social stability has thus become the main priority of the post-Deng top leaders. Effective civilian governance is critical to the party’s survival and legitimacy to rule. Equally importantly, it prevents major political and social crises that may trigger the military’s intervention in domestic politics, which these leaders may find difficult to control and manage. Xi thus is no exception from his post-Deng predecessors in promoting effective civilian governance.

Besides fighting official corruption — which he believes would “doom the party and state” (亡党亡国) — Xi has attempted to restructure the economy for high-quality growth, promote poverty reduction to narrow down the wealth gap, and endorse measures to reduce environmental pollution. He has also tightened control to achieve political and social stability, including promoting ideological and political education, strengthening media and internet control and censorship, and intensifying social surveillance by leveraging new technologies.

Recently, Xi has strengthened regulations on technology monopolies such as Alibaba, and has imposed restrictions on online video gaming and private tutoring. The motivations driving these policies are complex and multifaceted, including helping small and medium-sized companies and narrowing down the wealth gap, rechanneling investment capital to the “real economy” (实体经济) such as manufacturing or “hard” technologies, lowering the cost of raising kids to encourage parents to have more children, and more effective social control. These policies are generally in line with the enhancement of civilian governance by promoting economic development along with political and social stability.

Xi stands out from his post-Deng predecessors, however, in that he has also centralized power in meaningful ways. He abolished the two-term limit for the state president position, which was first codified in the 1982 State Constitution. He has also strengthened the authority of the Chinese Communist Party general secretary at the expense of collective leadership and intra-party democracy. The “succession crisis” argument particularly highlights the political uncertainty brought up by Xi’s “unrivaled power within the CCP … as untouchable as Stalin or Mao” as the primary source of a “looming crisis.”

Xi’s elimination of the term limit increases the probability of failed civilian governance. Unlimited tenure may incentivize the emergence of an unaccountable and arbitrary dictator who will not tolerate any “checks and balances,” not even in the minimal terms of intra-leadership debates and criticisms intended to correct policy mistakes and avert policy failures. A case in point is Mao, who ruled China from 1949 to 1976 and was generally regarded as a dictator. His disastrous policies of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are clear examples of the abject failure of civilian governance.

The political implications of removing the term limit and centralizing power, however, may be overstated. The position of state president is largely ceremonial. By comparison, the top positions that carry real power are the party general secretary and the Central Military Commission chair. The norm of a limit of two five-year terms for holding these two positions simultaneously has been informal and never institutionalized — following this norm is thus an exception. Deng, for instance, served as the commission chair from 1982 to 1989, while Hu Yaobang served as the party general secretary from 1982 to 1987 and Zhao Ziyang from 1987 to 1989. Similarly, Jiang served as the party general secretary for two and a half terms, from 1989 to 2002, and commission chair for the length of three terms, from 1989 to 2004. In comparison, Hu Jintao is an exception by serving as the party general secretary for exactly the two five-year terms, from 2002 to 2012, but he served as the commission chair for only about one and a half terms, from 2004 to 2012.

Also, Xi’s presumed unlimited tenure does not have to cause the failure of civilian governance. There are major examples where top leaders served for unlimited tenure but delivered impressive governance success. Lee Kuan Yew, serving as Singapore’s prime minister from 1965 to 1990, transformed Singapore from a colonial backwater trading post to an economic powerhouse. In this instance, unlimited tenure becomes an asset because it extends the office of a competent top leader and ensures the continuity of sound policies. Leonid Brezhnev, often seen as not as competent as Lee but not as incompetent as Mao, served as the top leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982. With a mediocre governance record, Brezhnev was largely responsible for presiding over a country and an economy that remained stagnant.

Moreover, Xi’s concentration of power is not absolute. Such a concentration is specifically driven by Xi’s attempt to manage the downsides of collective leadership, such as rampant corruption sustained by powerful oligarchies within the party leadership. More than half of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee of the 19th Party Congress cannot be counted as Xi’s protégés. Li Keqiang and Wang Yang are identified with Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League network and Han Zheng and Wang Huning with Jiang’s Shanghai network. Age and term limits have also been enforced in appointing senior civilian officials and military officers to critically important positions. Xi has seemingly created a system like the Soviet Union where the Leninist party-state, including party-army relations, is quite institutionalized, but substantial discretion is allowed for the top leadership succession.

The limits of Xi’s power are also reflected in personnel appointments and the counter-corruption drive. Zhang Yang and Fang Fenghui were appointed to direct the People’s Liberation Army General Political Department and head the People’s Liberation Army General Staff respectively in 2012 when Xi became the top leader, but both were investigated for corruption by the end of 2017. The fact that corrupt officers held the most important positions of the PLA for five years under Xi shows that Xi did not have a network of officers who he could trust when he became the top leader. An alleged member of Xi’s Zhejiang network was also investigated for corruption. Both examples show the limit of Xi’s control over the military and civilian bureaucracy.

Finally, Xi — unlike Mao — has not behaved like an impulsive and irrational leader. Xi’s policies are consistent with Deng’s “basic line” of upholding economic development as the central task of the party, which was reiterated in the report of the 19th Party Congress. Xi even borrowed the term of “common prosperity” from Deng. Xi promotes common prosperity in order to gradually transform China into an “olive-shaped” society to prevent a class revolution. His evolving policy to contain COVID-19 also reflects quick learning and adaptation. After bungling the response for about three weeks in January 2020, Xi followed the assessment of public health professionals and shifted to a more effective containment policy. This policy has resulted in a relatively successful curb of the virus’ spread in China. Similarly, there were extensive consultations and discussions about major party and state documents before they were issued, including the 19th Party Congress Report and the 14th Five-Year Plan. Drafting of the latter reportedly involved input from over 70,000 functional and technical experts.

A Likely Scenario of Succession

For the remainder of his time in office, Xi might actually deliver good civilian governance on issues related to economic development and political and social stability (notwithstanding his policies toward Uighurs). In this scenario, Xi may extend his tenure for a third term and remain as the top leader until the 21st Party Congress in 2027. By then, he would have completed the complex processes of the party, government, military, economic, and social reforms that he has initiated. Moreover, Xi’s governance would have presumably achieved moderate (albeit better-quality) economic growth, a low level of official corruption, successful poverty reduction, a much larger middle-income population, a better environment, and overall political and social stability. Also, Xi would have effectively managed Sino-American relations by de-escalating the trade dispute and preventing bilateral security competition from escalating into a military conflict.

In such a scenario, civilian governance success would lower the probability of the army’s involvement in elite politics. By the 20th Party Congress in 2022, taking into consideration the party constitution’s clause against lifelong tenure for top leaders, Xi would have designated a successor. This successor may become a Central Military Commission vice-chair in 2024 to gain experience in managing military affairs, and then succeed Xi at the 21st Party Congress in 2027. As the heir-apparent may lack sufficient military credentials and personal networks in the military to take full charge of it, Xi may possibly remain as the commission chair for some extra time beyond 2027. Xi’s extended tenure in this position would allow time for the successor to gain governing experience.

Another scenario sets a context in which a limited policy failure, such as a severe economic recession caused by mismanagement, may trigger an intra-leadership debate. The dissenting voices within the ruling civilian elite may attribute such a policy failure to Xi’s centralization of authority. Xi’s alleged mistakes may include eliminating the term limit, abandoning the principles of collective leadership and intra-party democracy, and creating a personality cult around himself, all of which could have discouraged and prevented debates and criticisms intended to correct policy mistakes. Xi’s behavior, according to these voices, would have constituted a serious violation of the norms established by Deng in order to avoid another governance failure like the Cultural Revolution.

Xi’s anti-corruption drive may also face criticisms for its worst excesses, including the lack of due process, unchecked power of the supervision agencies, and dereliction of duty (不作为) of officials for fear of making mistakes. In this scenario, the possible outcome of the power struggle may be similar to what had happened to former top leader Hua Guofeng from 1978 to 1980. Hua was criticized for making “serious mistakes,” but the People’s Liberation Army played a minimal role in the struggle. As Hua’s mistakes were regarded as “contradictions among the people,” the issue was resolved through an intra-leadership debate rather than via the barrel of a gun. The fact that Hua served as the Central Military Commission chair and Wang Dongxing, a close ally of Hua, commanded the central guard unit did not gain any advantage for Hua against his opponents.

Rather than a zero-sum game where “winner takes all,” the outcome of this power struggle resembles a variable-sum game where “there are gains for losers.” Although Hua lost the top leader position, he continued his leadership role as a party vice-chair and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee for more than a year, and as a party Central Committee member until his death in 2002. This scenario is less likely since an opposing coalition consisting of powerful personalities like Deng, Hu Yaobang, and Chen Yun does not exist among the ruling civilian elite in today’s China.

There are no examples of blatant military coups in Leninist regimes such as China and the Soviet Union, but analysts disagree on why that has been the case. Some argue that tight control of the military and security bureaucracy by these leaders accounts for this rarity. In my view, the insecurity stemming from leaders’ limited ability to control the military motivates them to adopt a policy that stresses effective civilian governance. Effective governance helps to prevent major political and social crises that may incentivize the military’s intervention in domestic politics, which they may find difficult to control and manage. Meanwhile, they promote what Samuel Huntington calls “objective control” by confining the military to perfecting its functional and technical expertise and fulfilling its external missions.

Some also suggest that Xi’s sudden death or incapacitation may trigger a succession crisis similar to the one following Mao’s death in 1976. But the limits on Xi’s power concentration, including his inability to monopolize the appointment of Politburo Standing Committee members and his limited ability to control the military and civilian bureaucracy, show that Xi is not comparable to Mao in terms of revolutionary and military credentials, political capital and influence, charisma, or entrenched personal networks in the party and the army. Xi’s sudden death or incapacitation would be a big deal, but it should not be exaggerated. The successor to Xi should be produced based on the pecking order of the incumbent Politburo Standing Committee members, and the candidate should nominally be approved by the party Central Committee through voting. The process may involve leadership politics but it would not be as tumultuous and militarized as in 1976.

Xi will likely govern effectively on issues related to economic development and political and social stability, and designate a successor in due course. The People’s Liberation Army will likely play a minimal role in the succession. Xi is one of the most powerful Chinese leaders in decades, and his ability to centralize power is remarkable. However, warnings that China faces a looming succession crisis are overstated.

 

 

Nan Li is visiting senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of National University of Singapore.

Image: Xinhua (Pang Xinglei)