China’s leadership succession has always been a black box. The process is so opaque that outsiders often have no way of knowing who will be in charge until the moment they step up to the podium at the end of a twice-a-decade Communist Party meeting. But as Beijing prepares to unveil its next leadership at the party congress next week, one thing is almost certain: the top leader, Xi Jinping, is extending his reign.
“There is almost no doubt that he will serve a third term as the Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party,” Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese elite politics at the University of California, San Diego, told VICE World News, referring to the top and most powerful job in China.
Starting Sunday, some 2,300 party delegates will convene behind closed doors in the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing. The roughly weeklong conclave will determine the makeup of the country’s second-most powerful body, the 25-strong Politburo, and its standing committee, the highest rung of power, which now has seven members, including President Xi.
In the past two decades, top officials have without exception served no more than two terms and stepped down if they have reached the age of 68 at the party congress. But Xi, who is now 69, is expected to break precedent with both term limits and retirement norms by staying in power for another five years—a move that has been predicted since China abolished the two-term limit on presidency in 2018.
“That is the nature of an authoritarian political system,” said Wu Guoguang, an adviser to former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s and now a senior researcher at Stanford University. “Those unwritten norms within political leadership are basically just constraints over those less powerful guys. But for the most powerful guy, he’s God. He can do whatever he likes.”
And in China right now, that guy is Xi, who has spent the last decade consolidating his control over the Chinese Communist Party and the world’s second-largest economy, and built a personality cult around himself.
The lack of term limits technically allows Xi to rule for life. But the leadership line-up would offer clues to whether he has successors in mind for 2027. Xi himself was elevated to the standing committee in 2007 before he rose to the top job in 2012.
If Xi’s third term is confirmed, China’s next five years will probably look like the last ten, when Xi tightened social and political control at home and grew assertive abroad.
During his decadelong rule, Xi has eliminated political opponents through an anti-corruption campaign, built an invasive surveillance system to monitor its citizens, and ordered brutal crackdowns on dissent, particularly in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong and the western region of Xinjiang.
“The civic space in China was gradually expanding during Jiang Zemin’s and Hu Jintao’s rule,” said human rights lawyer Teng Biao, citing Xi’s two predecessors. “Xi reversed this trend and brought China back into a totalitarian era,” said Teng, who fled to the U.S. in 2014 after being repeatedly detained in China for his advocacy.
Among Xi’s least popular policies, however, is “zero COVID,” an absolutist response to the pandemic that has crippled China’s economy, isolated it from the rest of the world, and fueled public discontent.
Besides domestic challenges, China’s authoritarian shift, coupled with its increasingly assertive foreign policy and close partnership with Russia even after its invasion of Ukraine, has also strained its relations with the West.
Most advanced economies now eye its global ambitions with wariness and are reassessing their dealings with China. The UK, for instance, is set to formally designate China as a “threat” in a major shift of policy. Public opinion toward China in developed countries, including South Korea, Japan, and Australia, has also soured precipitously.
Most perilous is its ties with the U.S.
China’s recent military aggression toward the democratic island of Taiwan—one that Xi has vowed to retake, by force if necessary—threatens to destabilize the region and could escalate into a confrontation with Washington. Their rivalry in trade, chips, tech, and even outer space add to spiraling tensions, while attempts to find common ground on issues such as climate change are hitting a wall.
In a new national security strategy unveiled on Wednesday, the Biden administration described China as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge,” singling out Beijing for its ability to reshape international order.
Yet, instead of testing his position in the party, these crises have only helped Xi tighten his grip. “These challenges and risks may further consolidate his power, as the power will be more centralized to cope with external and internal instability and uncertainty,” Chen Gang, assistant director at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, told VICE World News.
There are faint hopes that the leadership reshuffle, particularly the choice of a more liberal-minded official as premier, could allow a course correction. But most observers are pessimistic.
While in theory the party delegates cast ballots at the congress, in reality, all appointments and negotiations take place behind the scenes. Wu, the Stanford researcher, called the party congress “a theatrical performance.”
“Before the drama unfolds, everything is already decided and that decision making process is a totally top-down process, basically the boss appoints the subordinates,” Wu said. He suggested the core leadership would consist mostly of Xi’s protégés with at least one but no more than two members from other factions.
Similarly, Shih of the University of California, San Diego said the two most likely new members of the Politburo standing committee will be Xi loyalists. “When they enter the elite decision-making body, Xi will be able to dominate the policy process even more so than he does today,” Shih said.
And given how China’s political system is structured, even the promotion of reformers to the line-up is unlikely to create any meaningful pushback against Xi. Wu pointed out that the presence of officials considered pragmatic and pro-reform among the party’s highest echelon of power in the last five years has done little to impact governance.
Li Keqiang, the Chinese premier who favors economic reform, for instance, has largely been sidelined in the past decade and is expected to step down after the meeting. Though he has repeatedly stressed the importance of economic growth throughout the pandemic, it has hardly made a dent in the country’s unwavering adherence to the zero-COVID policy.
After all, in China, only one man has the say.
“The problem is even if you’re the No. 2 leader of China, you are not able to say something to criticize the No. 1’s ideas,” Wu said.