On October 16, the Chinese Communist Party will begin its 20th National Congress, the highest-level and most important assembly of China’s senior political and military leadership. Past party congresses have been important inflection points in the development of the party and the country. The Eighth Party Congress, in 1956, saw the removal of Mao Zedong Thought (which had enshrined the revolutionary leader’s ideology) from the party’s constitution, a temporary setback for Mao after a series of policy and political mistakes. At the 14th Party Congress, in 1992, the leadership unveiled the term “socialist market economy” to signal a reorientation of economic policy in the wake of the CCP’s violent crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. In 2002, the 16th Party Congress formally incorporated the “Three Represents” guiding theory into the party’s constitution, paving the way for a pronounced softening of the CCP’s position toward private enterprise. And for the past several decades, every other party congress has seen the orderly and peaceful transition of power from one leader to the next, a rare feat for an authoritarian system.
At the upcoming 20th Party Congress, the CCP will reshuffle personnel, issue reports, and project an image of Spartan unity and discipline. But the meeting will be more elegy than transformation. Despite the pomp that will surround the congress, it will mark a disquieting moment for the party. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s unprecedented third term as general secretary will drag the CCP back to the pathologies of the Mao era and simultaneously push it toward a future of low growth, heightened geopolitical tension, and profound uncertainty.
The continuation of Xi’s rule means that on the big questions of China’s future, Beijing is unlikely to shift its policies dramatically: after a decade in power, Xi’s impulses, assumptions, and judgment are already clear. The bilateral relationship with the United States, Beijing’s view of state-market relations, its use of coercion toward Taiwan, its strategic alignment with Moscow, its approach to economic statecraft—none of this will fundamentally change at or after the congress. The meeting is designed not as a showcase for some dramatic new approach to governance or policy but rather as pure political theater meant to reassure the Chinese citizenry and convince global audiences that the party remains steadfast and unified under Xi as he pursues the goal of transforming China into a socialist great power.
But aiming for a destination and arriving at it are two separate matters. Xi’s grip on China’s political, economic, and security institutions is formidable, and his stated plans for China’s future are many and detailed. Yet his ability to steer complex ecosystems and the forces that shape them is, as all rulers eventually learn, fixed and limited. What is more, the reactive, shortsighted, and often incoherent set of policies that Xi has promoted over the past five years intended to achieve his global ambitions and confront the country’s innumerable challenges have placed China on a worrying path of anemic economic growth, declining global prestige, and rising domestic repression. The congress will not change these realities either.
Outside observers expecting that the congress might mark some sort of inflection point are thus correct but largely for the wrong reasons. What one could previously hope for—the installation of a new leadership coterie and with it, the prospect of serious change—will not occur. Rather than a moment of course correction, the 20th Party Congress sees the CCP—a regime that has long enjoyed a reputation of competence, pragmatism, and predictability—cross a threshold into outright dictatorship and, with it, a likely future of political ossification, policy uncertainty, and the ruinous effects of one-man rule.
LARGE AND IN CHARGE
The foundational and most consequential fact of the upcoming congress is that Xi will assume a third term as general secretary of the CCP and chair of the Central Military Commission of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This development formally marks the end of the post-Mao effort to (imperfectly) constrain the power of an individual leader and (again, imperfectly) systematize the process of leadership succession. These steps were not adopted out of any normative belief in constraining power but because a more normalized succession procedure was in the party’s long-term interest. Abandoning them is a Rubicon moment even if it has been expected since Xi abolished term limits for the office of the Chinese presidency in March 2018. Clawing back some sense of predictability in how future leaders are chosen, groomed, and installed will be a project for a distant future—and one that likely won’t begin until Xi leaves office, is pushed out, or “goes to see Marx”.
China now enters a period of pronounced uncertainty, driven by the likely open-ended rule of an autocrat. Although some observers now append the title “ruler for life” to Xi, this is only one possible outcome for the country—and not necessarily the worst. Even assuming that Xi plans to step down at some point in the future, what would happen if he died unexpectedly or suffered a serious health complication that left him incapacitated? How well would the system operate when it came time to select and install a replacement? What impact would this have on the domestic and global economy? In a similar vein, although the prospect of a leadership challenge or coup remains remote owing to the sheer scale of logistical hurdles and political dangers, Xi’s positioning as a potential ruler for life simply aggravates the incentives for opponents to scuttle his agenda or plot his exit. Authoritarian systems and authoritarian leaders always appear solid on the outside—until suddenly, they don’t.
It is thus darkly ironic that a leader who has championed the rejuvenation of China and the survival of the CCP now imperils both. In this regard, however, Xi is not unique. He is merely the latest in a long procession of rulers who—across history, geography, and regime type—have succumbed to the temptations of absolute power and its corrupting influence. But the consequences of this tragedy—both imminent and potential—cannot be ignored or downplayed in a world in which China is the second-largest economy, maintains the globe’s largest military, and possesses a substantial stockpile of nuclear weapons. Xi has already shown that simple miscalculations in domestic economic policy can wipe out billions in wealth. Although he still demonstrates rationality in his efforts to swallow Taiwan, one cannot look at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s catastrophic invasion of Ukraine and not worry about Xi someday making a similar miscalculation.
Some may hope that these same failures are planting the seeds for Xi’s own future dismissal. Surely a leader of the CCP, even one with Xi’s level of power, cannot mismanage the country for long without suffering reprisals from his peers. Xi may well grab a third term, but is a fourth and a fifth obtainable, given the dismal trajectory of the country’s economy?
One cannot rule out the possibility that Xi is forced from power or persuaded to resign. But a Marxist-Leninist system is a peculiar type of authoritarian regime, one that grants incumbent leaders a significant degree of institutional and organizational power. And, by consequence, the prospect of ousting a leader through a formal process or through violence remains improbable. It is an uncomfortable reality that under autocracy, a leader can misgovern for an extended period and stay secure in power.
Besides prolonging Xi’s tenure, the congress will have broader consequences. The eventual lineup of the CCP’s Politburo, the Politburo’s Standing Committee (PBSC), and the PLA Central Military Commission will undoubtedly impact the precise, if marginal, contours of China’s domestic and foreign policy development and execution. Subordinates matter, even in China’s increasingly personalist dictatorship. If the director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, Yang Jiechi, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China’s current foreign policy frontmen, retire and are replaced by hacks or loyalists, one can expect the space for considered deliberation on diplomatic matters to shrink even further. If a commissar such as Miao Hua rises to the position of CMC vice chair, this will mean Xi is surrounded by advisers who think primarily in political, not military, terms—a dynamic fraught with risks of miscalculation. If He Lifeng, a longtime Xi ally and the current head of the National Development and Reform Commission, replaces the current economic czar, Liu He, it would signal that Beijing continues to place importance on economic growth. But with He also comes the acknowledgment that economic policy will continue to prioritize Xi’s agenda of high-tech industrial policy and efforts at “self-sufficiency” in areas at risk to global supply chain disruptions and restrictions. Recent actions by the Biden administration to limit China’s access to chips and related components likely strengthen Xi’s resolve to create a “Fortress China”.
On the other hand, the promotion of officials with clear competence, independence, and pragmatic leanings would not likely mark a broad change in trajectory. The fact that Xi achieves a third term is in itself the clearest declaration of his unrivaled dominance. Specific personnel decisions, then, must be understood in the context of this larger truth.
If, for example, the somewhat reform-minded PBSC member and chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Wang Yang, is elevated to the position of premier, this will not mean that Xi has been forced to accede to the demands of putative reformers. Although the premier traditionally is empowered to manage economic affairs, such a promotion can be easily read as a tactical accommodation, not a forced concession. The economic setbacks of the past 12 months might now require Xi to make compromises to his ruling coalition in order to help hold together his governing coalition. Such decisions, though, do not reflect a diminution of Xi’s political power but rather the fact that if he wants to drive a policy agenda through the party-state bureaucratic system, he will need to work through a dizzying array of regulatory and political organs at both the national and local level. Some compromise might be necessary to achieve larger goals.
As with the long-marginalized current premier, Li Keqiang, it is clear that under Xi, formal offices do not inherently confer institutional power or control over policy portfolios—that is left to the grace of Xi. A future premier will navigate the same shoals as his predecessor. These individuals will be working within a political consensus and structure that is increasingly oriented around Xi’s own preferences. They may well have a degree of agency, but it is within a system in which autonomy shrinks day by day as Xi’s governance philosophy and policy agenda serve as the lodestar. Countless Chinese economic officials may quietly bristle at the continuation of the ruinous “zero COVID” policy, and many apparatchiks in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs certainly understand the damage that Xi’s close and abiding relationship with Putin is doing to China’s broader reputation. But any grumblings from them will not shift policy under one-man rule.
If Li remains in his current position, that would not indicate some newfound political clout on his part or that the “reformers” are storming the barricades. Li has been an active face on China’s political stage for nearly a decade, but his long-term impact has been largely relegated to combating government red tape. Xi may decide to keep him on as simply the path of least resistance or as a way to soften the blow of his third term. With or without Li, the office of premier will be a shadow of its past importance for driving economic policy.
Similarly, if one or more younger officials (such as Party Secretary of Chongqing Chen Min’er or Vice Premier Hu Chunhua) is promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, it would not mean that Xi has chosen his successor. First, throughout the CCP’s 100-year history, formal designation as the heir apparent has almost always been an indication of who will ultimately not assume power. Life near the top is a Hobbesian ordeal. Established leaders often postpone announcing credible successors or seek to marginalize them if they are imposed from outside; no one wants to share power or be seen as a lame duck. Xi may well appoint a younger official to the top leadership body, but now that the duration of Xi’s rule is undetermined and largely at his discretion, this individual should be seen as a low-probability prospect rather than next in line.
A key question that the congress may well answer is just how much further Xi is going to push the system toward a personalized dictatorship. Although much has been made of Xi’s cult of personality, it is a rather banal cult with very little personality. No one is yet paying tribute to Xi in the form of mangoes, as many ordinary Chinese did to Mao after he received a gift of the fruit from a Pakistani delegation in 1968. But if Xi claims new titles at the congress, such as party chairman, and if Xi Jinping Thought is formalized in the party’s charter, it would mean Xi is so unconstrained and so focused on consolidating institutional and political power that he fails to see the dangers ahead, and those around him are unable to do anything about it.
It was, until very recently, an established truth in formal party historiography that the trappings of absolute power under Mao had nearly brought the country to ruin. Imperfect efforts to address this—term limits on the office of the presidency, abolishing the title of party chair—have either been rolled back or reconsidered under Xi. This does not, however, make Xi a new Mao. The men are drastically different in temperament, outlook, and style. But the governing pathologies unique to the CCP system accommodated both of their pursuits of unchecked power.
It is unpleasant to contemplate China’s political system moving in this direction. Many still hope that Xi just needs to consolidate a bit more power in order to finally push through much-needed reforms. Others wait for senior officials or retired cadres to finally intervene and place some limits around Xi. But this is not the China of the 1980s, the 1990s, or the early 2000s. The old ways of conceptualizing Chinese politics no longer prevail. Opposing factions won’t constrain Xi. The much-vaunted but rarely seen reformers aren’t coming to rescue economic policy. Coming to grips with Xi’s continued rule is the first step to navigating it.
Jude Blanchette is Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is the author of China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong.