Xi Jinping and the Paradox of Power

Souvenir plates showing late Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, October 2017. Jason Lee / Reuters
Souvenir plates showing late Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, October 2017. Jason Lee / Reuters

Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), scored a total victory at the 20th Party Congress in mid-October. He not only secured an unprecedented, though widely expected, third five-year term but also managed to fill the Politburo and its Standing Committee with loyalists. In a display of raw political power, he forced into retirement two of his leading rivals, Premier Li Keqiang and Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Yang, though both were under the informal retirement age of 68. A younger rising star, Hu Chunhua, an incumbent Politburo member and a protégé of former party chief Hu Jintao, was unceremoniously dumped from the body at the very last minute.

Far from guaranteeing another decade of success as China’s dominant leader, however, Xi’s triumph is likely to usher in a period of political rivalry among his own loyalists who are eager to seek his favor and gain an edge in the inevitable struggle for succession. Nor will Xi’s political dominance guarantee the success of policies urgently needed to meet the needs of the population and U.S.-Chinese strategic competition. Xi has amassed coercive power that may make him all but invulnerable inside the regime, but this power is of limited use when seeking to reinvigorate economic growth, promote technological self-sufficiency, and address the looming demographic catastrophe.

In some important and intriguing ways, the outcome of the 20th Party Congress recalls that of the Ninth Party Congress in April 1969. There, Mao Zedong, the domineering leader of the CCP, reached the pinnacle of his power. Just as Xi would do five decades later, Mao used the Party Congress to fill the Politburo and its Standing Committee with loyalists. But Mao’s dominance made the party less stable, not more so: in the absence of a succession plan, a brutal rivalry emerged among his followers, who formed dueling factions. The eventual result was a disaster: a devastated party, a traumatized country, and an impoverished society. Within three years of Mao’s death in 1976, his legacy lay in ruins, a former rival of his was running the party, and the CCP had embraced market-based reforms that would have been anathema to Mao. Xi would do well to note the outcome of Mao’s attempt to centralize power and control.


Things began to fall apart for Mao soon after the 1969 congress. Within a year, the two groups that had helped Mao launch the Cultural Revolution in 1966—the military, led by Defense Minister Lin Biao, and the Gang of Four, a group of party propagandists headed by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing—were embroiled in a vicious power struggle to succeed the aging dictator. Although Mao anointed Lin as his successor, he grew increasingly paranoid about his power and decided to side with the Gang of Four to cut Lin’s faction down to size.

Mao’s political maneuvering backfired spectacularly in September 1971, when the plane carrying Lin and his family, who allegedly were trying to flee to the Soviet Union after a failed assassination attempt against Mao, crashed and burned in Mongolia. According to Mao’s personal physician, the 77-year-old dictator’s health deteriorated rapidly. Politically, Mao never recovered as he could neither explain to the party how he picked as successor a man so wicked as to attempt to assassinate him nor find another plausible candidate to succeed him. In 1974, he had to bring back Deng Xiaoping, whom he had derided as a “capitalist roader” and purged from the party in 1966, to run the government, paving the way for Deng to engineer his political comeback—and demolish much of Mao’s legacy—three years later.

Similar perils may await Xi. Over the last decade, he has systematically promoted close associates who worked with him when he served in high-level regional party posts in Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, as well as officials from his ancestral province, Shaanxi, where he spent more than four years working the land as a “sent-down youth” during the Cultural Revolution. Of the six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Li Qiang (the second-ranking leader and premier designate) was Xi’s chief of staff in Zhejiang for three years (2004–7). Cai Qi, the fifth-ranked member, worked under Xi in both Fujian and Zhejiang. Ding Xuexiang, slated to be the executive vice premier, briefly worked under Xi in Shanghai in 2007 and has been Xi’s chief of staff for the past decade. Zhao Leji (the third-ranked member and incoming head of the National People’s Congress) and Li Xi (the Party’s anticorruption czar) both hail from Shaanxi.

From Xi’s perspective, it makes perfect sense not to have a succession plan now. Naming a successor at the 20th Congress would almost certainly make him a lame-duck leader. But what works in the short term could cost Xi—and the party—dearly. A number of factors will make the absence of a succession plan all the more risky. Although Xi’s loyalists owe their positions to him, they do not appear to have deep personal connections with each other, as their career paths did not intersect. In the Hobbesian world of elite politics in China, it is practically impossible for senior leaders to develop deep interpersonal relationships if they have not worked together for an extended period. The fact that Xi prefers to promote his former junior colleagues is testimony to the critical importance of trust cultivated through direct personal interactions. The lack of personal trust among these loyalists may cause disunity and spark rivalries.

Moreover, Xi’s acolytes will be able to form factions of their own. With the exception of Wang Huning, the former academic who has served as the party’s chief ideological theorist for almost three decades, nearly all of Xi’s loyalists on the Standing Committee have their own networks of supporters built over years as local party bosses. They must continue to advance the careers of their supporters to expand their own power base. Their success in bolstering their networks critically depends on Xi’s support. In the struggle for his favor, they will almost certainly compete, if not come into conflict, with each other. Meanwhile, delegating authority will not be easy because the decision-making process under Xi has become highly centralized. Delegation may be confused with favoritism. Giving more authority to one faction might stir jealousy and resentment among its rivals.

To be sure, such factional competition can work in Xi’s favor because he can pit groups against one another. Xi benefits from tensions among his followers because rivalry makes them dependent on him for security. Open conflict between factions, however, would force Xi to pick sides. This could lead to even worse consequences. Factional warfare in Mao’s last years in power led to debilitating political dysfunction at the top and eventually culminated in a life-or-death contest, settled only by a military-backed coup. At this point, it seems that Xi’s critical test in the medium term will be holding his new coalition together and avoiding a vicious succession struggle among his loyalists.

Xi’s power will create other problems. Like all strongmen, he will soon have a taste of what the psychologist Dacher Keltner termed “the power paradox”. One manifestation of this paradox is the inverse relationship between the amount of power amassed by a strongman and his sense of security: the more power he gets, the less secure he feels. In autocratic regimes, the strongman typically gains power by destroying rivals, which inevitably creates mortal foes. The strongman has no institutional protection: autocratic rulers tend to be removed from power by regime insiders, not through regular political procedures.

Even though there is no sign that rival elites are conspiring against Xi, it is unlikely that his immense power will allay his fear of scheming foes, real or imagined. Such insecurity could brew vicious conflict at the top of the party. In his later years, an incurably paranoid Mao purged Lin and Deng and launched a campaign to discredit Zhou Enlai, perhaps Mao’s most subservient follower; Mao apparently feared that Zhou was gaining too much power after Lin’s downfall.


A strongman’s power is always limited. In an oligarchical autocracy, his power rarely extends beyond the inner circle of the top elites. In the Chinese case, that probably means the members of the Central Committee (205 full members and 171 alternates). To motivate and inspire those beyond this circle, Xi will have to rely on other tools, such as ideological appeal and personal charisma (Mao possessed both in abundance) or delegation of authority to capable subordinates (Deng’s specialty).

But despite the party’s huge investments in reviving orthodox Communist ideology in recent years, such thinking has lost its appeal. And although Xi may be popular among ordinary Chinese citizens, he is not nearly as charismatic a leader as Mao was. The only alternative Xi has found to ideology and charisma is nationalism. But the track record of Chinese nationalism as a motivating tool is not promising. In recent years, it seems to have accomplished little beyond fueling xenophobia.

Xi will increasingly feel the limited utility of his power. For the most part, the kind of power he acquired at the 20th Congress may be critical to deciding the makeup of the elites at the top and to deterring challenges to his authority. But such power is of little use in implementing the policies dear to his heart, such as an egalitarian “common prosperity” project, technological self-sufficiency, greater economic security, and sustained growth. Accomplishing these objectives requires the cooperation of the party’s vast bureaucracy and, even more critically, hundreds of millions of workers, entrepreneurs, and professionals who are largely motivated by self-interest, not loyalty to the man at the top. In practical terms, this manifestation of the power paradox will likely frustrate Xi’s ambitious security-oriented agenda. He may find that his policy consistently falls short of expectations despite his unassailable personal authority.

Strongmen who cannot deliver impressive results must be particularly attentive to factions and succession struggles. Mao failed to prevent both. His inability to hold his coalition together after 1969 derailed his succession plans, and he died without a real successor in place. Deng could not claim an unblemished record in managing succession either, but he did much better than Mao. After purging two liberal leaders in the 1980s, he managed to salvage his legacy by picking two cautious technocrats—first Jiang Zemin and then Hu Jintao—for the party’s top job. They continued Deng’s “reform and opening” project, albeit at an uneven pace, for two decades, until Xi came to power. Deng’s ability to translate his power into economic success also helped preserve his legacy, much of which remains intact despite the policy reversals Xi has made in the last decade.

As a keen student of history, Xi must be aware of Mao’s failures after achieving dominance in 1969 and Deng’s success despite having to share power with fellow revolutionary luminaries in the 1980s. It is impossible to know what lessons Xi may draw from these two contrasting examples. But he should consider the possibility that political supremacy may be a curse disguised as blessing. Far from allowing him to lead his party and his country through treacherous times, unchecked power could breed internecine strife and hinder effective governance.

So for Xi, winning a decisive battle at the 20th Party Congress in no way guarantees his future victories. He should take a look at Mao’s setbacks in his later years to ensure that he does not resemble Mao in more ways than one.

Minxin Pei is Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.

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