ANALYSIS: How long will Xi Jinping’s third term in office last?

Ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping is widely expected to seek a third term in office at the party congress, which opens in Beijing on Oct. 16.

What is less predictable is how long that term will be, and how much support he will need from rival factions in the party to achieve it, analysts told RFA.

“No major leaks have occurred so far,” Li Cheng, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, told RFA in a recent interview, adding that the closed-doors nature of internal negotiations wasn’t unusual, but the lack of leaks ahead of the congress was “a rare phenomenon.”

Currently, analysts are unsure of who will make it into the 25-member Politburo, still less of the makeup of the next Politburo standing committee, current a seven-member body at the heart of political power in China.

They do agree that Xi is likely to be replacing incumbent premier Li Keqiang — who has spoken off message recently regarding the direction of economic policy — with a strong political ally.

“There are different points of view within the CCP Central Committee, and different factions have formed,” political scholar Li Ting told RFA, referring to Li Keqiang’s vocal public support for the “reform and opening up” policies of Deng Xiaoping, which Xi has been moving away from in recent years.

“Li Keqiang speaks and acts on behalf of a different faction [from Xi’s ‘princelings’ faction],” he said.

The relative clout of these different factions will affect Xi’s success in achieving a third term, along with the Politburo standing committee line-up that suits him best, analysts said.

“In the first two terms of Xi Jinping’s tenure, especially the first term, he governed through cooperation with political partners, but in the third term he will run the country with his henchmen,” Li Cheng said.

While Xi’s anti-corruption campaign won him widespread public support earlier in his tenure, public anger has grown over the economy-slowing lockdowns brought by his zero-COVID policy and among the urban middle-classes, where many are paying back mortgages on homes yet to be completed by developers, Li said.

Shanghai party chief Li Qiang takes part in a group discussion held on the sidelines of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 6, 2018. Credit: Associated Press
Shanghai party chief Li Qiang takes part in a group discussion held on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 6, 2018. Credit: Associated Press

Scenarios

Li said there are no guarantees, however, that Xi will only seek another five-year term in office, now that term limits have been abolished through amendments to the constitution in 2018.

He could seek an indefinite term, or present himself once more for a fourth term in five years’ time, he said.

In a recent analysis, the Asia Society suggested five potential scenarios resulting from the party congress.

In one, current Shanghai party chief Li Qiang or a “similarly loyal dark horse” Xi ally, takes over as premier from Li Keqiang.

“Li [Qiang]’s competitiveness has been undermined by Shanghai’s serious and embarrassing difficulties in containing outbreaks of COVID-19 earlier this year,” the report said. “Should Li nonetheless take the position, it would therefore indicate that Xi remains in a very powerful political position.”

In another, Wang Yang, loosely allied with the CCP Youth League faction, gets the job, with Li Qiang as executive vice premier.

If Xi manages to achieve a Politburo standing committee packed with his allies, this would suggest he now enjoys “unbounded” power within the party, it said.

“This scenario appears to remain relatively unlikely, but it is hardly impossible,” it said.

But if Xi’s influence is more limited than that, he may be forced to expand the standing committee to nine seats to make room for enough of his allies alongside compromise candidates, it said.

Intense bargaining

Political commentator Wu Gang said the behind-the-scenes negotiations are likely to be intense.

“There will be a lot of bargaining,” Wu said. “I think the most likely [outcome] is that he serves another five years at least.”

There have also been rumors that vice premier Hu Chunhua, aligned with the Youth League faction, and CCP general office director Ding Xuexiang, are likely to be in the new Politburo standing committee line-up.

According to the Asia Society report current convention sets the resignation age at 68. Among current Politburo standing committee members, Xi is 69, Li Zhanshu is 72 and Han Zheng is 68, while Li Keqiang, Wang Yang and Wang Huning are all over 67.

The reports expects Xi to focus on promoting younger allies to replace them.

Wu said the ideal outcome for Xi would be to be voted in for a lifelong third term in office.

“They want him to get lifelong tenure,” he said. “Otherwise, there would be no guarantee of a stable future for his supporters.”

Political scholar Xu Guang said it was hard for Chinese leaders to remain relevant for all time,  however.

“When all’s said and done, it’s a logical impossibility for [Xi] to go from victory to victory [indefinitely],” Xu told RFA. “Victories always come to an end.”

“Dialectical materialism teaches us that … any extreme will be reversed, and that this is inescapable,” he said. “Just as a person can’t stay young forever, revolutionaries can’t last forever within the party.”

“The trajectory of human life is a parabola,” he said. “We’ve had the second generation revolutionaries; next it’ll be the third generation — can the revolution last forever?”

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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