Editor's Note

Young Nam Cho, Professor at Seoul National University, claims that Xi Jinping’s third consecutive term breaks a decades-long practice regarding party leadership in China, which would increase political uncertainty, hinder innovation, pose challenges to future succession and have negative implications for China’s elite politics. While all the members of the Central Committee Politburo filled with Xi’s loyalists, no amendments have been made to the constitution related to the collective leadership and consensus-based decision-making process. Professor Cho emphasizes that this would continue to pose limitations on the personalistic rule by Xi Jinping in the future.

The 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (hereinafter CCP) displays some notable traits compared to former Party Congresses. The first characteristic is that a new type of power succession model has made an appearance, as Xi secured his third term as General Secretary. Previously, there were two power succession models: phased succession and full-scale succession. Phased succession involves a process of gradually handing over major positions in order. For instance, Jiang Zemin turned over his position as a General Secretary of the CCP to Hu Jintao at the 16th Party Congress in 2002 and handed over the position of Head of the Central Military Commission two years after. A full-scale succession, on the contrary, would hand over all the major positions at once. Hu Jintao handed over all his positions, including the General Secretary of the CCP regime, to Xi concurrently in 2012 during the 18th Party Congress. However, the 20th Party Congress has set forth a new model of power succession model: a model of power extension envisioned by reappointing Xi Jinping to all his titles.


Xi Jinping’s historic third term breaks the conventional norm of replacing the General Secretary on a ten-year basis, indicating the appearance of a new phenomenon in Chinese elite politics, whose emergence entails a set of unique long-term challenges. First, an increased uncertainty in power succession has increased the risk of political instability. Unless the problem of power succession is addressed - an Achilles’ heel of a communist system - then every sector of the country working on political, social, and economic issues, cannot be effectively addressed and stabilized. The reason China was able to remain politically stable during its reform period was that it addressed this issue via periodic power transitions. However, now that this norm has been broken, China will enter a new phase of uncertainty.


Second, with China’s leadership transitions coming to a halt, the chances of the Chinese government coming up with new policies to solve challenges remain low. A ten-year succession rule may yield as many problems as well as achievements, yet a new government, whilst inheriting the achievements of the former government, would concurrently focus on new solutions to national problems. Thus hitherto, the CCP has achieved ‘authoritarian resilience’ by cultivating the ability to adapt to changing environments. However, since Xi began to break this norm by securing his third term, it remains likely that the CCP would lose its saving grace.


Third, reestablishing a once-broken norm of power succession is a demanding task. For this reason, the CCP has now been given the difficult task of establishing a new set of norms for power succession. When and in what way will someone succeed to power? Who will be the candidate for power succession, and how will the candidate be elected? What if Xi insists to remain in power for five more years, or even 10 years from now? Should China let Xi Jinping be the ‘Second Mao Zedong’ or should others topple him? This is by no means an easy problem.


The second characteristic of the 20th Party Congress is that there is a change in the model of elite politics. That is, the elite politics of China have transformed from collective leadership to a one-man rule under Xi Jinping. The elite politics of socialism can fall into two major categories, including collective leadership (oligarchy) and one-man rule, which is determined by three criteria. The first criterium is the power source (i.e., institutional authority and personal authority) and the concentration of power. The second criterium is the power balance between leaders. The third is the method of the government power structure. There have been changes in all three criteria since the 20th Party Congress, which collectively gave rise to a one-man rule by Xi Jinping.


Firstly, Xi Jinping now has strong power, not only as a General Secretary, but as the ‘Great Leader’ by gaining ‘personal authority’ on top of ‘institutional authority.’ Xi’s attempt to achieve strong power began at the third ‘historical resolution’, passed at the 6th Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP. According to the resolution, Xi is a leader who had opened a ‘new era’ in Chinese history, having made great achievements over the past 10 years since his rise to power in 2012. This was possible because Xi had developed the ‘’Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. As a result, the CCP officially declared the ‘Two Establishments’: the establishment of Xi’s status as the party’s ‘unquestionable core leader’ and establishment of his political doctrine as the ‘guiding principles for a new era’ of the party. Through this decision, Xi Jinping consolidated his ‘personal authority’ as a ‘Great Leader’ with a track record of historical achievements, along with the ‘institutional authority’ of the General Secretary. The ‘Political Report’ of the 20th Party Congress also followed suit in this praise and adulation. In this respect, Xi Jinping was able to consolidate political legitimacy to extending his term by flaunting his great achievements as a leader who pioneered a ‘New Era’ for China.


By solidifying his ‘personal authority’, Xi could exert considerable amounts of power, effectively making himself the center of China’s power structure. This has been made evident with the selection of the CCP Politburo and the composition of the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee. Simply put, all seven of the Standing Committee are loyal to Xi, being members of the ‘Xi clan(习家军)’ faction. Meanwhile, the rival ‘Tuanpai/ Communist Youth League Faction (共青团派)’ faction has been entirely excluded from the Standing Committee. Out of the 24 members of the Politburo, at least twelve are members of the ‘Xi clan,’ while the remaining were effectively handpicked by Xi, as he holds absolute authority over personnel appointments.


Second, there has been a change in the power balance between Xi and the other Standing Committee members. Excluding Xi, out of the six members of the Standing Committee, three have been direct subordinates, and the other three have been members selected by Xi. So, while the relations within the Standing Committee may ostensibly seem to be equal, in truth the relation is more hierarchical. This is a deviation from the past, where members of the Standing Committee members were more on par with each other. While it is too soon to tell if this reaches the level of a ‘sovereign and subject’ relationship in the likes of Mao’s era, it is evident that power is unequally distributed among the Committee members.


Third, there have been no systematic changes to the government power structure, which implies that Xi’s one-man-rule has its limits. There were no amendments to the CCP’s constitution and laws related to the power structure during this year’s party congress. Therefore, elite politics would still need to revolve around the party constitution and party laws of collective leadership, which combines elements of collective decision-making and sharing personal responsibilities. For instance, decisions on important policies and personnel must be decided collectively by the discussions of the Standing Committee and the Politburo instead of solely by the General Secretary. Such decisions should then be held responsible and implemented by leaders according to their roles. In the end, Xi’s one-man rule is bound to face limits, as the rule on the power structure remains unchanged.   



Young Nam Cho is Professor of International Area Studies (principally China Studies), GSIS since 2002 to present. Prof. Cho awarded Ph. D in politics from Department of Political Science, Seoul National University in 1999. He served a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Contemporary Chinese Studies in Peking University from 1997 to 1998, a Visiting Scholar at the Department of Political Science in Nankai University from 2001 to 2002, and a Visiting Scholar at the Harvard-Yenching Institute in Harvard University from 2006 to 2007. He wrote 17 books in total on the Chinese people’s congresses, elite politics, rule of law, and general political reforms of China both in Korean and English.



Typeset by Junghoo Park, Research Associate
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