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How secure is Xi Jinping’s rule?

It has been ten years since the 2013 Third Plenum, where Xi Jinping laid out his vision for the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since then, he has consolidated his power at the top, so much so that he will continue to lead the PRC beyond two five year terms. Under his rule, the PRC’s foreign policy has become increasingly nationalist, and Chinese politics increasingly opaque – the latter highlighted by the recent removal of the Chinese Defence and Foreign minister from their positions. But is Xi’s rule secure? His consolidation of power may suggest so, but economic turbulence and growing discontent with opportunity in the PRC may suggest otherwise. The Council on Geostrategy asks ten experts in today’s Big Ask.

Geremie Barmé, China Heritage

Having gained dominion over the ‘rivers and mountains’ – an old term that includes the palimpsest geopolitical and mytho-poetic Chinese world – the ‘Chairman of Everything’ Xi theoretically enjoys ‘terminal tenure’, limited only by his own mortality. Despite having surrounded himself with hand-picked courtiers and yes-men, Xi knows that danger still lurks around every corridor of Zhongnanhai and in every realm of policy. By the quashing of countervailing factional forces and silencing of opposition, even among the faithful, he has condemned the party-state to ever greater covert infighting and dissent. Xi’s clear and present danger is hubris, his boastful rhetoric and the paranoid style of Chinese politics that he embodies.

Xi has also cast the nation back into the vicious cycle of history, condemning the country to future crises over succession, ideology and identity. There is increasing evidence that he may well be losing mínxīn [民心], the ‘hearts-and-minds of the people’.

For all of his obsessive talk about ‘red genes’ and the attempts to refashion the DNA of the Chinese national character, social and economic realities favour the individual, the family and the citizen.

Like Mao before him, Xi is caught in the dialectical trap of the incommensurable: revolutionary enthusiasm and political stability; economic exuberance and egalitarian re-distribution; creative innovation and plodding predictability; muscular militarism and hesitancy; and constant striving and passive acquiescence. Stalin’s ‘artificial dialectic’ is a useful key to understanding the deep structure of Xi’s rule.

The nation is flooded with Xi’s ex cathedra ‘thoughts’, so stilted and monotonous that few would notice if their author was replaced by an artificial intelligence generated simulacrum. The greatest threat to the PRC’s security is that Xi, alive or dead, cruels alternative visions and stymies possibility. His rule is jerry built, yet Xi yearns for geopolitical eternity by conquering Taiwan and crushing the ‘Other China’.

Olivia Cheung, China Institute, SOAS

The abolition of a term limit for the state chairmanship in 2018 paved the path for Xi to become the PRC’s ruler for life. Indeed, all signs indicate that he intends to hold onto power indefinitely. 

There has been no shortage of new slogans, edicts, resolutions, and honours confirming Xi’s unrivalled status as the ‘core’ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Xi’s harsh crackdown on dissent means that the plurality of thinking in the CCP and in Chinese society is being replaced with indoctrination by his vision: ‘Xi Jinping Thought’. Xi has designated no successor and has populated top political organs with his men. His ability to undermine vested interests to concentrate powers is extraordinary, unseen in the PRC since Mao Zedong. 

However, despite many signs of power, Xi is not completely secure. He is under huge pressure to constantly convince the people of the PRC that he is solving the country’s many pressing problems (e.g. high youth unemployment) rather than making them worse or creating new ones (e.g. his crackdown on private tech conglomerates has deterred new, much-needed major foreign investment). At the end of the day, performance legitimacy is no less important than coercion and indoctrination to perpetuate Xi’s rule. 

Roger Garside, former British diplomat in the PRC

Xi’s 11 years as leader of the PRC’s Communist regime have been a manifestation of impotence, not vis-a-vis his domestic opponents, but in the face of the PRC’s problems, both domestic and international. Those problems are the product of the totalitarian system, not of Xi’s choices. But he has exacerbated them. 

Before he came to power, the regime had already halted the transition to the market economy because it was eroding the CCP’s monopoly of political power, but he has proclaimed priority for the state sector as a virtue. 

He did not invent rivalry with the United States (US) and its allies, but his intensification of it has alienated nations who are still far stronger than the PRC.

By reinforcing the replacement of ‘Reform and Opening’ by ‘Regression and Closure’, Xi has alienated hundreds of millions who benefited from Deng Xiaoping’s strategy.

These realities are blindingly obvious to the PRC’s elite, who are not ignorant or stupid.

Now the collapse of the property sector is leading to a fiscal crisis for many local governments; this will lead to a collapse in local government services, local financial institutions and companies, and mass unrest on the streets. Then Xi’s opponents who are now biding their time will strike against him and launch the political reform that is the PRC’s only hope of true rejuvenation.

Sari Arho Havrén, Business Finland and RUSI*

During his ten years in power, Xi has built ‘Fortress China’ around his Leninist one-man, one-party rule. Brick by brick, Xi has built this structure guarding his regime’s security. Ironically, the insecurity of his rule derives predominantly from within the CCP fortress itself. However, externally, Xi is also vulnerable to increasing contradictions between CCP ideology and reality. 

From the outside of Xi’s fortress, the threat arises not so much from citizens losing liberties that were limited in the first place, but from the loss of the primary incentive underpinning the social contract that previous leaders had promised: consistent economic prosperity. Elements of the contract that Xi offers; common – but also flattening – prosperity, more ideological fervour, and an increasingly nationalist foreign policy, do not resonate with people’s wallets. ‘Zero-Covid’ demonstrated how suddenly the masses can turn when the contradictions between coherent policies and reality grow too wide.

Inside Xi’s fortress the situation is even more unstable. He has managed to keep the elites wary by not offering a successor and has therefore side-lined the sixth generation of CCP leaders. He has successfully played the old imperial court tactic of marionetting CCP elites to compete over his loyalty. Meanwhile, he has utilised the anti-corruption campaign to purge internal opposition. 

All this has made him anything but secure. However, ruthless calculation has kept leaders in power before, and no doubt Xi still has aces in his sleeve.

Willy Lam, Jamestown Foundation

Despite the dire prospects of the economy and the fact that the PRC has become increasingly isolated from the world, Xi is expected to hold power until 2032 – that is, at the end of his fourth five-year term as General Secretary of the CCP and commander-in-chief of the nation. 

It is a fact that the great majority of members of the Central Committee and the Politburo are members of the so-called ‘Xi Jinping faction’; and Xi has tight control over the army, the police and the secret police. However, the fact that the ‘supreme leader for life’ sacked two of his former protégés – Qin Gang and Li Shangfu, the ex-foreign minister and ex-defense minister respectively – without giving any explanation to the public shows that his grip on power is less than solid. The authority of the autocratic supremo, who has guarded jealously his hold over policy-making in practically all arenas, has been dented. This was demonstrated by isolated but significant protests held by many Chinese whose wealth has declined drastically due to the rise of unemployment and the lacklustre performance of the real-estate and stock markets. 

The sympathy shown to the late Li Keqiang, former Premier of the PRC and a foe of Xi who supported master reformer Deng’s market-oriented policies, is also an indication that the paramount leader’s popularity is going downhill. However, Xi will remain in power for the foreseeable future because although he has made many enemies among CCP elders and senior cadres, they are not united and they are not expected to be able to forge a united opposition against the quasi-Maoist dictator.

George Magnus, China Centre, Oxford University

High expectations for liberal economic reform triggered by the Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress a decade ago were soon deflated. As the PRC’s economic development model faltered, a much more state-centric, repressive and controlling governance regime emerged, now joined by a malaise that is permeating business and society.

In order to address the PRC’s principal headwinds, including excessive debt (especially among local governments), the real estate slump, rapid ageing, and weakness in demand, productivity, and governance, the PRC needs to embrace liberal economic reforms and boost household income and consumption permanently.

Yet such an overhaul requires changes in the politics of the PRC and to institutions that are difficult or impossible for the CCP to embrace. The economic outlook, therefore, is liable to remain pedestrian at best, with a heightened risk of instability, and risks to both private firms and for people’s jobs and economic aspirations.

In spite of Xi’s promises that ‘new productive forces’ at the frontier of science and technology will define the future, they are not weighty enough to compensate for what is going on elsewhere in the economy or for the drag on the PRC’s economic heft. Xi’s security as unchallenged head of the CCP is not a guarantee that opposition will remain mute if his opponents sense that economic and social malaise is draining trust in the party.

Charles Parton, Council on Geostrategy

Ask his doctor. As long as his health holds up – he gets the best medical care (although so did the late Li) – Xi is likely to be in power until the Party Congress in 2032 and probably longer.

What could prevent this? Massive economic collapse leading to riots and nationwide protests. All good things come from the CCP; but the reverse of that coin is that it must bear responsibility for all bad things. This could cause a split in the party’s leadership, as it seeks to preserve itself by sacrificing its leader and his policies in an attempt to appease popular discontent.

But neither condition is likely. On the first, the PRC’s economy is hitting turbulence. We are seeing ‘plateau China’. The people are increasingly unhappy. Unemployment and falling living standards will increase that disenchantment. But the ability to surveil and repress wielded by a totalitarian regime are greater than ever, and the likelihood of economic collapse before 2032 is small.

As for CCP members, opposition and antipathy for Xi must be growing: over four million officials have been disciplined, ranging from a bullet to a black mark. Add their families and networks and they make a solid sullenness. But the leadership must stay united or face the possibility of a collective fall. Besides, the first person to put his head above the parapet in opposition to Xi will get it shot off.

Andrew Peaple, The Wire China

This author’s best guess is that Xi’s rule remains pretty secure. In his favour is the CCP’s deep-seated desire for stability – unplanned changes in leadership are rare. Moreover, there does not seem to be an obvious alternative: neither someone with the charisma of Bo Xilai, former Minister of Commerce of the PRC, or the competence of the late Li. 

The economy is obviously not as robust as it once was, but, then again, Xi has faced major challenges such as Covid-19 and trade tensions with the US. And he has addressed other issues, with varying degrees of success, that the CCP has wanted to confront, from corruption to the  excessive reliance on the property sector for growth, to the over-mighty tech sector. There have also been clear successes, such as the rise of the PRC’s electric vehicle industry, and the apparent progress in developing semiconductors despite US efforts. 

Given the relatively closed nature of the PRC’s economy, a slow, Japan-style wind down still seems far more likely than an abrupt, 2008-style collapse. Xi should be able to ride that out, at least in the medium-term. The wild card is the military: if Xi has pushed things too far with recent firings, then maybe the top brass will go for him. But this is very hard to judge.

Scott Singer, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford

Those who perceive Xi’s rule as under threat point to instability stemming from domestic economic policies. However, the factors that seem most likely to influence regime stability are not factors inside of the PRC’s control, but factors originating outside of it. 

For example, from an economic perspective, if countries like the US act multilaterally with allies and partners to implement wider-ranging export controls or other economic security measures, the PRC could find its existing economic woes compounded, driving further domestic instability. In a hypothetical future scenario where Xi’s rule is genuinely threatened by poor economic performance – much worse than we currently observe – it is more likely to be a symptom of the instability but not necessarily its root cause.

2024 will also bring many electoral elephants into the room, most critically in the US and Taiwan, which could significantly alter the strategic environment that Xi is forced to navigate. It is plausible that a Trump-led White House could greatly accelerate the speed of US-PRC decoupling, inducing further economic hardship and thus greater domestic instability. Alternatively, perceived Western hostility in such a scenario could produce rally-around-the-flag effects. The key either way is that these factors have little to do with central economic planning, and much to do with the international environment.

Neil Thomas, Asia Society

Xi’s rule is secure in the sense he has an iron grip on elite politics in the CCP. He and his allies hold the key levers of authoritarian power, including the gun (the People’s Liberation Army), the knife (security services under the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission), and the pen (the Central Propaganda Department).

Xi also controls the crucial lever of personnel selection, including through the Central Organisation Department, which at the 20th Party Congress last year helped him sideline factional rivals and stack the elite Politburo Standing Committee with loyalists. It would be extremely difficult for any serving or retired CCP leaders to plot against Xi without being detected and detained, despite the growing headwinds to the PRC’s growth trajectory. Xi does not need to win elections to remain in power, he just needs to maintain control of the party.

The big question is: how bad will things get for the Chinese economy? A major depression or military misadventure could create enough social instability and elite panic to convince a wide circle of insiders to demand change. But it is doubtful Xi would allow things to get so dicey; he knows the PRC needs some level of economic growth to achieve his political goal for national rejuvenation.

*Authors write exclusively in a personal capacity.

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