BY LIANCHAO HAN AND BRADLEY A. THAYER
Some China watchers are wondering about the ability of the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, to remain in power. Xi has not left China for almost two years, and there has been discussion of internecine rivalry within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The tension most recently appears to be between Xi’s supporters and those of former leader Jiang Zemin, provoking speculation about Xi’s staying power. Also in opposition to Xi are supporters of the late Deng Xiaoping, including Deng’s son, who has signaled his contempt for Xi’s policies. Xi likely is laboring to prevent any attempts to undermine his rule, and fortunately for him, he has history and some formidable means to prevent his overthrow.
While recognizing that the life of a communist leader and his control on power can be a daily struggle, Xi is a clever leader. His acumen has been demonstrated by events that illuminate his continued control of the CCP. Indeed, there is evidence that Xi is not going anywhere anytime soon. First, while power struggles among rivals are typical of communist regimes, there have been no coups d’état by the military. Leaders in communist polities have been by maneuvered out of shared control or forced from power, as Georgy Malenkov was outmaneuvered by Nikita Khrushchev as leader of the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s and then, most notably, Khrushchev’s own eviction in 1964. In China, Hua Guofeng arrested Mao Zedong’s widow in 1976, and Deng wrested control from Hua in 1980. Rivals always exist, but usually are eliminated. Were Xi to be forced out, that would be an extraordinary and peculiar development for the CCP.
Second, the purges of Xi’s “anti-corruption campaign” have weakened his rivals within the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). While control of the PLA is more art than science for CCP leaders, there is no indication that Xi cannot manage any strain between him and the PLA, even as he works to tighten his control over the party and the military. Xi has gained popularity by promoting many generals.
Third, Xi is a strong party chairman, one who has evoked comparisons to Mao and no doubt considers himself to be greater than the “Great Helmsman.” As the party’s most powerful person, Xi’s tools are potent. Within the CCP, and discrete from the “anti-corruption campaign,” he controls organizations such as the party’s disciplinary committees and specialized internal security mechanisms that impose much tighter control over the party’s top echelon. It is impossible for top leaders, retired or current, to socialize; thus, it would be difficult for them to plot a coup. Plotting his overthrow would require absolute trust among the plotters and protection from the labyrinth of formal and ad hoc security forces tasked with detecting and defeating such plots. Xi’s ongoing purge against his rivals within the security apparatus further ensures his protection.
Fourth, Xi’s scythe appears to be cutting a broad swath, beyond party and military leaders. Several high-ranking businessmen, for example, recently have departed their positions in favor of low profiles. Jack Ma, co-founder and former executive chairman of Alibaba Group, left his position two years ago. ByteDance’s Zhang Yiming, creator of TikTok and Douyin, stepped down this month as chairman of the social media group; his departure is in keeping with a crackdown of government oversight of the high technology sector in the Chinese economy. Other leading figures in ByteDance also have departed, as have major figures from Kuaishou, one of ByteDance’s rivals in social media.
While Xi and the CCP itself have considerable vulnerabilities that could result in their overthrow, that outcome is not likely to occur from within the party, the military or security services. Xi’s determination to remain in power and his support among the party cadres make his overthrow unlikely. Interestingly, Xi’s support among young people is particularly strong because of the party’s effective information control and indoctrination. U.S. leaders should assume that Xi will be in power as long as he remains healthy. At 68, Xi is a relatively young chairman who could rule for the rest of this decade, and perhaps into the 2030s. He will have direct experience with U.S. presidents from Barack Obama onward for many years.
Recognizing that the U.S. will not have the luxury, as Alexander Pope translated, to “speed the parting guest,” it must accept for its planning purposes that Xi is here to stay for a while. Thus, the U.S. must prepare for a Chinese leader whose hold on the levers of power will only strengthen, and whose understanding of the U.S. and the opportunities he possesses likewise will grow. Xi is a formidable enemy today, in his adolescence as China’s ruler, and his threat to U.S. interests will grow as his leadership matures. U.S. leaders would be wise to consider delegitimizing Xi as part of their great power competition strategy.
This article first appeared in The Hill on 11/05/21 12:30 PM ET