Current Assessment of the Xi Jinping's Rule and Prospects for the Third Term of the Xi Administration

Takashi Suzuki

1. Introduction

The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (referred to here as the 20th Party Congress) will take place in the fall of 2022, after a five-year interval from the previous one. At the coming Congress, the present supreme leader, Xi Jinping, will likely win a historic third term in office, following the two consecutive terms spanning a decade (the first term 2012-2017, the second term 2017-2022) since 2012, when he first became general secretary of the CPC.

However, some Chinese and foreign critics began questioning the above prediction around March of this year. The Wall Street Journal reported that a CPC elder Zhu Rongji, former Premier of the State Council, opposed Xi Jinping's third term. 1 As of this writing in early August 2022, the views of Japanese experts who comment in some TV news programs are at variance. 2

This paper first points out that Xi Jinping will likely continue to dominate Chinese politics after the 20th Party Congress. Then, it will provide some scenario planning on the medium- to long-term prospects of Chinese politics in the wake of the Congress. Furthermore, the present author intended to discuss Xi Jinping's political will concerning the national goal of "the Great Revival of the Chinese Nation."

2. The Present State of the Xi Jinping Regime and the Possibility of Its Continuation

In my opinion, the legitimacy of Xi Jinping's rule is justified by three chief elements: "affluence," "convenience," and "greatness." 3 Since the 2010s, most Chinese citizens have been enjoying certain economic gains. However, Chinese economic growth has being slowed down, and the rapid improvements in income and living standards they had enjoyed until the 2000s are no longer expected (affluence). Instead, Chinese citizens have been compensated for by a relatively high level of satisfaction with daily life thanks to the improvement of life quality and convenience realized by the prevalence of IT in society (convenience). The spread of cashless payment, sharing economy, meal delivery services, and strict measures against infectious diseases, including personal behavior control, are typical examples. In addition, as symbolized by the "One Belt, One Road" initiative, China's presence in the international community has dramatically increased compared to the past. This, coupled with the Xi Jinping administration's slogan of the "Great Revival of the Chinese Nation," heightens the Chinese people's national self-esteem (greatness). A shift of emphasis from "affluence" to the other two elements, "convenience" in particular, is instrumental in supporting regime legitimacy in a with/post-COVID era of medium and low growth, constituting one of the keys to stabilizing public sentiment.

However, from the beginning of 2022, a situation is evolving that adversely affects these three elements, as discussed below.

First, Chinese "affluence" has been ebbing since 2020 due to the corona pandemic and to policy recession as a side effect of the zero-corona policy; job insecurity among young people is especially serious. According to the government authorities, China's real GDP growth in 2021 was 8.1%; but on a quarter basis, it was 4.9% in the third quarter and 4.0% in the fourth quarter, showing a marked slowdown trend. 4 China's GDP has grown 4.8 percent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2022; the Chinese government's growth target for this year (5.5%) is unlikely to be achieved. As a result, the number of unemployed youth will increase and give rise to a "Chinese version of the employment ice-age generation." (Unemployment rate among 16-24 year olds climbed to 18.4% in April 2022.) 5 Unquestionably, as in other countries, the worsening employment situation is directly related to social unrest in China.

Second, regarding "convenience," Chinese citizens' discontent with the zero-corona policy, which does not sufficiently consider social life, has been growing. It is still fresh in memory that the lockdown was enforced in many cities from March of this year in response to the nationwide outbreak of the Omicron variant. Shanghai, a major center of economic activity with a population of over 25 million, underwent lockdowns for about two months from the end of March; the residents raised angry voices. Li Qiang --- a member of the CPC Central Political Bureau and Secretary of the Municipal Party Committee of Shanghai --- was also exposed to criticism; Li belongs to the Xi Jinping faction and serves as the top leader in the city. As one of the candidates to succeed Li Keqiang (Premier of the State Council), Li Qiang had been expected to be promoted to become a member of the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau after the 20th Party Congress, but the outlook has become hazy. Recently, Wang Yang (President of the National Political Consultative Conference, the CPC's fourth-ranking official) has gained prominence as a candidate to succeed Li Keqiang. Wang is considered to be a balanced person well seen by both the Xi Jinping faction and other groups.

The third element, China's "greatness," is also shadowed by the growing criticism in the international community of the Xi Jinping leadership, which does not change its conventional position of supporting Putin even after Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February 2022. Accordingly, doubts have spread among the Chinese masses. At the beginning of the Ukraine war, Chinese public opinion was predominantly anti-Western and pro-Russian. But such a belligerent mood receded as the war became protracted and the miserable damage spread. According to a survey released in June by the Pew Research Center, about 70% of those surveyed in 19 countries, including Europe, the United States, Japan, and Southeast Asia, said they did not have a favorable impression of China. 6 Undoubtedly, their country's damaged international prestige has been hurting the national pride of many Chinese.

The authority of the supreme leader, Xi Jinping, has declined due to these triple adversities. To complement the regime's legitimacy, on the other hand, by highlighting "affluence" and "convenience," the State Council under Li Keqiang is busy launching measures to boost the economy. Attention is now focusing on Li Keqiang's movements. 7 Under this situation, the phrase "Li Shang Xi Xia" (Xi Jinping will step down as general secretary and Li Keqiang will take his place) circulates inside and outside China. According to a media source in Beijing, a rumor spread at the end of June 2022 that "at a special meeting of the Central Committee held in mid-June, it was officially decided to realize ‘Li Shang Xi Xia' at the next Party Congress." Whether true or not, the political winds against Xi Jinping are severe to the extent that such rumors have appeared more than once.

3. Key Political Actors Helping Xi Jinping to Stay in Power

At this point, however, judging from open-source information and the several reasons listed below, Xi Jinping's autocratic regime will remain intact, and the possibility of his third term in office after the coming Party Congress is still high. This judgment is consolidated by focusing on the characteristics of the political perceptions and actions of the three main actors in Chinese politics: (1) the "majority group" (ethnically dominant non-elite Han Chinese residents on the mainland), (2) the "regime elite" (influential CPC and government bureaucratic politicians and their relatives who have accumulated many vested interests throughout the reform and opening-up period, and the socioeconomic elite with close ties to the former), and (3) the "supreme leader" (Xi Jinping).

(1) Conservative Political Psychology and Political Inertia of the "Majority Group"

In China today, conservative psychology based on a certain level of economic affluence is the mainstream consciousness in political society; the "majority group" does not favor reforming the status quo. For example, in 2019, China's nominal GDP per capita surpassed the $10,000 mark; it exceeded $10,000 for three consecutive years until 2021. China is estimated to become a "high-income country" by World Bank standards no later than 2025. 8 Its citizens already enjoy a relatively affluent economic life by global standards owing to nearly three decades of rapid economic growth since the late 1970s.

Thanks to these economic changes, China entered the "era of family and individual" with the emergence of a consumer society. Today, an affirmation of the status quo based on a certain level of economic affluence and a conservative mentality prioritizing the pursuit of family and individual happiness permeate most segments of society. Not only the middle-aged and the elderly who remember their poor and difficult lives before the reform and opening-up period, but also many of the younger generation will not want to upset the existing order and system or less predictability for the future, including their life prospects. Consequently, it is unlikely in the short term that a nationwide anti-Xi Jinping or anti-CPC movement like the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 will take place. Per capita GDP of 1989 was only about $400. 9

(2) Control of the Coercive Apparatus to Suppress Organized Opposition Movements Led by the "Regime Elite"

As well known, at the launch of the first Xi Jinping administration in 2012, an anti-Xi Jinping political movement took place, which was led by Bo Xilai (a member of the CPC Central Political Bureau) and Zhou Yongkang (a member of the Standing Committee of the CPC Central Political Bureau and secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, CPLAC). The overriding threat to Xi Jinping at that time was probably the political network and influence of Zhou Yongkang, the head of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, PLAC --- a department that oversees domestic security and judicial institutions (e.g., police, courts, prosecutors, judicial administrative agencies, and intelligence sectors). The aftermath of the incident still lingers. Over the past two to three years, Xi Jinping has been busy controlling the PLAC as a violence apparatus to monitor and crack down on disaffected elements inside and outside the CPC.

The "Regulation on the Communist Party of China's Political-Legal Work," which took effect in January 2019 in the form of in-house Party regulations, stipulates 1) The PLAC should "work under the strong leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core" (Article 5); 2) "The Party Central Committee implements absolute leadership over political-legal work" (Article 7); 3) The Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission and its related units "are responsible to the Party Center, are supervised by the Party Center, seek instructions and report their work to the Party Center and General Secretary." (Article 17) 10 It is noteworthy that the Regulation clearly states that the CPLAC should seek instructions and report their work to the General Secretary.

In the subsequent "National Political and Legal Team Education and Rectification" campaign conducted in 2020-2022, several leading cadres in the political and law departments were purged and replaced by Xi Jinping's supporters who had followed Xi since his days as provincial leader. In 2020, the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced that it was investigating Vice-Minister of Public Security Sun Lijun for violation of discipline. Sun was arrested and indicted in 2021-2022. Fu Zhenghua, who also held key positions in the Ministry of Public Security and served as Minister of Justice (2018-2020), was also removed on corruption and other charges. The main indictment against Sun Lijun was the formation of a faction led by himself, of which Fu Zhenghua was allegedly a member. The "resolute elimination of the influence of Sun Lijun's political gang and other poisonous influences" was counted as one of the achievements of the "National Political and Legal Team Education and Rectification" campaign in a report released in May of this year. 11

After Sun Lijun left the Ministry of Public Security, Wang Xiaohong, a close aide of Xi Jinping since his days in Fujian Province, assumed the office of Secretary of the Party Committee of the Ministry in 2021; in June 2022, he was appointed Minister of the Public Security. Tang Yijun, who succeeded Fu Zhenghua as Minister of Justice, was Xi Jinping's subordinate during his years in Zhejiang province. As a result, Xi Jinping's protégés have come to occupy four out of ten member posts, including higher ones, at the CPLAC--- deputy secretary (Wang Xiaohong) and secretary-general (Chen Yixin), in addition to two members (Chen Yixin and Tang Yijun). They are expected to remain in office or further prosper after the 20th Party Congress. As for the remaining Committee members, excluding the two uniformed personnel from the military and armed police, three people, Guo Shengkun, Zhao Kezhi, and Zhang Jun, beside Zhou Qiang, belonging to the Hu Jintao faction, are likely to retire before or after the coming Party Congress because of their advanced ages.

(3) Political Trauma of the "Supreme Leader" and the Absence of Alternative Candidates

We could not discuss Xi Jinping's political perceptions and behavior without considering the magnitude of the threat and humiliation that Xi himself must have experienced at the start of his first term in power (2012-2013). As mentioned earlier, the political turmoil that accompanied the transition of power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, or specifically the power struggle over leadership appointments, is said to have generated a move by Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, and others to "oust Xi Jinping." In quelling the turmoil, many people who had held key positions in the CPC and military were ousted --- Ling Jihua, Xu Caihou, and Guo Boxiong, in addition to Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. Bitter experience and reflection at that time seem to have served Xi Jinping as a mental impetus for the subsequent power concentration in himself and the intense anti-corruption campaign also designed to purge political rivals. Under the current circumstances, it is hard to imagine that Xi Jinping will silently overlook the plot to overthrow him.

The appointment of the chairman of the Central Military Commission must also be closely watched, which is one of the cardinal posts Xi Jinping occupies. It is noteworthy that Xi Jinping has discontinued the practice of appointing a civilian leader likely to be elected general secretary at a next Party Congress, as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission several years prior to the Congress. This had been a practice established during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras. Hu Jintao (who became general secretary in 2002) and Xi Jinping (who became the same in 2012) received the appointment as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission in 1999 and 2010, respectively.

As a result, there is not a single civilian leader except Xi Jinping among the current members of the Central Military Commission, including the two vice chairmen who are military officers. In other words, there is no civilian candidate who could, in place of Xi Jinping, singly assume supreme command of the military under the Chinese principle of civilian control --- "the party commands the guns" (Mao Zedong's sacred words) --- and under the institutional arrangement of the CMC chairman responsibility system. Therefore, if Xi Jinping fails to remain as the CMC chairman at the upcoming Party Congress, confusion within the leadership will be inevitable.

A comprehensive "stock and flow" analysis of Xi Jinping's power and authority reveals that he still has an institutional and substantive power base sufficient to offset any short-term decline in his authority. Xi Jinping will have to make partial revisions in personnel appointments and policies to handle intermittent dissatisfaction and criticism from the "majority group" and the "regime elite." Yet, such an amorphous political atmosphere and the expression of group interests may win partial political concessions from Xi Jinping but will not undermine his position as supreme leader. At this point in time, it may be reasonable to consider that Xi Jinping will stay as supreme leader in Chinese politics after the 20th Party Congress, whether the title of his position is CPC president or CPC general secretary.

As will be described later, Xi Jinping has been and will be earnestly pursuing throughout his life the national goal of the "Great Revival of the Chinese Nation." He is adamant about eliminating, at all costs, every possible obstacle to the realization of this goal --- coup-like political takeovers and the resulting unrest in the ruling system. Xi Jinping, a believer in power --- the ultimate guarantee for political will and action --- will not hesitate to use force to that end.

4. Scenarios of Political Developments in the "Xi Jinping Era"

(1) The "Xi Jinping Era in the narrow sense" or the "Xi Jinping Era in the broad sense"

In my understanding, the "Xi Jinping Era" as a political history may be either of the following two: 1) the "Xi Jinping Era in the narrow sense" (Xi will continue to nominally occupy some highest offices: Chairman of the CPC, General Secretary of the CPC, President of the PRC, or Chairman of the Central Military Commission) and 2) the "Xi Jinping Era in the broad sense" (including the terms of Xi himself and his successors who will follow Xi's political line). As shown below, either scenario could span about 30 years from 2010 to the end of the 2030s. 12

First, the "Xi Jinping Era in the narrow sense." If the third Xi Jinping administration is formed after the 20th Party Congress in 2022, Xi's terms in charge of state affairs will be a total of 15 years, from the year 2012-2013, when his first term began, to the year 2027-2028, when his third term will end. If Xi Jinping were to remain in the position of supreme leader until the year 2035 (a political schedule as equally important as the centennial of the founding of the PRC in 2049), he would then be 82-83 years old, exceeding the age of Mao Zedong, who died at 82 as Chairman of the CPC. This is why Xi Jinping is rumored to be aiming for a super-long-term administration until 2035.

More likely to be realized, however, is the "Xi Jinping Era in the broad sense." After the Tiananmen Massacre, Deng Xiaoping, as kingmaker, chose Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao as his successors, starting the "Deng Xiaoping Era in the broad sense," which lasted about 30 years from the 1980s to the 2000s under Deng, Jiang, and Hu. If like Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping appoints two consecutive successors, their term will last at least ten to 15 years; with the year 2027 as the starting point, it will extend to 2037-2042. The "Xi Jinping Era in the broad sense" would thus cover the entire period from the 2010s to 2030s.

(2) Xi Jinping's Political Crossroads at the 20th Party Congress

With the 20th Party Congress ahead, the following four scenarios may be imaginable as major options for Xi Jinping to choose regarding leader posts. The lower its order, the greater the short-term political instability a specific scenario envisages.

First, the best scenario for Xi Jinping is to reinstate the chairmanship of the CPC abolished at the 12th Party Congress in 1982 and to establish a system of three presidencies (the CPC, the state, and the military), all of which he, as the "great leader of Chinese people (人民的领袖)," would assume. This scenario is to take place in the "Xi Jinping Era in the narrow sense."

The second best scenario is that Xi Jinping should continue to serve his third term as general secretary of the CPC with the special political title of "core leader (核心)" while maintaining at least the post of chairman of the Central Military Commission, CMC. The hurdles to overcome here are the limit of two consecutive terms as general secretary for ten years and the mandatory retirement age of 68. As far as is known, they are not insurmountable hurdles but just institutional practices. This scenario is to take place in the "Xi Jinping Era in the narrow sense" as well.

The third scenario is the least acceptable option for Xi Jinping: Xi will continue to occupy the position of chairman of the CMC; however, he has to cede either of or both positions of general secretary of the CPC and president of the State to his protégés who have followed Xi Jinping since his days as a local leader. This is a pattern of "rule by a retired emperor" following the precedents of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin; it is also a transitional stage toward the "Xi Jinping Era in the broad sense." Xi will remain the supreme leader in the capacity of a political guardian.

Fourth, the worst possible scenario for Xi Jinping is one where he could not remain chairman of the CMC, still less general secretary of the CPC or president of the State. In this case, there would be confusion within the leadership or a disturbance jeopardizing the regime. The reason for this prediction is the absence mentioned above of a civilian candidate for the post of chairman of the CMC, occupied now by Xi Jinping. After Xi's unwanted resignation, a fierce power struggle, it is feared, would ensue over the post in question.

5. Xi Jinping's Perception of the "Great Revival of the Chinese Nation"

(1) Pursuit of Hegemony to Replace the United States

Chinese politics have entered a stage of long-term evolution under the overwhelming influence of the ideology and leadership of a particular leader Xi Jinping --- political evolution that started in the 2010s and will continue into the 2030s. Then, in what direction is Xi Jinping, as supreme leader, attempting to lead China?

Xi Jinping emphasizes the three key pillars of national governance: 1) the realization of the national goal of the "Great Revival of the Chinese Nation," 2) the prevention of regime change that democratic movements aim at, and 3) active territorial expansion and maritime advancement.

With regard to 1), Xi Jinping has been pursuing, in earnest, the goal of China replacing the United States as hegemonic power by 2049, the centennial of the founding of the country. In his speech in January 2018, for example, Xi Jinping, quoting Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping's words, stressed that the ultimate goal of the "Great Revival of the Chinese Nation" lies in that China, the "world's largest socialist nation" should catch up with and surpass the United States, the "world's mightiest capitalist nation"; that through the practice of socialism, China should demonstrate to the world the superiority of socialism over capitalism.

On this occasion, I would like to read out a few sentences to you all. ....../ The third one is a statement by Comrade Mao Zedong at the first session of the preliminary conference of the 8th National Congress of CPC in August 1956. "We unite all the forces that can be united both within and outside the Party, both at home and abroad. What is our objective? To build a great socialist state." This, he said, "will completely change the situation so depressing, so despised, so unfortunate, and so terrible for the past hundred years or so. Not only that, but we will catch up with the mightiest capitalist nation in the world, namely the United States." "Otherwise, we, the Chinese people, will have let down all the peoples of the world, and our contribution to humanity will not be a great one." [The end of the quotation of Mao Zedong's words.]

The fourth is the words of Comrade Deng Xiaoping. "We, China, will use the last 20 years of this century and the next 50 years of the following century, a total of 70 years, to prove to the world through our efforts that socialism is superior to capitalism. We will prove that the socialist system is superior to the capitalist system by developing productive forces and science and technology and by improving spiritual and material civilization; in so doing we will make the people of the advanced capitalist countries aware that socialism is better indeed than capitalism. [The end of the quotation of Deng Xiaoping's words.]

Our country, China, is the largest socialist country in the world. At the very time when we have succeeded in building first in human history a great modern socialist country by choosing the path of socialism instead of that of capitalism, the great social revolution that our people are carrying out under the guidance of our Party will demonstrate its historical significance more clearly.

(Xi Jinping's remarks at a study meeting focused on the spirit of the 19th National Congress in January 2018, attended by newly-elected members and alternate members of the CPC Central Committee as well as ministerial-level officials) 13

(2) Prevention of Color Revolutions and Promotion of a "Maritime Reconquista"

In Xi Jinping's view, China faces tough challenges on the above-mentioned state governance 2) and 3): in the area of domestic politics, the prevention of color revolutions of the kind that occurred in other countries; on the diplomatic and security front, the annexation of Taiwan and the "restoration of lost ground" in the island areas in the East and South China Seas and the acquisition of related maritime interests. China must seek to meet these challenges to realize the "Great Revival of the Chinese Nation."

Xi Jinping has a deep-seated distrust for "Western countries" --- Europe, the United States, and Japan. According to Xi, the confrontation between China and the "West" is destiny due to differences in ideologies and political systems. He says:

Regarding social institutions and ideology, we and the Western nations are utterly different. Thus we are destined that, because of struggles and contests, we cannot live in harmony with the West. Therefore conflicts will be prolonged, complicated, and sometimes very intense... The more we develop and thrive, the more impatient they will become and the more they will enhance their strategy of westernizing and dividing our nation. Their goal is to destroy our leadership [the CPC's one-party rule] and overthrow the socialist system in our country. Indubitably, we should develop our relations with the West and strengthen economic and technological exchange and cooperation to benefit by acquiring the best conditions for our country's development. On the other hand, we should never underestimate political intrigues in the back of their minds... and never cherish any illusions.

(Statement at the Extended Meeting of the Central Military Commission, December 2012) 14

Unquestionably, the "key maritime battlegrounds" are for China the East and South China Seas. In the conflict with Japan over the historical issues and the possession of the Senkaku Islands, Xi Jinping regards the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea (November 2013) and the normalization of sea and air surveillance activities as a political achievement of his administration. The same is true of China's construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, which began on a full scale in the second half of 2014. Given Xi's style of governance, China's maritime expansion will only increase, not decrease, in the future.

A nation rises when it advances to the sea; it declines when it abandons the sea. We have fought to protect our interest over the Diaoyu Islands [Senkaku Islands in Japanese name], established the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, and normalized surveillance activities. We expedited the construction of islands and reefs in the South China Sea and made historic progress in maritime management and the defense of sea power. I once said the following. The achievements and accumulations we have made to date will determine our future maritime posture and strategic initiative in defending our country's sovereignty, security, and development interests in the future. This is the historic responsibility of our generation, which we must resolutely accept and build a robust strategic base to win the final victory in the struggle for the defense of our interests in the South China Sea for the sake of future generations and the Chinese nation. The strategic significance of this momentous decision and activity will manifest itself clearly over time.

(Statement at the Extended Meeting of the Central Military Commission, February 2016) 15

6. Conclusion

In concluding this essay, I would like to point out the importance of Taiwan in relation to prospects for the liberalization and democratization of Chinese politics. As noted above, China under the Xi Jinping administration have been lacking sufficient internal energy for democratic reform, at least in the short term. Therefore, from a medium- to long-term perspective, the key to change in China is continuous political stimuli from the outside.

Taiwan is a domestic and a diplomatic issue for China. It is almost the only external force that could change the political consciousness of the Han majority in mainland China without irritating their sentiments of Chinese nationalism. Taiwan is advanced in human rights protection and is the first Asian country that legalized same-sex marriage in May 2019. Taiwan's freedom and democracy are held in high esteem in the international community. Taiwan has a significant presence not only in Japan's security strategy but also in economic and science and technology cooperation in, for example, the area of semiconductor supply. Not confined to the pursuit of such practical benefits, Japan and Taiwan, as democracies sharing similar political values, need to deepen cooperation for the promotion of democracy in mainland China.

(Associate Professor, Aichi Prefectural University)

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