The future of China is up in the air as Xi Jinping fails to nominate a successor

The Communist Party of China’s new Politburo Standing Committee, the nation’s top decision-making body (L-R) Han Zheng, Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Zhao Leji. Photo: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)
  • China’s Communist Party has unveiled its top leadership for the next five-year term.
  • The seven-member Politburo Standing Committee doesn’t include a potential successor to President Xi Jinping.
  • If Xi seeks a third term in 2022, the unusual move could destabilize the Chinese government and threaten the global economy.

Breaking with decades of tradition, Chinese President Xi Jinping has not identified a successor for the end of his rule in 2022.

In recent decades the Communist Party’s most powerful group, the Politburo Standing Committee, has always included at least one potential successor. However, none of the members in the committee introduced to the press on Wednesday have the right pedigree — in experience and youth — to take over from Xi.

The move is widely interpreted as an indication that Xi will seek a third term in 2022.

The Chinese constitution prohibits any president from serving more than two terms. However the document in legal terms is largely symbolic. The court system has no power to enforce violations; that power is left to the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, which has never issued an enforcement.

“Legally speaking, the constitution carries little weight — its core precepts are regularly violated,” wrote Chinese law scholar Thomas Kellogg for Foreign Policy.

So, what does the new Standing Committee say about the future of Xi and China?

Stability over power

While Xi ignored one important precedent, he did follow a number of other unofficial party rules. Xi could have consolidated his power by stacking the committee with his allies.

One of his strongest allies is Wang Qishan who had reached the unofficial retirement age of 68. Another, his protégé Chen Miner, could have been promoted to the committee, but this would have dismissed unwritten rules regarding seniority as he would have essentially climbed two rungs of the party ladder at once.

Neither of them were included in Xi’s committee. This will be seen as a move to maintain stability within China’s one-party system. But by not including Miner, Xi’s plan for a third term looks clearer.

The next five years

Without a clear successor, levels of long-term uncertainty rise, but for now, Xi will be the sole authority with unprecedented power to enact his plans.

“For Xi, presumably the danger of having a designated leader might limit his power in that recalcitrant officials could drag their feet on policy implementation knowing that Xi would be gone in 2022,” Stanley Rosen, a specialist in Chinese politics at the USC US-China Institute, told Business Insider.

“This way they have only Xi, with the possibility that he stays on after 2022, so that as an official you should try to keep him happy. In this sense, it might help to get his agenda enacted more quickly. But when the rules of the game are changed, it is always accompanied by some risks,” Rosen said.

China’s economic performance in the next five years will be crucial to Xi’s desire for a third term.

Douglas Paal from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has worked for the CIA and National Security Council, told Business Insider: “The condition of the economy will be more determinative of the consequences for Chinese society. No one is presently prepared to stand up to Xi, so he can do what he wants.”

China’s global role

Another key focus for Xi’s second term is strengthening the political position of China.

“It’s been made clear that China sees the withdrawal of the US under Trump and the problems in Europe — not just limited to Brexit — as a real opportunity to expand its role on the world stage,” Rosen said. “His speech and other writings in the Chinese media made it clear that [former President] Deng Xiaoping’s policy of keeping a low profile and biding time is no longer China’s preferred policy.”

“This would include being recognised as the leader, even regional hegemon — although they don’t like that word — in the Asia Pacific, and beginning to challenge the primacy of the US elsewhere in the world,” Rosen said.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo last week said Xi has made “real progress” this year in making China a “globally important player,” particularly in dealing with North Korea.

Potential drawbacks of a Xi third term

A third term for Xi could provide a strong economy in the short-term but would risk destabilizing the Communist Party and China at large.

Rosen told Business Insider: “Xi has raised questions about the institutionalization of the succession process and leadership politics more generally. This will presumably give him more power to get things done but it does raise longer-term issues of potential instability and open factionalism, as happened during the Maoist period and succession.”

Mao Zedong, who oversaw the “Great Leap Forward” that ultimately led to the deaths of 45 million people, also serves as a cautionary tale about dismissing term limits. Without term limits, there’s no way for the party to remove a future leader, no matter how dangerous they may be.

“The concentration of power in one person’s hands means that Xi’s personal qualities and abilities have potentially profound implications for the nation as a whole. The fate of China is once again vulnerable to the bad emperor syndrome,” wrote Mark Beeson, a politics professor at Murdoch University.

“The central problem and question in China’s imperial order was what happened when the incumbent was incompetent and failed to exercise power wisely. In a system that lacks transparent legal processes to regulate executive authority and to determine who wields it, this is still a potentially fatal flaw,” Beeson said.

This type of situation could weaken the party and threaten China’s global position. It also could have global ramifications as China has the world’s second-largest economy and stock market.

Another option is for Xi to stay in power through his role of Secretary General, which outranks the president and doesn’t have term limits. But swapping roles could cause confusion about the chain of command.

This could have drastic implications for China’s economy, says Carnegie Endowment for International Peace researcher Alexander Gabuev, who drew parallels to Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Xi must avoid the flaws of Putinism, which have set Russia on a trajectory for long-term stagnation. While a prolonged stay in power may be good for the consolidation of resources, overstaying may create a wholly fragile system that cannot survive without its core,” Gabuev said.

“Further, an obsession with stability — another negative feature of Putinism — may prevent many needed reforms.”

But, for at least the next five years, Xi remains the country’s most prominent and important leader.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.