Xi Jinping’s third term as the head of the Party is not constrained by established norms of the Chinese Communist Party or the PRC state, formally or informally.
Speculation about Xi Jinping’s succession thickens as we approach the 20th National Party Congress this autumn, where a leadership reshuffle is scheduled to take place. Before we can proceed to predict its possible outcomes with any degree of confidence, there are two a priori assumptions that have distracted current discussions and need to be first re-examined. One such issue concerns the term limit of the General Party Secretary (GPS) of the Chinese Communist Party (the Party), and the other concerns the normative quality of the so-called “succession norms” developed under Deng Xiaoping.
The myth of term limit
As soon as taking the GPS position as the head of the Party, Xi Jinping executed a number of political manoeuvres that dazzled China observers around the world. Among all his political moves, the one that is most shocking and remains a key talking point to this very day is the lifting of the constitutional term limit of the office of the PRC Chairman, as the head of the state, in 2018. The event was reported by major news outlets around the world under headlines, such as, “China’s Xi allowed to remain ‘president for life’ as term limits removed”. Many observers are committed to the belief that the constitutional term limit of the PRC Chairman had been the cornerstone of the Party’s “succession norm” introduced in the 1980s, which Xi has now audaciously broken.
However, this belief, despite its popularity, is ill-founded. The reason is three-fold. First, the GPS and the PRC Chairmanship were created and remain as two different offices. When both positions were recreated in 1982-1983, they were held by two different persons: Hu Yaobang for the GPS and Li Xiannian for the PRC Chairman. No rule requires that they must be held by the same person. Second, the PRC Chairman is largely a ceremonial office, whereas the GPS is the real seat of power, which has never been subject to any term limit either in the PRC Constitution or the Party Charter.
Third, the term limit of the PRC Chairman does not translate to the term limit of the GPS either formally or informally. Many argue that it does because the two offices are presently held by the same person. It therefore follows, as they argued, that by lifting the term limit of the PRC Chairman Xi Jinping has blatantly violated the succession norm and “dismantled” the Party’s “political order”. This argument carried a lot of persuasive power and is widely shared by China analysts and observers. It also mirrors the school of thought according to which the Party had “normalized” its succession issue and cured its “Achilles’ heel”, thanks to the introduction of the term limit into the PRC constitution in 1982.
This assumption is false because it is well understood that in the regulatory regime of the Party-state, the Party controls the state, not the reverse.
However, the popularity of this argument does not render it valid. Its flaw originates from its assumption that when the state office of the PRC Chairman is conjoined with the Party office of the GPS, the former will absorb the latter and the rules over the former will bind the latter. This assumption is false because it is well understood that in the regulatory regime of the Party-state, the Party controls the state, not the reverse. It is the Party which drives the actions of the state institutions, including the state legislature, not the other way around. Hence, when a weaker office is merged with a stronger office, it is the latter that absorbs the former, not the reverse. The same is also illustrated clearly in the case of office-sharing practice of the Central Commission of Discipline and Inspection (CCDI, a Party institution) and the Ministry of State Supervision, which has evolved into the National Supervision Commission (a state institution) in 2018, where the CCDI takes the lead unmistakably.
One can say with confidence that when Jiang Zemin assumed the office of the PRC Chairman in 1993, he meant to expand the reach of his power, or at least to add the “icing on the cake”, instead of cutting it short with a self-imposed term limit. In a previous study, I have explained that the Politburo has never surrendered itself to constitutional governance but always been operating in a “constitutional vacuum”. In fact, the very reason that the concept of having a constitution appeals to the Party is exactly because it does not provide solutions to fundamental constitutional issues, including the succession of power.
In terms of informal practices, there is no consistent pattern on the number of terms served by previous heads of the Party either. In the earlier revolutionary era, the Party was so under-institutionalised that even the interval of the Party congresses was not fixed, let alone the terms of individual Party offices. After the founding of the PRC, the exact number of terms held by the head of the Party has differed from person to person. Mao is the only one who had enjoyed life tenure. Deng had a bumpy career, being promoted and demoted back and forth three times, and then serving as the Party leader in effect, but not in name, until his death. Hua Guofeng, once the holder of the highest offices of the Party, the Army, and the State Council, barely managed to survive his first term.
The careers of Hua’s next two successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were also short-lived since neither managed to complete their first and only term as the GPS. The record of the two most recent GPSs before Xi Jinping does not reveal consistency either: Jiang Zemin served 13 years (two-and-a-half terms but counted as three terms) and Hu Jintao retained a seat at the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) for 20 years (four terms), serving half of the time as the GPS.
The myth of Deng Xiaoping’s succession norm
Other than lifting the term limit, Xi Jinping has also been criticised for having dismantled another “succession norm” that was attributed to Deng Xiaoping, which is the obligation to accept the successor chosen for him by his predecessors and to anoint this successor at the end of his first term as a preparatory step to retirement. Allegedly, Xi Jinping defied this practice by not only neglecting this obligation but also taking the radical measure of deposing one of the successors-in-waiting before the end of his first term.
This invention of choosing two successors down the line is a political legacy frequently attributed to Deng. But is it truly a practice that can be expected to actually take hold or evolve into a succession norm? My answer is no. Because this practice constitutes an unprecedented overreach of Deng’s own power, a prerogative created by and for himself alone. It deprives the privilege of all future GPSs to pick their own immediate successors, which is an integral part of the power of any ruling autocrat.
Deng’s practice is unsustainable also because it would inevitably create two competing seats of absolute power in the same temporal space, a situation that makes the best incubator for power struggles, deposing and dethroning incumbents until the supremacy and singularity of absolute power is restored. This is why such practice is not only unprecedented to the Party, but also hardly ever seen during the 2,000 years of Chinese imperial history. In fact, the day when the head of the Party truly abdicates his entitlement to choose his own successor will be the day when the Party is ready to surrender itself to constitutional rule, indeed a harbinger of democratisation, though for now a very distant prospect.
Deng himself was certainly not a shining example of norm-keeping when it comes to succession. He was anything but a stickler for norms or conventions in this discipline. To start with, he did not hesitate to violate the most ‘sacred’ principle of Party norm: political loyalty. He conspired to and succeeded in bringing about the deposing of the then head of the Party, Hua Guofeng, to whom he had sworn allegiance. Not long after, Deng proceeded to depose in quick succession two of his hand-picked successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, both of whom had made significant contributions to Deng’s own reformist legacy. His designation of two successors down the line, what he did after the deposition of Zhao Ziyang, is just another manifestation of his exercise of unbridled power as the Party leader.
It is important to point out that my questioning of the perceived normative quality of Deng’s succession practices is not a repudiation of his contribution to the institutionalisation of the Party-state as a whole, including, inter alia, the strengthening of state institutions, the restoration and continued development of a comprehensive state legal system, and the introduction of some regularity in holding Party congresses.
It is particularly worth noting that an age-based norm has started to take shape since 2002, which imposes 67 as the maximum age to be eligible to compete for the seat in the highest decision-making body of the Party, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). This does not, however, negate my arguments above for two reasons. First, this norm cannot be attributed to Deng because it started to emerge after Deng’s death. Second, whilst the norm seems to hold up well regarding ordinary members of the PSC, it is however inconclusive regarding the GPS. It is inconclusive because the last two instances of GPS turnover show no consistent pattern. Whereas Hu Jintao did withdraw from entering into another race at the age of 69 and seemingly complied with the age limit rule; his immediate predecessor Jiang Zemin was, however, able to get himself re-elected for the last time at the senior age of 71, exceeding the age limit by 4 years. Xi Jinping will only reach 69 at his next re-election this autumn.
If Xi Jinping’s third term as the head of the Party is not bound by the PRC Constitution at all, one may then ask, why did he take the trouble to change the constitution, lifting the term limit of an office of apparently little significance? This is a legitimate question. Changing the constitution is a big deal, even in China. It clearly shows that the office of the PRC Chairman matters greatly to Xi Jinping. Why this largely ceremonial office matters so much to him is an intriguing line of inquiry to pursue in and of itself, which should be addressed independently elsewhere. In the meantime, it is necessary to look at the Party’s rules and practices as they are, avoiding, as Ewan Smith argued against, “seeing rules where there are none”.