Although Xi Jinping is regarded as the biggest power holder in the Communist Party of China (CCP), due to his poor domestic and foreign policy and the damage caused by it, he has encountered resistance and criticism from both the ruling Party and opposition parties. This makes his re-election efforts not as simple and easy as the outside world imagines. Xi may even lose (at least part of) his leadership authority at the 20th National Congress of the CCP.
Prime Minister Li Keqiang's new role
Before the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping's decision-making influence declined significantly. This is mainly due to the threat of severe sanctions from the West for not condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine after the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, and the rapid economic downturn caused by Xi's policy of completely eliminating the COVID-19 pandemic.
On May 25 this year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang held a meeting on "stabilizing the economy" with the participation of more than 100,000 officials, emphasizing the need to promote economic and social development while preventing and controlling the epidemic. Li Keqiang's speech revealed differences with Xi Jinping's views on epidemic prevention and control and its impact. The scale of this meeting convened by Li Keqiang is comparable to, or even far exceeds, the CCP's "7,000-member Conference" held by Mao Zedong before the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. This also shows that Xi Jinping has handed over the formulation and implementation of economic policies to Li Keqiang. Whether forced or voluntarily, Xi Jinping ceded economic power to Li Keqiang, a sign that Xi's power and influence have been weakened or limited within the CCP's decision-making circle.
For a long time, Xi Jinping has handed over the economic power of the Premier of the State Council of China to his confidant, Vice-Premier Liu He, in order to overshadow Li Keqiang and make him a powerless prime minister. Because of this, Liu He is known as the "economic czar" of the CCP. Now, Liu has obviously stepped into the background, playing only a minor role in national economic decision-making and management.
It is not the first time that Xi and Li have publicly expressed differences in political opinions. While Xi Jinping effectively declared China to “eliminate poverty” by 2020, Li Keqiang warned that 600 million people in China still earn less than 1,000 yuan a month. The full text of Li Keqiang's 9,000-word speech was unusually published on a full page of the People's Daily, which is one of the most authoritative official media of the CCP. This is a very rare occurrence.
The Wall Street Journal also published an article saying that Li Keqiang has stepped out of the shadow of Xi Jinping. The video of Li Keqiang's visit to Shanghai and Yunnan Province went viral, and Li did not wear a mask when in contact with the masses, which was regarded as a "rebellion" against Xi Jinping's policy of eliminating the COVID-19 epidemic.
Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times, released a signal on social media Weibo, asking officials to take a look at the trend and suggesting that Zhongnanhai, the seat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, would have a new owner. In addition, Chinese state media's propaganda on Xi Jinping has been reduced and changed in both quantity and quality, and propaganda materials on Xi's "cult of personality" have also been withdrawn in some places. Also, state media coverage of leaders such as Li Keqiang and Wang Yang (a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CCP Central Committee) has increased, sometimes even surpassing the propaganda of Xi Jinping’s achievements.
Opposition within and outside the CCP
This year, at the annual Beidaihe conference hosted by top party leaders, the mainstream of political seniors criticized Xi, according to people familiar with the matter. They opposed Xi Jinping's re-election as general secretary of the Central Committee of the CCP at the 20th National Congress of the CCP. After the Beidaihe conference, Li Keqiang presided over pragmatic affairs such as the country's economic and social management, while Xi Jinping performed retreats in terms of national etiquette and ideological spiritual mobilization. The two do not offend each other at work, which has become normalized. After the Beidaihe meeting, Li Keqiang also went south to Shenzhen to pay homage to the Deng Xiaoping Monument and declared that "the waters of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers will not flow backwards," fully demonstrating his position and attitude of sticking to the policy of reform and opening up. This is in stark contrast to Xi Jinping's visit to the Liao-Shen Campaign Memorial Hall in northeastern China to demonstrate the primacy of political control and ideological loyalty over economic development.
There are criticisms of Xi Jinping's ideas and policies on governing the country not only at the top of the CCP, but also there are voices and dissatisfactions against him at the grassroots level of the CCP and civil society.
In response to the upcoming 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, three veteran party members jointly issued a proposal to oppose the cult of personality and questioned Xi Jinping's claim that "the party leads everything," which violates the Chinese constitution. They suggested that the Party Constitution should be revised at the 20th National Congress and demanded that the Mao-style Cultural Revolution phrase "the Party exercises overall leadership over all areas of endeavor in every part of the country" should be removed from the party constitution. They also emphasized that the party constitution should explicitly oppose any form of cult of personality.
In April of this year, Tian Qizhuang, one of the co-signers, reported to the Central Disciplinary Committee of the Communist Party of China that the head of the Party Committee of the CCP in Guangxi Province touted Xi Jinping and pointed out that cult of personality is a kind of "political corruption that is 10,000 times more serious than the usual corruption."
In addition, it is reported that more than 100 descendants of China's founding leaders (the so-called “red second generation”) have also issued a joint letter, asking Xi Jinping to "get off at the station" — to step down from the top leadership position at the 20th National Congress of the CCP.
In order to oppose Xi Jinping's frequent threats of force against Taiwan, experts on Taiwan issues from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and anti-civil war figures from "democratic parties," such as the Democracy Promotion Association and the Democratic National Construction Association, issued an "Anti-Civil War Declaration" on the internet on August 21, pointing out that if a war broke out across the Taiwan Strait, the vitality of the Chinese nation would be greatly damaged and the ethnic civil war would make China lose face internationally. In addition, those who started the war will also be prosecuted by international organizations such as the United Nations for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. The "Anti-Civil War Declaration" that directly challenged Xi Jinping was circulated on the Internet and was not blocked for a while.
The shaking of Xi's army foundation
The resistance to Xi Jinping's re-election is also reflected in his distrust of the People's Liberation Army. Previously, Xi visited the Western Theater Command and the Northern Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army and convened officers at or above the level of colonel in the two theaters for talks. This has been interpreted as trying to dispel the hidden danger that the army is not loyal to him.
On September 8, Xi Jinping awarded Wang Qiang, former commander of the Air Force of the Western Theater Command, the rank of general and promoted him to the commander of the Northern Theater Command, replacing the former commander of the Northern Theater Command, Li Qiaoming. Xi's replacement of the generals of the major military regions before the 20th National Congress of the party arouses speculations that Xi may use this to let more reliable and loyal generals take control of the army, in order to prevent events that are unfavorable for his re-election before the 20th National Congress.
There is a more widespread rumor that there are forces in the Chinese military that support Li Keqiang. The rise of Li's influence in the military would have been the biggest obstacle to Xi's re-election, and "Li Qiaoming has become a force that Li Keqiang relies heavily on in the army."
On September 21, General Li Qiaoming reappeared at a seminar on defense and military reforms held by the Central Military Commission, at which Xi Jinping did not appear. Li Qiaoming's comeback after Xi's dismissal showed Xi's inability to drive his disloyal generals out of military decision-making.
Signals relayed by foreign diplomatic states
From a foreign affairs perspective, Xi Jinping also faces some uncertain prospects. According to a Weibo report by the Russian Embassy in China on October 8, the ambassador, Andrey Denisov, said at a press conference that the personnel changes of the Chinese leadership after the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China would not affect the Russia-China partnership. “Our relationship is independent and does not depend on individual positions”, he said. This seems to suggest that Moscow has heard that Xi Jinping may resign as the top leader of the CCP at the 20th National Congress.
In addition, when answering a question from a foreign reporter, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian pointed out that a report in the South China Morning Post was fake news. China has invited leaders of Germany, France, Italy, and Spain to visit China in November this year and meet with President Xi Jinping in Beijing, the source said. In this regard, Zhao said: "I don't know where this news came from? I can tell you this is fake news." Zhao's answer made people speculate that whether Xi Jinping will be re-elected at the 20th National Congress of the CCP is still an undetermined matter.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on September 15 that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will visit Cambodia on November 8 and attend the ASEAN summit. Although the news has not been officially confirmed by the Chinese Communist Party, it has not been denied either. Earlier, it was reported that Xi Jinping was supposed to attend the ASEAN summit at that time. But now it is confirmed that Li will go to Cambodia to attend the meeting. This undoubtedly makes people question the possibility of Xi's re-election at the 20th National Congress of the Party.
CCP veterans oppose Xi's re-election?
On August 19, the General Office of the Central Committee of the CCP re-issued the "Regulations that Leading Cadres Can Be Promoted or Laid Off" revised by the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau. Article 4 of the regulations points out that "to promote the mechanism that leading cadres can be promoted or demoted, the focus is to solve the problem that cadres cannot and are unwilling to step down." This has led to discussions about whether the top leaders of the CCP can "lay off" themselves. This provision has been interpreted to mean that it only solves the issue of "layoffs" of other leading cadres at all levels of the CCP, excluding Xi Jinping, as Xi Jinping himself is not ready to abdicate, and other leaders such as Xi's allies in the party are unwilling to step down.
But there is also news that the document was revised by Song Ping and specifically addresses Xi Jinping's refusal to be laid off after his term ends. Therefore, Xi Jinping rushed back to Beijing before the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit (SCO) he attended was over. He seemed to want to change the relevant provisions of the regulation, "but it was too late to change the content of the document," an inside source said.
Song Ping, a 105-year-old veteran of the Communist Party of China and a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, also made a video appearance recently, saying that "reform and opening up is the only way for China's development." Song Ping's public appearance and remarks on reform and opening up before the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China have led to speculation whether he is intentionally questioning Xi Jinping's closed-door policy.
Xi’s bid for a third term won't be so easy
As a number of events, news, and rumors point to a possibility that Xi Jinping's power is being challenged (at least in part) by dissent and forces within the CCP, his bid for a third term won't be so easy or may not even be possible.
However, it is not difficult to notice that the CCP’s official propaganda agencies are still under the control of Xi‘s faction and continue to build momentum for Xi Jinping’s re-election. This also confirms from the side that the Xi faction does not have a complete chance of winning. If Xi's re-election is not a problem, then he doesn't need to build momentum. Since Xi needs to build momentum, it shows that his forces have not achieved their goals.
If Xi Jinping gets his wish and is re-elected at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, he will undoubtedly continue to serve as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CCP, President of China, and Chairman of the Military Commissions. But if Xi is not re-elected as General Secretary and Chairman of the Military Commissions, he may be able to retain the position of President, serving at least until the National People's Congress in March next year.
It can be concluded that whether Xi will be re-elected has not yet been decided. The dogfight is still in progress and even intensified. It cannot be ruled out that some unexpected events may occur in Beijing before the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which will make the situation turn sharply and become clear.
Compared with past party congresses, this year it is difficult to predict or guess who will be elected by the newly elected delegates to serve as members of the new Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee, and Central Committee of the CCP at the Congress on October 16.
Although there are various predictions, some from the Xi faction and some from anti-Xi factions, they are all far from each other, and there is no consistent prediction of personnel arrangements. This is completely different from the situation of the previous party congresses. Before the meeting, the inaccuracy of the list of high-level personnel of the Central Committee of the CCP showed that the Xi faction and the anti-Xi faction still have not reached a complete consensus or compromise on personnel arrangements. It seems that who will go up and who will go down will only be known after the party congress on October 16.
About the author:
Tao Peng, Ph.D., is a political scientist, independent political analyst, and editor-in-chief of the magazine Euro-Asia Strategic Analysis, and worked as an editorial writer and columnist for the daily newspaper World Journal in New York. His journalistic and political science works focus on themes of Chinese politics, international relations, and geopolitics.