Risks & Trends

‘Scenario Three: Leadership Challenge or Coup

Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS)

Richard McGregor | Lowy Institute
Jude Blanchette | Center for Strategic & International Studies
‘Scenario Three: Leadership Challenge or Coup
‘Scenario Three: Leadership Challenge or Coup
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After Xi

3

‘Scenario Three: Leadership Challenge or Coup

April 21, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘By removing de jure term limits on the office of the presidency — and thus far refusing to nominate his successor for this and his other leadership positions — Xi has solidified his own authority at the expense of the most important political reform of the last four decades: the regular and peaceful transfer of power.’
‘In doing so, he has pushed China towards a potential destabilising succession crisis, one with profound implications for the international order and global commerce.’

'In early 2018, without public notice, Xi Jinping abruptly removed de facto term limits on the most senior position of power, the head of the Communist Party, and thus far has refused to nominate his successor.'

  • 'In doing so, Xi made himself leader in perpetuity, at the expense of the most important, and successful, political reform in China of the last four decades: the regular and peaceful transfer of power at the top.'

'Xi inherited all three top jobs from his predecessor, Hu Jintao – as General-Secretary of the Communist Party, chair of the Central Military Commission, and as State President – in late 2012 and early 2013.'

  • 'If Xi had followed the precedent set by Hu, he would be preparing to step down as head of the CCP and the military, and as president at the Party Congress - held every five years - in late 2022.'

‘While the topic of leadership succession is not something Chinese officials are willing to discuss in public, the world has a huge stake in how China addresses this emerging problem.’

  • ‘After nearly nine years in office, Xi Jinping now stands as the overwhelmingly dominant figure in China’s political system, having gained command of the military, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) apparatus, and diplomatic and economic policymaking, all while sidelining or locking up rivals to his leadership.’

‘By removing de jure term limits on the office of the presidency — and thus far refusing to nominate his successor for this and his other leadership positions — Xi has solidified his own authority at the expense of the most important political reform of the last four decades: the regular and peaceful transfer of power.’

'Until Xi threw the process out, the new norms governing the handovers were seen as a turning point in Chinese politics.'

  • 'Indeed, the term limits in China were widely considered to have become entrenched, as they had worked so well in keeping the system stable while the economy grew.'  
  • 'The two - political stability and economic growth - seemed to reinforce each other.'

‘In doing so, he has pushed China towards a potential destabilising succession crisis, one with profound implications for the international order and global commerce.’

  • 'The longer he stays in office without preparing a successor, the greater the risk of a power struggle breaking out at the top of the party to take his place.'  

'How, then, might any succession play out, either in the short term, or later, if Xi stays in power for another decade?'

  • 'Is Xi akin to Stalin after the purges of the 1930s, a leader who has so thoroughly eliminated rivals and cowed the system that he will be in place until he can no longer perform the duties of office, leaving a succession battle in his wake?'
  • 'Or will the system produce a Newtonian reaction against his all-encompassing power, either pushing him out of office prematurely, or at least forcing him to set a timetable for his departure?'
  • Alternatively, is there a middle path, of an orderly succession in the next five to 10 years?'

'Xi has made enemies at home with the ruthless prosecution of his anti-corruption campaign, his crackdown on legal and media reformers, and his disdain for economic liberals.'

  • 'Nothing, however, angered his critics as much as his upending of the elite consensus governing power-sharing that had evolved over four decades and produced successive peaceful handovers of power.'  

Below are four scenarios, re-ordered to place them in order of destabilization.

Foreign Policy

China's Grand Strategy

2

2 | Blame It on Xi

Jun 3

Foreign Policy

China's Grand Strategy

3

3 | Enter the ‘Wolf Warriors’

Jun 3

Foreign Policy

China's Grand Strategy

4

4 | Why China Abandoned Its Grand Strategy

Jun 3

Foreign Policy

China's Grand Strategy

5

5 | Two Caveats

Jun 3

Foreign Policy

China's Grand Strategy

6

6 | The Risks & the Dangers

Jun 3

CHINADebate

CHINADebate

Malcolm Riddell

Founder of CHINADebate

China's Grand Strategy

0

Killing China's Grand Strategy

Jun 3

Project Syndicate

Columbia University

Shang-Jin Wei

Professor, Columbia University & former Chief Economist, Asian Development Bank

China's demographic challenges

5

'Sex and the Chinese Economy'

May 27

CHINADebate

China's demographic challenges

0

'Demography + Technology is Destiny'

May 27

Bloomberg

China's demographic challenges

2

'China: Births Falling'

May 27

Financial Times

China's demographic challenges

3

'Lousy demographics will not stop China’s rise'

May 27
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