At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, the new Politburo Standing Committee of China’s ruling Communist party will be revealed for the entire world to see, headed by President Xi Jinping. Within this new line up of China’s most powerful men is expected to be Xi’s successor, who will assume the presidency in 2022, once Xi Jinping finishes his two terms. Recent reports from within the party apparatus however indicate that President Xi, already China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, has delayed announcing an heir.

If verified, these reports will confirm what many observers have long suspected; that the "paramount leader" seeks to maintain his grip on power until 2027. Whilst the office of president is explicitly limited to two terms under the constitution, no such limits are in place for Xi Jinping’s likeliest means of retaining power, namely by remaining Party Secretary of the Communist Party. The system based on the concept of “first among equals” installed by Deng Xiaoping is already straining under Xi’s program of consolidating power around himself. His staying on beyond 2022 would be an unprecedented move in China’s post-Mao history.

A decade ago when Hu Jintao assumed the presidency, his immediate predecessor Jiang Zemin remained on for a year as Chair of the Central Military Commission before eventually stepping down. Whilst Jiang retained though cronyism a high degree of influence within the Communist Party, he was never in a position to govern via proxy. Thus Hu Jintao, whilst regarded as one of China’s weaker presidents, nonetheless retained a degree of control over the system.

Xi Jinping however may seek to go beyond simply influence through cronyism and attempt to emulate China’s last strongman Deng Xiaoping. In spite of stepping down as Chairman of the Central Military Commission in 1989, and retiring fully in 1992, Deng was widely viewed as the power behind the throne until his death in 1997. Thus Xi may seek a similar path.

An unprecedented consolidation of power

Since adopting the presidency in the annus mirabilis of 2012, Xi Jinping has consolidated considerable amounts of personal power. In the last few years he has marginalised his own Prime Minister Li Keqiang and other politburo members. President Xi chairs multiple policy planning committees that direct China’s foreign policy, notably having a direct say in ‘core areas of interest’ such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. In 2013, Xi also created two new committees, the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (CLGCDR) and the Central National Security Commission (CNSC), giving him greater personal control over China’s internal security and economic policy.

Importantly, Xi has also broken the unwritten rule within the Communist Party by arresting figures close to his predecessors. In a widespread and comprehensive anti-corruption campaign, Xi has arrested the likes of Ling Jihua, a prominent former aide to Hu Jintao, for corruption and dismantled former president Jiang Zemin’s tributary network. In what has been referred to as the ‘tigers and flies’ campaign, over a million Chinese officials have been arrested alongside key players such as former Politburo member and Jiang loyalist Zhou Yongkang.

The arrest of Zhou is particularly significant, given his stature within the CCP as a former politburo member responsible for China’s internal security.

With key allies of Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin marginalised and arrested, Xi has in the last three years ensured that the vacuum has been filled with his own allies. By creating a power base of his own within the Chinese system, Xi has been able to challenge Jiang Zemin’s grip and become the first leader since Deng Xiaoping to be designated the Communist Party’s “Core Leader”.

Nowhere has this been more plainly demonstrated than through the consolidation of Xi’s political control of the People’s Liberation Army. Although officially subject to the will of the party, in reality the military has long enjoyed a degree of autonomy and is riven with internal factionalism. President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign however is breaking up the old monopolies that Hu Jintao had little control over. Thousands of personnel including hundreds of senior officers and generals have been purged and arrested.

Xi is also pushing through strident reforms of the PLA’s force structure. China’s seven military regional commands based at Shenyang, Beijing, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Lanzhou have been disbanded, replaced instead with five new theatre commands. Though presented as an effort to streamline the PLA, these reforms have also broken up the power networks within those commands, ensuring no single regional commander can maintain cadres and networks of loyal officers that operate outside the Communist Party’s hierarchy.

Xi’s new rank, awarded in April 2016, which refers to him as the PLA’s commander-in-chief, was a clear signal intended for a domestic audience. By using a rank not seen since the Korean War and one not used by either Mao or Deng Xiaoping, President Xi is stating clearly that the PLA is under his control.

Xi’s influence ahead of the 19th Party Congress

With Xi now the Core Leader and Commander in Chief of the PLA, he has it seems a strong position ahead of the 19th Party Congress in 2017. Here the CCP rules on age play to Xi Jinping’s advantage. Five of the seven current members of the Politburo Standing Committee are aged 69 or over and will be forced to retire in 2017. This removes figures chosen by Jiang Zemin, notably Liu Yunshan, most often cited as Xi’s principal rival due to his close ties to Jiang.

This leaves Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang as the two figures who will continue through the CCP’s selection process.

In contrast to previous transition processes, President Xi has not publicly indicated any potential successors who will be elevated to the Politburo. Within the Communist Party, the transition process is generational. Xi and Premier Li are members of the fifth generation of leaders born in the 1950s, who should elevate potential successors born from 1960 to 1979, the 6th and 7th generation respectively.

By contrast Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, the 4th generation’s paramount leader, had indicated as early as 2005 that Xi Jinping, at that point Zhejiang’s party secretary and Li Keqiang, then Liaoning province party secretary, would be elevated to the Politburo in 2007’s 17th Party Congress. In Xi’s case, he was moved to the highly prestigious role of Shanghai party chief.

If Xi were keeping to this tradition, we would expect to see rising stars from China’s sixth generation being placed in key positions of power ahead of their ascension in 2022. Instead, fifth generation figures, effectively peers of Xi Jinping, are being elevated to the roles of regional party secretaries.

Since 2012, party secretaries Guo Jinlong of Beijing, Chen Quanguo of Xinjiang, Li Hongzhong of Tianjin, Sun Zhengcai of Chongqing, Han Zheng of Shanghai and Hu Chunhua of Guangdong have all risen in prominence. All bar Sun Zhengcai were born in the 1950s and many were leading advocates in calling for Xi to be named as the Communist Party’s Core Leader.

Establishing the runners and riders within the Communist system is notoriously difficult due to the opaque nature of China’s government. However, elevation to the position of Party Secretary of major urban areas such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, the massive export hub of Guangdong and Xinjiang are important signals. Absent a scandal, such as the one which destroyed Bo Xilai, the former Party Secretary of Chongqing, the probability is high that these candidates are destined at some point for a seat in the Politburo.

The fact that it is China’s fifth generation leaders who are being elevated to power, thus remaining the base of the Communist Party’s leadership until the 20th Party Congress in 2022, reflects the clearest indication yet that Xi Jinping will seek to retain power in some form until 2027.

As previously stated, predictions are always risky concerning the CCP but come the 19th Party Congress in 2017, a strong indicator that Xi has successfully solidified his powerbase would be the removal of Premier Li Keqiang, the sole remaining ally of Hu Jintao on the current Politburo Standing Committee.

Under previous traditions Li would serve the full 10-year term until 2022. However he is widely viewed as isolated within Xi’s administration, following the turmoil in 2015 and early 2016 in China’s stock markets. There is speculation that Wang Qishan, a serving Politburo member and the key head of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, may replace Li in 2017, in violation of rules requiring Wang to retire. Although technically ranked sixth in the Politburo, in terms of influence the 69-year-old is widely regarded as second only to the Chinese president.

If Wang is indeed elevated we would then expect a successor to Xi as president to be positioned ahead of 2022. Xi would then remain on as Communist Party Secretary and likely continue chairing the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (CLGCDR) and the Central National Security Commission (CNSC), thus retaining his personal control over internal security and domestic economic policy.

This article was originally published in CPI Analysis. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article.

TNL Editor: Edward White