With Donald Trump’s shock election as US President and political instability spreading throughout Asia, Europe and the Middle East, veteran China watcher Willy Wo-Lap Lam has doubled down on his prediction that Xi Jinping will extend his stay as China’s top political and military leader by another five years to 2027. And possibly longer.
Xi is actively amassing power ahead of the completion of his widely assumed 10-year term in office in 2022, Lam said in an interview by phone and email from his Hong Kong base. The risk is that it will intensify infighting within the Communist Party of China (CPC) later on that could lead to its radical change and even demise.
“Unexpected things could happen between now and 2027 to change arrangements in a radical fashion. The party may not even exist beyond 2027,” said the adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Jamestown Foundation.
Xi is demanding greater personal control of the country’s destiny as well as a much longer stay in power to expedite China’s rise as the world’s leading superpower in place of the United States. He has emerged as China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaopeng in the 1980s with ambitions exceeding even those of the communist nation’s founder, Mao Zedong.
Lam said he expects Xi to bulldoze his way to a third term as head of the communist party and military as well as president of the country. At the CPC’s sixth plenum in October, Xi added to his CV the title of “core leader” that gives him final veto power over major decisions.
“He is aiming to become China’s new emperor,” said Lam, implying that the 63-year-old leader is positioning to exceed Mao as China’s most powerful leader.
Break from the post-Mao order
Lam, a former journalist who has been following Chinese politics for more than three decades, made headlines early last year with his startling observation that Xi was manoeuvring to extend his stay beyond the assumed two five-year terms for China’s leaders in the post-Mao era. While Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, stepped down after serving 10 years in office, the maximum two-term tenure is not firmly spelt out in China’s constitution.
Xi is about to break the world’s understanding of China’s post-Mao order “with impunity,” said Lam.
Initially met by silence and skepticism from other China observers, Lam’s thesis has gained credence as well as growing endorsement in recent months.
Citing various scholars and sources, The New York Times, AFP and The Economist, among others, have followed Lam’s line of argument that Xi’s likely successor may not be named to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) at the CPC’s next National Congress in late 2017. This is an important move as the likely candidates must be inducted into the innermost ruling circle to serve for at least five years before they are ready to become China’s next President and Premier in 2022.
“The significance of having no obvious successor in the PSC (is that) it will guarantee Xi’s rule until 2027,” said Lam, who has written books on Xi, several of his predecessors and the next generation of Chinese leaders.
Xi sees himself as China’s savior in the face of challenges that he deems are far bigger and more threatening than those encountered by Mao and Deng in the last century, Lam said. Mao led China to unification and independence in 1949 after decades of fighting domestic and foreign enemies while Deng survived three purges to transform an impoverished Soviet-modeled China into a booming market economy under one-party communist rule.
Today, China faces a vastly different set of geopolitical and economic threats including mass terrorism, rising anti-globalization populism, breakdown of free trade, growing wealth divide, environmental degradation and worsening global economic prospects. In response, Xi has launched his US$1.4 trillion “one belt one road” (OBOR) initiative to link up the economies of some 65 countries and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to rival the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank in funding major development projects.
Xi’s China itself has added to the world’s geopolitical risks by making territorial claims over the South China Sea, expanding into the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, and building up its military to push back against what it sees are US attempts to check its rise.
Xi has floated his “China Dream” with hazy goals of political, economic and cultural achievements to mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of the CPC’s founding in 2021 and the 100th anniversary of China’s independence in 2049.
While he likely won’t be alive in 2049, Xi, who was born in 1953, wants China to either match or exceed the US as the world’s leading superpower by then, said Lam.
“You can see why he wants all these powers now and to remain in charge for so long,” said Lam, who is a year older than Xi.
Donald Trump, the Black Swan
China may soon regret its preference for Trump over Hilary Clinton as the maverick President-elect fired a warning shot with his protocol-breaking 10-minute phone conversation with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen on December 2.
Like many others, China has found out that the unpredictable Trump loves to stomp on traditions such as US President-elects not speaking directly with Taiwan. China regards Taiwan not as an independent country but a renegade province that must be reunited with the motherland.
According to Lam, many in Beijing had assumed Trump’s priority would be trade and economic issues. He was thought to have less interest in Asia’s geopolitics than Clinton or Obama that would leave China with a freer hand to deal with its neighbors.
The phone conversation with President Tsai, along with Trump’s appointments of hardliners and former military officials to his Cabinet, has destroyed those assumptions. Sino-US relations could be set for years of friction, strengthening Xi’s case for expanding his powers in the run-up to the CPC’s 19th National Congress in late 2017, said Lam.
The contrarian view
Not everyone agrees with this analysis.
In separate interviews, two other China watchers suggest Xi’s hold on power could weaken, rather than strengthen, if conditions worsen on both the domestic and international fronts.
Timothy Cheek, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Institute of Asian Research and History Department, does not think Xi will achieve his goal of a third term, assuming he’s interested.
According to Cheek, Xi “isn’t that powerful” and lacks the legendary status of Mao and Deng who had put their lives on the line to achieve their revolutionary goals.
“Deng went through wars, survived three purges and was personally touched by Mao,” he said, whereas Xi climbed to the top mostly by winning at party politics against his colleagues.
Cheek thinks Xi already faces enormous opposition from party insiders and the military who increasingly fear his ambition and do not share his expansionist agenda.
David Kelly, research director at the Beijing-based consulting firm China Policy, wonders why Xi would take on so much risk for a third and even fourth term in power.
Such a naked attempt at further power grab would jeopardize not only his own political standing and safety, but the country as well, he said.
Still, Kelly said he won’t dismiss Lam’s analysis, especially given the high level of uncertainty created by the incoming Trump Presidency and geopolitical developments around the world.
Kelly said there’s some basis for Lam’s reading as Beijing has been rife with discussion and speculation about Xi’s growing powers, especially following his ousting of formidable rivals in recent years.
Lam points to Xi’s actions and ambitious agenda as evidence for what’s to come.
“He needs more time and more power to accomplish his long list of grandiose plans,” said Lam.
But Xi has also put himself into a vicious cycle where he is forced to amass more power to ward off his growing list of enemies. He has jailed powerful opponents like former security czar Zhou Yongkang, the first PSC member to be arrested and convicted of corruption and abuse of power, and Bo Xilai, an aspiring politburo member who was gaining popularity by reviving Maoism.
Lam acknowledges Trump’s presidency could provide the inflection points that will influence Xi’s prospects.
“Xi’s enemies are waiting for him to make mistakes. He is now the chairman of everything, setting policies as well as running the government. If the economy fails, or if there are incidents in the South China Sea, it will all fall on him. He cannot blame anyone else,” said Lam.
“This will provide the opportunity for his enemies to unite and hit back.”
If China has to back down in a confrontation with the US, Lam predicts Xi will lose political standing at home.
Trump, the deal maker, could well turn out to be China’s kingmaker at the CPC’s 19th National Congress next year.