When Chinese President Xi Jinping earned the designation of China’s “core” leader in October, speculation ran rampant about whether Xi was laying the groundwork for an extended period of strongman rule, even after his second term expires in 2022. New reporting from The Wall Street Journal suggests that prospect is increasingly likely:
Now, as he nears the end of his first five-year term, many party insiders say Mr. Xi is trying to block promotion of a potential successor next year, suggesting he wants to remain in office after his second term expires in 2022, when he would be 69 years old.
Mr. Xi, who is president, party chief and military commander, “wants to keep going” after 2022 and to explore a leadership structure “just like the Putin model,” says one party official who meets regularly with top leaders. Several others with access to party leaders and their relatives say similar things. […]
Mr. Xi’s efforts to secure greater authority may help ensure political stability in the short run, as an era-defining economic boon starts to falter. But they risk upending conventions developed since Mao’s death to allow flexibility in government and ensure a regular and orderly transition of power.
The true test of Xi’s ambition will come at the Party Congress next year, when he will have a chance to refresh the ranks of the party leadership. Early signs suggest that he will stack the Politburo and the Central Committee with loyalists to make the party more disciplined and personally loyal; he could also downgrade the role of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee to facilitate a stronger presidential system. In any case, it seems that China is continuing to move away from its post-Mao rule by committee, a system formed in response to the horrible and murderous abuses that occurred periodically under Mao’s untrammeled rule, and back toward one-person rule.
Xi’s apparent interest in a Putin-style leadership model also points to a wider phenomenon. All over the world, including in the U.S., the trend is away from the anonymous rule of technocrats and experts and toward rule by strong personalities. Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, and Abe in Japan are all manifestations of the trend, each embracing an unapologetic nationalism while projecting an image as a tough and decisive leader. Xi is already a member of that club, but his ongoing power consolidation could further cement his status among the ranks of the strong-willed leaders who are increasingly driving the global agenda these days.