One thing that was clear during China’s recently concluded high-level political meetings in Beijing is that Xi Jinping is the country’s uncontested leader and the most powerful this populous nation has seen in decades.
What is less certain, though, is what he seeks to do with that authority and whether it means he could be seeking a third term in office.
During the recent meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) — China’s rubber-stamp parliament and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the phrase of “Xi as core leader of the party” was used repeatedly, coming up before officials discussed a wide range of topics from the economy to the environment.
The title was not given to Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao — but Jiang Zemin also had it — and it puts him on par with former leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
It is a sign that regardless of length of term or retirement age, Xi will be around for a good time going forward, said China leadership analyst Willy Lam.
“So having been designated the core leader, that means he is virtually emperor for life, and that is the message Xi Jinping wants to tell the Chinese people and leaders of other countries, that he will be around to guide the realization of the Chinese Dream,” Lam said.
Succession is a drawn out and politically sensitive process in China. Since leadership transitions became more institutionalized in the early 2000s, top leaders have served two five-year terms as president. Later this year, in October or November, a party congress (the 19th) will be held.
That meeting will lead to a major reshuffle of the party’s central leadership and is a time, usually, when possible successors become more certain. However, with Xi in charge and "core" of the party, there is more uncertainty than ever about who may be next in line — if anyone.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University, said while Guizhou Party Secretary Chen Min’er is one individual who has been mentioned as a possible next in line candidate, some speculate that Xi could wait until closer to the end of his second term in office around 2022 to allow such a person to emerge.
“It remains to be seen whether Xi Jinping is going to promote anyone who will really be clearly identified as a successor,” Cabestan said. “The theory is that he wants to wait another five years before designating a successor.”
He adds that in the run up to the party congress later this year, a politically sensitive time, the emphasis on Xi as the core is likely to continue and intensify.
The 19th Party Congress will be a time of political reshuffle and members of the party’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, will be replaced. The standing committee is made up of anywhere between five and nine members. There is talk of Xi again shrinking it from the current seven down to five.
Out of those members, as many as four may be replaced, analysts said. Almost half of the politburo, a body of 25 members will need to be replaced because of age requirements and the same goes for the party’s powerful Central Military Commission.
Since rising to office in 2012, Xi has been steadily and aggressively consolidating his power. In addition to serving as president and head of the party and military, he is also the head of a number of other leading groups, including the Central National Security Commission and Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs.
And many analysts see this as a sign too that he plans to be in office for years to come.
“Xi Jinping is trying to get Putin-ized, as we say in China, and stay longer than his predecessors. Now, whether he is going to stay more than 10 years as president is another story because that would require an amendment of the constitution,” Cabestan said.
Lam agrees and said Xi sees himself as the Mao Zedong of the 21st Century.
“It looks like he wants to leave a big legacy, and that’s why he is, in a sense, emulating President Vladimir Putin, by giving himself a virtual office for life. So, it looks like he might remain the leader as long as he’s healthy,” he said
Cabestan said that what may happen is Xi could step down as president, but stay in charge of the Central Military Commission or some of the leading groups which he has set up including the Central National Security Commission.
At the NPC and CPPCC meetings, representatives had little to say about what China’s leadership might look like after the party congress. This was even though paving the way for the meetings success was mentioned numerous times during the meetings.
Third term OK
Some delegates that VOA spoke with just laughed or walked away when asked about the important and politically sensitive gathering. However, several did share their views on a possible third term for Xi.
“A third term?” delegate Li Yansheng asked rhetorically. “Of course he is the core. The party needs a core leader in order for it to flourish. The core can not be shaken.”
Most were supportive, but several highlighted the need to follow regulations.
“According to party regulations it is two terms,” said Luo Shaming. “I feel that he’s [Xi Jinping] doing a very good job.”
Zhao Yanfen said that while age is something to consider, Xi Jinping seems to be fine and have plenty of energy for the position.
“What is more important is whether a leader can really help promote a country’s development and the development of the world,” she said.
Zhao said that three terms is reasonable, but no longer than that.
“Three terms is the maximum. If a leader stays in office for more than three terms, there could be problems,” she said.