Xi Jinping’s Year of Living Dangerously

It might seem ludicrous to suggest that Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao, could be in trouble. But looks can be deceiving: the true test of Xi's authority will come in later this year, when the Chinese Communist Party holds it 19th National Congress to select China's next leaders.

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CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – It might seem ludicrous to suggest that Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao, will be in danger in 2017. But looks can be deceiving, and his consolidation of power may not be as unassailable as it seems. The test will come this year, when the Chinese Communist Party holds its 19th National Congress to select a new team of leaders to serve under Xi.

To be sure, since becoming CCP General Secretary in November 2012, Xi has made great strides in establishing his own authority. With a sustained anti-corruption campaign, Xi has jailed more than 200 senior officials and generals – many of them members of rival factions. Unable to mount an effective counter-offensive, Xi’s rivals have watched him elevate his own supporters to key party posts.

But that might change at 2017’s party congress. Though Xi is guaranteed a second five-year term, he could struggle to overcome opposition to a series of personnel decisions that he is expected to make – or refuse to make.

In the post-Tiananmen era, the CCP has avoided destabilizing power struggles by designating the next president and prime minister years before power is actually handed over. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping picked Hu Jintao to take over in 2002. In 2007, the party’s top leaders agreed to anoint Xi as Hu’s successor, five years before the latter’s term expired.