China's Xitocracy

How It's Undermining the Deng Consensus in Beijing

China's President Xi Jinping arrives for the second plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, March 9, 2016. Damir Sagolj / Reuters

The Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress, which is held every five years, was once considered a dull affair, recalling images of old men dozing through long speeches. That changed in 2012, when an intense intraparty competition before the 18th National Congress led to a diplomatic incident at a U.S. consulate. It involved a Chinese official who sought asylum for having confronted Bo Xilai, a rising-star Politburo member whose wife was later implicated in the murder of a British businessman. That was followed by a Ferrari crash in Beijing that killed a senior official’s son and rumors of a coup attempt. The prelude to this fall’s 19th National Congress seems unlikely to be so dramatic. But with the July dismissal of Chongqing’s party chief Sun Zhengcai, who is under investigation by the party’s disciplinary watchdog, the atmosphere is tense. As one of only two next-generation leaders on the party’s Politburo, Sun was at least tentatively earmarked to succeed President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang at the 20th National Congress in 2022. His ouster comes amid other signs that Xi’s pre-congress maneuvering is getting more aggressive, and it changes key calculations on who gets promoted—decisions that will shape China’s leadership for at least a decade.

The question of leadership in China may seem a moot point—many observers already see Xi as the all-powerful “new Mao.” This assessment masks growing uncertainty, however, about two fundamental factors behind China’s remarkable achievements over the past quarter century: elite leadership cohesion underpinned by limits on power and a capacity for transformative economic restructuring that prioritizes pragmatism over ideology. These are the key features of a system built by the architect of modern China, Deng Xiaoping. At stake now is whether Xi can dominate the system without destroying it. How far will he seek to monopolize power? Will he tackle economic challenges in his second term as tenaciously as he tackled internal political ones in his first?

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