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Why a third term for Xi Jinping could mean uncertainty for China

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Xi Jinping is on the verge of achieving what was once fairly unexpected. Days from now, he will likely secure his third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party. He's had a relatively quiet year on the international stage ahead of this fall's 20th Party Congress, but many have already been contemplating what the implications will be for Xi's continued leadership.

One of those people is Yun Sun. She's a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. And she foresees a bolder Xi Jinping in the near future. She joins us now to discuss. Welcome.

YUN SUN: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Thank you for being with us. So let me ask you - Xi Jinping is entering his third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party. No other leader has had a third term like this since Mao Zedong, the founder of the People's Republic of China. Tell me - what does a third term for Xi signal to you about his hold over the Chinese Communist Party in this moment?

SUN: Well, it means that China has entered a new era, and it's really a piece of uncharted water compared to what we have seen in the past four decades. In the past four decades, per the 1982 Constitution, we knew that for sure China had a power transition plan for the leadership. So every 10 years, there is going to be a new leader, and there is a consensus-building process in terms of the selection of that leader. But now, by abandoning that practice and that tradition, Xi Jinping's third term means that we don't know what the future leadership transition in China will look like or how it will be determined. And that raises a lot of potential for instability or even power struggle and elite politics competition within the Chinese Communist Party.

CHANG: And what's interesting is, it has been a relatively politically trickier time for Xi Jinping lately, right? Like, can you talk about the effect that the zero-COVID policy and the resulting economic slowdown in China has had on Xi's influence?

SUN: Yes, indeed. 2022 has not been a good year for Xi Jinping. And especially if you consider the power transition and the third term that he has had his eyes on, 2022 is a terrible year. The Russian war in Ukraine also created a lot of uncertainty as well as embarrassment for China in terms of Xi Jinping's foreign policy. People ask questions - and how do you reach that no limit cooperation commitment with Putin? Did you know that Putin was going to invade Ukraine within three weeks of that joint statement? So this year has really being hard for Xi Jinping because he has to explain, despite all these hardships and all these strategic headwind that we have encountered this year, I still deserve this third term.

CHANG: Right.

SUN: My leadership is still warranted. My leadership is still the best option for the party and for the Chinese people. The Party Congress is celebrated, and Chinese people just hope that, well, let's conclude this Party Congress so that we can move forward, we can reduce some of the COVID-related restrictions and we can resume normal economic and social activities.

CHANG: I want to talk further about the global implications of a third term for Xi Jinping. What does his holding on to power mean specifically for U.S.-China relations, in your mind?

SUN: I think it means three things. The first one is that, with Xi Jinping inking his third term at the Party Congress, which means moving forward, he is not going to be distracted by this domestic political priority anymore. In the past five years, I would say Xi Jinping was aiming for this third term, but he had to prioritize how to convince the establishment within the party and convince the elderly leaders why it is a good idea to remove the term limit and why it is a good idea for him to violate the traditions that have been established. So moving forward, he's no longer going to be distracted by this political agenda, which is domestic primarily. So he's able to focus even more on implementing his foreign strategy and operationalizing his vision of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. That inevitably will lead to even more, I would say, contest for influence and a contest for leadership, contest for superiority with the United States.

And the other two factors within the party - after the 20th Party Congress and Xi Jinping secures his third term, he is going to appoint his political confidants and his political loyalists to all the key positions that are related to national security and the foreign policy because this is actually one of the area - compared to, for example, domestic reform and domestic economic policy, this is an area that Xi Jinping is going to prevail. These people are going to operationalize his vision and his strategy with even more momentum and more precision.

And that leads us to the third factor, which is dissenting views and the people who do not believe that Xi Jinping's current, for example, policy towards the United States is a good idea. Their voices are going to be eliminated from within the bureaucracy. So there is not going to be check and balance. There is not going to be a challenge to the assumptions and to the existing consensus within the bureaucracy. And these three factors are all going to, I believe, deepen Xi Jinping's boldness.

CHANG: Yun Sun is a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. Thank you very much for joining us.

SUN: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.