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Even Xi Jinping would struggle to change Communist Party’s unspoken code

President Xi Jinping is widely believed to model himself on Mao Zedong. And to consolidate his power and strengthen control of the Communist Party, he must have taken to heart one of Mao’s famous quotes, which has already guided profound changes for China:

“There is no construction without destruction, no flowing without damming and no motion without rest: the two are locked in a life-and-death struggle.”

That excerpt came from Mao’s famous speech in Yanan in 1940 entitled “On New Democracy”.

The particular phrase of “no construction without destruction” originally alluded to sweeping away imperialist and feudal culture, but Mao and his followers would later use it to justify drastic breaks from tradition.

Since Xi came to power, he has displayed surprising tenacity and determination to break with the informal and unwritten rules which have governed the murky world of Chinese politics in the last three decades.

The first obvious sign was that he wasted no time consolidating his power as the core of the leadership, taking decisive steps to break from the rule by consensus introduced by his predecessor Hu Jintao. After launching the unprecedented anti-graft campaign to target both high-flying officials and low-ranking bureaucrats, Xi also broke the unspoken rule that current or former members of the Politburo Standing Committee – China’s highest decision-making body – were exempt from criminal probes. He launched a high-profile investigation against Zhou Yongkang, a former member in charge of law and order during Hu’s era. Zhou was later jailed for life on corruption charges.

More significantly, Xi has presided over one of the biggest clean-ups of the armed forces in recent history by having dozens of generals investigated and jailed for corruption. The massive restructure of the People’s Liberation Army, and creation of new fighting units, used to be thought impossible because of vested interests.

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As he dispenses with ingrained informal conventions and builds up his own power base, speculation has swirled over whether Xi would dismantle similarly unspoken rules involving one of the most sensitive issues in Chinese politics, the leadership succession.

China’s own election cycle has started, and will culminate in the changes near the top in autumn next year when the party convenes its 19th congress in which a new Politburo Standing Committee will be appointed.

Another unspoken rule says leaders aged 67 or under can stay in the Politburo and its Standing Committee for another five years, while those 68 or older must retire. No senior leader stays on the same job for more than two consecutive terms.

Under the rule, only Xi, 63, and Premier Li Keqiang, 61, will remain for another five years while the other five on the Standing Committee will step down, along with more than half of the 25 Politburo members.

Given Xi’s ambitions and rapid consolidation of power, some suggest he should change the retirement and term rule for top leaders to build up a stronger team for his second term, which ends in 2022.

There’s also talk about the future of Wang Qishan, one of China’s most politically savvy leaders and widely seen as a strong Xi ally. A Politburo Standing Committee member, Wang heads the anti-graft campaign, one of Xi’s most important missions, with astounding success.

But he will be 69 next year, and murmurs have risen in the corridors of the power that an exception should be made so he can serve another term, because of his anti-graft achievements, but also for his economic acumen.

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If Wang were allowed to stay on, the theory goes, a precedent would be set, which would eventually help Xi to build his power and popularity to break with the norm and stay on past 2022.

With the 19th congress just a year away, these murmurs have gained strength in recent weeks, particularly in the run-up to the annual plenum of the party’s central committee, scheduled to begin on October 24.

The leadership has already announced the upcoming plenum will focus on discussing and approving a new code of conduct to govern party officials’ behaviour, particularly the senior officials.

But given the secrecy of Chinese politics, foreign media has inevitably started to speculate on what will be discussed off the agenda at the annual plenum, particularly involving the possibility of leadership changes. Some local media even suggested that the leadership could find time to discuss its preferred candidate for the next Hong Kong chief executive.

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But all those suggestions sound implausible. If history is any guide, discussions of leadership changes are usually done off-site before being tabled at formal meetings like the plenum. And since rallying the party elite around him to approve the new code of conduct is a key part of Xi’s mission to institutionalise his fight on corruption, it is unlikely he would let the potentially disruptive issue of leadership changes distract from his main agenda.

Key personnel decisions are usually argued and agreed upon close to the congress, probably in the informal Beidaihe meeting next summer. As for Hong Kong’s next leader, some observers may overestimate the significance of Hong Kong. The change of chief executive doesn’t merit the discussion and approval of the plenum but is most likely the prerogative of the party’s overseers of Hong Kong and Macau affairs.

As for Xi staying past 2022, there isn’t much evidence to support the idea. Changing the rules would be risky, and trigger intense political infighting which goes against Xi’s intention to strengthen the party’s control and legitimacy.

And besides, those unspoken rules have helped institutionalise the fraught leadership succession which has hobbled the party leadership since its inception. Xi may have become most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping and Mao but there is a limit even to his creative destruction.

All this speculation may come from Xi’s supporters, who believe their man the best leader to steer the country onward, using foreign media to test the waters.

But more intriguingly, they may also come from his detractors. After all, it has become a fine tradition for different party factions to feed overseas reporters suggestions of some developments they don’t want to see, hoping to nip them in the bud.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper