Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles In the entire history of the Soviet Union, there was not a single planned and peaceful leadership transition. Of the eight Communist Party Secretaries in the nearly seven decades between 1922 and 91, six ruled until they died, one was overthrown, and Gorbachev saw the dissolution of the entire state. In fact, there had never been a peaceful handover of power in any major Communist country… until the early 2000s, when Chinese leader Jiang Zemin voluntarily resigned. For the first time in the nation's history, there was no coup, no intrigue, no political infighting. Jiang Zemin even endorsed his successor, despite having not chosen him. No one was calling China a liberal democracy, but it seemed as though the days of one-man rule were finally over. Term limits were instituted. Anyone over the age of 68 was expected to retire. And each successive leader — from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao — was less powerful than the last. The phrase being floated around at the time was “intra-party democracy”. In other words, there may only be one party, but within it, there was plenty of room for healthy competition. From here on out, policies would be debated, leaders would rotate out, and the “best ideas” would win. …Then, one man — Xi Jinping — reversed all this progress. Xi is about to begin his third term in office. And with neither a designated successor nor hardly any competition, there's no end to his rule in sight. So, how did China revert from “intra-party democracy” to one-man rule in a single generation? How does any of this — the Chinese Communist Party — actually work? Sponsored by CuriosityStream and Nebula. Nebula is the only place you can watch all PolyMatter videos, including my ongoing series “China, Actually”. For just $15/year with the CuriosityStream and Nebula bundle, you can watch all five of those videos — over 90 minutes of exclusive content — and much more to come. Every five years — typically in October or November — about 2,300 people from across China travel to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for what's called the “National Party Congress”. This year, for example, is the 20th Party Congress, which began on October 16th, 2022. Because it's designed to appear representative of society, most of these 2,300 people — called “delegates” — are relatively low-ranking party members. They include everyone from farmers to celebrities, factory workers, and mayors. Likewise, to create the veneer of harmony, ethnic minorities are awkwardly paraded around in their traditional dress. The whole thing is a giant spectacle. There are giant red curtains with golden tassels and more clapping than an American State of the Union. The party takes no risks in the run-up to the country's most important political event. VPNs, which, although illegal, are ordinarily tolerated for use by foreigners and the technologically savvy — suddenly stop working. Dissenters are preemptively put under house arrest. Police patrols are doubled. And private businesses — both Chinese and foreign — are warned not to rain on the party's parade by making any major announcements. Yet, for all this showmanship, the actual event is exceptionally boring. It may be theater, but not the kind anyone would voluntarily watch. On the first day, for instance, the Party Secretary delivers a looong speech called the “Political Report”, reflecting on the past five years and setting the priorities for the next. It's here that you're reminded how incredibly Leninist the Communist Party still very much remains. Rather than specific policies or plans, you might hear about the “Three Represents”, “Four Comprehensives”, or “strengthening of confidences”. It's only by deciphering these vague slogans that China-watchers infer where the country is headed. It's an entire language of its own. After this, the 2,300 delegates, quote, “study” the speech, and inevitably accept it without challenge. That's because the real decisions have been made much earlier. Although the party doesn't acknowledge this fact, officials meet in secret at a summer resort east of Beijing in August. The second item on the agenda is to amend the party's constitution. Again, no laws are being written here, only ideological statements. In 2017, for example, Xi Jinping's name was added — implying that he's not just another politician, but a great figure in party history. Finally, at the end of this week comes by far the most important task, when delegates “elect” members of the Central Committee. “Elect” in quotes because, remember, almost everything has already been decided. In 2017, delegates had 222 candidates to choose from for 204 seats, giving them the option to reject just 9%. Those 204 people then became members of the Central Committee, the next level up in the party hierarchy. There are almost as many “alternates'', who attend meetings but aren't allowed to vote. They can replace full members when they die or lose their positions. The Central Committee meets at least once a year in what's called a “plenum” — and the first plenum occurs the day after the Party Congress ends. This year, on October 23rd. Their most important task is to elect members of the 25-member Political Bureau — or Politburo — another level up in the party hierarchy. The Politburo, in turn, “elects” a Standing Committee of usually 7 or 9 people — one of which is the General Secretary of the Party. In this case, Xi Jinping. Notice the phrase “General Secretary”, not “President”. China is a Party-State, which means it has a government and a single ruling party. The two mirror each other in many ways, but they aren't the same. The state, confusingly, has its own version of the National Party Congress called the National People's Congress. And to make things even more confusing, multiple parties participate in the People's Congress — not just the Communist Party. But they're all members of a single “United Front”, which means they co-exist, not compete with the CCP. Anyway, just as the Party congress helps elect a General Secretary every 5 years in the Fall on the Party side, the People's congress elects the country's President and Premier every 5 years in the Spring on the State side. Though, don't think of the party and state as entirely separate, either — there's lots of overlap. Virtually everyone working for the Chinese state is a Party member, but not all Party members work for the state. Afterall, there are nearly 100 million party members. As General Secretary, Xi Jinping is head of the Party. And as President, he's head of state. These are two different roles that could be filled by two different people. But they're not, which gives him the choice of which to use at any given moment. When Xi visits a foreign country — unless that country is, say, Communist Cuba, or North Korea — he does so as the “President” of China. That's technically true — he is, in fact, the President. But there's a growing movement in favor of always calling him “General Secretary”. In China, the Party is above the state. The People's Liberation Army reports directly to the Party, not the government. A city's Party Secretary is given the license plate number “1”, and its mayor, “2”. Trivial as this may sound, it is telling. The CCP even has its own, separate justice system. In other words, Xi Jinping's most important titles are General Secretary and head of the military, not President, which is mostly a ceremonial role. The common use of “President”, many argue, is a deliberate strategy on China's part to obscure the Party's importance. It wants to appear to investors like any other country, not one where your private property might be confiscated for political reasons. But, in truth, even the title “General Secretary” is a bit misleading. In most countries, a person's position in government is what makes them powerful. Joe Biden is powerful because and — (for the most part) — only because he's the President of the United States. Sure, former Presidents are celebrities, but fame is not to be confused with power. This all probably sounds exceptionally obvious. But it's not true in China. Take an example: Have you ever heard or seen a photo of Deng Xiaoping? What about Zhao Ziyang? Chances are the answer is 'yes' to the first question and 'no' to the second. Deng is the iconic pioneer of China's reform era, while Zhao is forgotten by all but students of history. Yet Deng Xiaoping was never General Secretary, Zhao was. Instead, Deng is referred to as a “Paramount Leader”, an informal nickname, not an official position. When Deng famously traveled to Shenzhen calling for more economic reform, he was 87 years old and fully retired yet powerful enough to steer the country's direction. You don't need any specific title to wield considerable political power in China — even the most political power — and, conversely, neither does holding any specific title guarantee power. The “watershed” moment in Chinese history, when Jiang Zemin peacefully handed over power to Hu Jintao in 2002, is not quite what it seems. In reality, Jiang quietly stayed on as head of the military until he was heavily pressured to step down in 2004. Like China's “embrace” of Capitalism, the party's conformity to consistent rules and norms has always been a mix of both our wishful thinking and their skillful performance. Even age limits — which were seen as a positive sign that no one would be allowed to rule forever, turned out to merely be a way for Jiang Zemin to purge his rivals. And the limit has been broken when convenient since. When China made headlines in 2018 for removing term limits, that was for the office of President. There have never been term limits on Party Secretaries, meaning Xi Jinping could've already stayed in power indefinitely. What all this means is that in China, power isn't automatically conferred by office — it has to be won. Its leaders generally arrive relatively weak and slowly try to consolidate authority over time. It took Jiang Zemin nearly six years to wrestle control after being named General Secretary. Hu Jintao arguably never did. What makes Xi Jinping unique is not so much his hunger for power but the speed with which he acquired it. As we've seen, there were very few actual rules preventing him from accumulating power.