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After Mao Zedong died, Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues sought to prevent “the overconcentration of power” by introducing fixed terms of office, term limits, and a mandatory retirement age; delegating authority from the Communist Party to government agencies; and holding regular meetings of Party institutions. All these moves were designed to decentralize authority, regularize political life and check dictatorial power. The centerpiece of the institutionalization project was the practice of regular peaceful leadership succession followed by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Regular premortem leadership succession was a rare achievement in a communist system and the most important source of China’s “authoritarian resilience.” Yet today, Xi Jinping is taking China back to a personalistic dictatorship after decades of institutionalized collective leadership. He has clearly signaled his intention to remain in office after his normal two terms end in 2022. This article analyzes the reasons why the institutional rules and precedents laid down since Deng Xiaoping’s time failed to prevent the emergence of another strongman leader like Mao Zedong.