As the 19th Party Congress approaches, there is widespread speculation that the party constitution will be revised to incorporate concepts associated with party General Secretary Xi Jinping as part of the party’s authoritative “guiding ideology.” Although such a revision is possible, analysis of changes in past constitutions and available evidence from PRC media suggest a more limited outcome.
Since taking over in November 2012, he has emerged as the most powerful leader of the country in recent times. Mr. Xi 63 currently heads a seven-member Standing Committee of the CPC which virtually rules China. Since he was elected as General Secretary of the party in November 2012, Mr. Xi systematically consolidated power both in the party and the military by carrying out a massive anti-corruption drive breaking established norms like not prosecute retired leaders and officials. Mr. Xi now looks to amend the party structure to continue beyond the 10 year period stipulated by the party. His tenure is set to end in 2022. A study published by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School shows Xi had the highest approval rating among his own people than any other world leader. And Xi came out the top of the international rankings where people were asked to rate other country’s leaders.
Xi Jinping, son of Xi Zhongxun, a confederate of Mao, is a “princeling” of the bluest blood but shows no particular sign of intellectual acumen. He found himself at the top in China at a time when the country was facing crisis on many fronts: vaulting inequality and corruption, both of which were made increasingly visible to a restive public because of a spreading Internet; a slowing economy, made more worrisome by the looming threat of bad loans and a real-estate bubble; environmental pollution serious enough to threaten not only health but political stability; and a deep cynicism and lack of public trust within the populace.
The primary aim of the Communist Party is to remain in power, for which maintaining the country’s stability and pre-emptively eliminating threats to its political supremacy are deemed essential. The way, party governs must be reformed in order to pre-empt public demands for Western-style democratization. The Party is committed to seeking, responding to and directing public opinion. Rapid growth and economic development must be sustained by whatever means. A brand of nationalism must be promoted that instills a sense of national pride by championing the greatness of China’s history and the progress it has made under the Communist Party since it came to power in 1949.
By that time Xi has completed his two terms as President in the autumn of 2022 the Communist Party will have celebrated its centenary (2021), and the People’s Republic of China will have outlasted the Soviet Union by four years. These forthcoming landmarks are important points of reference for Xi. As China’s leader, Xi is committed to pre-empt a Soviet-style implosion and to revive the Party and the country during his watch. In fact, Xi’s outward confidence belies an acute sense of insecurity. He feels he needs to exert a high level of control over the Party in order to make the reforms that China needs. He has set out along the long road to reform but progress is slow and he still does not have the power to speed up the journey.
In 2016 Chinese New Year, Xi joined other “red pilgrims” in mountainous Jinggangshan where Mao established his first revolutionary base in 1927, and where Xi was televised sharing a meal with peasants in front of a pious poster of Chairman Mao. A new video of a dance called “Uncle Xi in love with Mama Peng” has been viewed more than 300,000 times, although a revisionist song comparing Xi to Mao, The East is Red Again, has been deleted from the internet.
Besides this, The “core” leader title marks a significant strengthening of Xi’s position ahead of a key party congress next year, at which a new Standing Committee, the pinnacle of power in China, will be constituted. While head of the party, the military and the state, Xi had not previously been given the title “core”. Deng coined the phrase “core” leader. He said Mao, himself and Jiang Zemin were core leaders, meaning they had the almost absolute authority and should not be questioned. The once-every-five-years congress will be held in the second half of 2017 and Xi will be looking to stack the Standing Committee with as many of his own people as possible.
By assessing the recent past precedent, Xi should step down at the 2022 congress after a decade at the top, but speculation in leadership circles has swirled that he may try and stay on, perhaps giving up the post as president but remaining as party leader, the more senior of the posts. In its turgid statement, the party also announced changes to the Rules on Intra-Party-Political Life, first introduced in 1980 to prevent any cult of personality after Mao’s rule plunged the country into anarchy during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. But it gave no detailed explanation on how the rules would change.
Xi has taken charge even of the leading group for economic affairs which is normally headed by the premier thereby sidelining Li. He has reorganized military structures and has put himself in direct command. Xi has been helped by rising inequalities, overcapacity of production, skilled manpower, foreign exchange reserves, rapidly aging population and externals challenges from terrorism, climate change, protectionism, and US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un making the CCP seek stronger leadership.
The 19th Party Congress will select about 200 people to run China for the next five years, from army generals to executives from China’s biggest state-run conglomerates. A week of pageantry culminates when President Xi Jinping and the handful of other leaders on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee walk onto a red-carpeted stage to present themselves to the world. The Standing Committee meets weekly to approve all major decisions. The larger Politburo gathers every month. Bigger still is the Central Committee, which assembles at least once a year to ratify broad policy shifts.
The governors, mayors and party chiefs of politically sensitive areas have received promotions more often than their peers in wealthier, more economically important provinces. So Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, which were all led by Xi at some point, all get credit for producing a future Politburo member. But the most pressing question is: How far will President Xi succeed in imprinting his decisions on China’s future leadership? When Xi was elected as the general secretary in 2012, the Standing Committee and Politburo members were not selected according to his choice. His predecessors (Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao) were openly seen pushing for their proteges.
A key test of the extent of Xi’s power grab comes in next week when the new Politburo Standing Committee is unveiled at the National Party Congress, which starts on October 18. This leadership overhaul will be watched closely for any signs of whether the Chinese leader is grooming a successor. The absence of younger players like Sun on the Standing Committee could signal Xi is looking to stay on as the country’s top leader beyond his two five-year terms which end in 2022.
Since the 18th CPC National Congress in 2012, “comprehensively and strictly governing the Party” has been included in the strategic blueprint, and efforts have been made to manage the party stringently and carefully, according to Xi. Socialism with Chinese characteristics marked the new era of development under the leadership of XI the strongest person after chairman Mao in the history of China.
Co-Author: Shahid Saleem, MPhil Candidate in Defense and Strategic Studies (DSS), Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy and position of Regional Rapport.