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Xi Jinping’s formidable powers could mean little in today’s China

Xi Jinping’s triumph at the 19th national congress has feared speculation of a hardline authoritarian rule by the leader. But Xi gains power at a time when the Communist party doctrines do not matter to the ordinary Chinese

opinion Updated: Oct 31, 2017 14:57 IST
Minxin Pei
Minxin Pei
Xi Jinping,China,Mao Zedong
Painted portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and late communist leader Mao Zedong, Beijing, China (File Photo)(AFP)

At the end of the six-day 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the roughly 2,200 delegates decided to add ‘Xi Jinping Thought on the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics’ to the CPC’s constitution. With that, it became official: The era of Xi has begun.

Only two previous Chinese leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, have had their personally branded ideology enshrined in the CPC’s charter. Xi’s two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, did not have their names linked to any ideological doctrine, much less one elevated to such a high status within the CPC. Chinese leaders are clearly eager to confirm what the world already knew: Xi’s authority now equals that of the CPC’s heaviest heavyweights.

Besides symbolically catapulting Xi into the pantheon of the founders of the People’s Republic, the 19th national congress delivered him two substantive political victories. First and foremost, he stalled the designation of a successor, thereby leaving open the possibility that he himself could serve a third term as Chinese president.

All five of the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the CPC’s top decision-making body, are in their 60s — too old to be groomed to take over for Xi in five years, given the party’s unofficial retirement age of 68. Had one or two new standing committee members younger than 55 been promoted, Xi would be expected to step down in 2022, when he hit the two-term limit as president, just as Jiang and Hu did. The alternative for Xi would be to purge the designated successor, as Mao and Deng did. Neither scenario would be appealing.

With no successor in play, however, the possibility that Xi will serve a third term (at least), should decisively alter the political calculations of both his loyalists and those still hedging their bets. Loyalists will now reiterate their allegiance, while those on the fence are likely to hop on the Xi bandwagon. As for Xi’s rivals, they must be thoroughly demoralised.

Xi’s second major victory at the 19th National Congress was the promotion of two close allies to the standing committee. His current chief of staff, Li Zhanshu, will take over the National People’s Congress. The NPC, which has never been much more than a rubber stamp for party decisions, will now have its legislative agenda dictated by Xi himself.

In fact, Li’s leadership of the NPC may turn out to be the key to dismantling one of the last barriers to Xi’s political ambitions: The two-term limit for presidents, established in the constitution. While nothing prevents Xi from retaining a party title, such as general secretary, he will need to amend the constitution if he wants to remain China’s head of state. And, with Li in charge, such an amendment will sail through the NPC.

Another trusted loyalist, Zhao Leji, will take over from the 69-year-old Wang Qishan as the chief of the anti-corruption agency — a crucial position, responsible for keeping the CPC in check. Wang has overseen Xi’s anti-corruption drive — which has purged many of Xi’s rivals and consolidated his power — since it began. By appointing Zhao, Xi has effectively put every senior Chinese leader on notice.

Xi’s triumph at the 19th National Congress has understandably fuelled widespread speculation that his now-formidable power will enable him to impose his vision of hardline authoritarian rule, underpinned by Chinese nationalism, in the coming years. And that is a possibility. But it is far from guaranteed.

The reason is simple: Though the CPC’s internal power dynamics haven’t change much in the last few decades, Chinese society has moved far beyond the Maoist or even the Dengist era. Few Chinese, including members of the party, genuinely believe in any official doctrine. Economically, the private sector accounts for more than 60% of China’s output, and the CPC has become practically irrelevant in the daily lives of ordinary Chinese.

This is the paradox of power in the era of Xi. Yes, he is the most powerful leader that the world’s largest one-party State has had in decades. But his ability to shape Chinese society may turn out to be far more limited than he, his allies, and most outside observers expect.

Minxin Pei is professor of government, Claremont McKenna College and author of China’s Crony Capitalism

The views expressed are personal

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017

First Published: Oct 31, 2017 10:27 IST