China Party Congress: Tracing Xi’s rise to power as he looks to a third term

Updated on Oct 15, 2022 11:21 PM IST

There is little doubt that Xi will further tighten his grip on power over the next five years as he– in his roles as general-secretary of the party, head of the Central Military Commission, and president - looks to hold China’s leadership indefinitely

A float with a giant portrait of China's President Xi Jinping passes by Tiananmen Square during the National Day parade in Beijing, on October 1, 2019. Xi is widely expected to secure a third term as president at the Chinese Communist Party congress meeting starting on October 16, 2022, upending the succession norms that Chinese leaders have abided by since the 1990s. (AFP)
A float with a giant portrait of China's President Xi Jinping passes by Tiananmen Square during the National Day parade in Beijing, on October 1, 2019. Xi is widely expected to secure a third term as president at the Chinese Communist Party congress meeting starting on October 16, 2022, upending the succession norms that Chinese leaders have abided by since the 1990s. (AFP)

Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to be reappointed as general-secretary of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) for an unprecedented third-term on October 23 at the conclusion of the party’s 20th national congress, which begins on Sunday.

“The 20th party congress will open at 10 o’clock tomorrow at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. It will be held from October 16 to October 22,” Sun Yeli, spokesperson for the congress, Sun Yeli, the party’s deputy propaganda chief, announced at a press conference on Saturday.

About 2,300 delegates from the party will gather at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for the once-in-five-years conclave, held mostly behind closed doors, to rubber-stamp the country’s next leadership. Sun confirmed that the CPC constitution will be amended at congress without giving details of what changes will be incorporated.

“The amendment will fully embody the latest achievements in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and to the needs of the times,” Sun said, adding that “It will also enshrine the new ideas, thoughts and strategies on national governance”.

A THIRD TERM AS LEADER

There is little doubt that Xi will further tighten his grip on power over the next five years as he– in his roles as general-secretary of the party, head of the Central Military Commission, and president - looks to hold China’s leadership indefinitely.

Xi, 69, has become nearly as powerful as Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China, though experts note that the two – along with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping – have held power in completely different times and over different Chinas. There is no doubt, however, who the guiding star over China is now.

The Chinese president is the son of revolutionary military general Xi Zhongxun – a CPC revolutionary elite who worked with Mao and with whom his falling out was rough, especially on a young Xi.

Xi was first elected general-secretary of the CPC Central Committee in 2012, and president in 2013.

As general-secretary, Xi took little time to cement his legitimacy within the nebulous and opaque politics of the party, since he had already seen much, rising through the ranks to become vice-president under his predecessor Hu Jintao.

Soon after taking over in November 2012, sensing a dissatisfaction among party members and cadres over rampant corruption, Xi launched an anti-graft campaign, promising to punish both “tigers” and “flies” – powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats. 

“Things must first rot, before worms grow,” Xi said on corruption in one of his earliest addresses to the party. The move was so shrewd that it can be credited as one of the main ways he has been able to cement his power. Between November 2012 and April 2022, the CPC’s anti-graft watchdog has investigated a massive 4.7 million cases.

The campaign did two things for Xi: it legitimised him further within the party and among the people, and it also helped him purge political opponents.

“Xi did so (consolidated power) mainly through his anti-corruption campaign. This was badly needed to eliminate corruption, which was indeed out of control. However, it was also a convenient tool to rid him of potential rivals, such as Zhou Yongkang,” says Ian Johnson, Senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Zhou, a former a member of the CPC politburo standing committee, has been the senior most party leader to be punished under Xi.

The other high-profile purge – seemingly on corruption charges – was that of the charismatic and popular Bo Xilai, once considered Xi’s rival. Bo’s wife was also charged with fatally poisoning a Britisher businessman.

By October 2016, Xi had been anointed the “core” of the party.

“A key meeting of the CPC has called on all its members to closely unite around the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core,” state run Xinhua news agency reported at the time.

In March 2018, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC) voted in a choreographed consensus to remove the two-term presidential limit, paving the way for Xi to stay in power indefinitely.

The move, which broke the unwritten convention that China’s top leaders only serve two terms, has been an important indicator of Xi’s growing power. Since then, his stamp of authority within the country – and as China’s voice globally -- has become more commanding.

Xi has also carefully cultivated – and then exploited for himself -- the huge advantages that the CPC’s internal structure hands over to its leadership, especially to the top leader.

“Leninist systems have always been extraordinarily leader-friendly. So, Xi Jinping could draw upon many powerful advantages to assert control over the party,” says Joseph Torigian from American University’s School of International Service. “Those strengths include a taboo against factions; special access to the military and political police; the ability to decide when meetings are held and the topics of discussion; and a sense that the party only works when a ‘core’ has the authority to make final decisions.”

“The CPC chief’s exclusive control of military power, which is beyond any constitutional constraints,” has been key to Xi’s accumulation of power, confirms Wu Guoguang, a former Communist Party insider.

“The CPC is in fact an organisation much relying on its coercive power; the party chief is always the guy who controls the coercive machine, including the military and the police forces,”says Wu, who is now a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Centre on China’s Economy and Institutions.

AS POWERFUL AS MAO?

Despite Xi’s absolute hold on power in China, and the inevitable comparisons, experts say he cannot really be compared with Mao, yet.

“He (Mao) completely changed China—not necessarily for the better but under his watch the country was absolutely transformed from an agrarian land of landed gentry and nobility to an authoritarian industrial state that exported revolution around the world,” says Johnson.

The “cult of personality” that was seen around Mao, Johnson said, has only one comparison even now and that’s North Korea.

“Xi is a domineering leader but no one worships Xi in temples, they don’t wave his books in the street, they don’t march through the streets holding his picture.”

Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, agreed.

“Xi is not a new Mao or Deng, for the very simple reason that the China he leads is almost totally different from the countries they were in charge of. China today is immeasurably more powerful economically and in terms of geopolitical status,” Brown said.

Mao’s China, at one point, in 1966 had formal ambassadorial representation in only one country while under Xi, China is the main trading partner of over 120 countries.

“Xi belongs to the political traditions of Mao and Deng, and would regard himself as being their successor. But he is not the same as them because the nature of his power is very different, and one cannot compare apples and pears,” Brown said.

EYE ON THE FUTURE

For Wang Huiyao, president of the Beijing-based think-tank, China and Globalisation, Xi’s third term means a continuation of China’s policies both domestically and globally.

“This really ensures a great continuity for China because you can expect the policies of the current government will continue: There’s no speculation, no disruption. So basically, I think this trend at the (current) congress will ensure another five to 10 years of China’s continued path towards the second centennial, which is to make China into modernised society by 2049,” Wang said.

Wang said with a new generation of leaders expected to be named in a week’s time, China’s political class will have more vitality.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Sutirtho Patranobis has been in Beijing since 2012, as Hindustan Times’ China correspondent. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath. Patranobis covered several beats including health and national politics in Delhi before being posted abroad.

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