Xi Jinping rolls out vision for China in 2035, sparks buzz about his future role
The four-day plenary of the Chinese Communist Party signed off on President Xi Jinping’s plan to put innovation at the heart of China’s modernisation drive to develop the country into a powerhouse riding on the strength of domestic spending and tech self-reliance. But it was the party’s unusual decision to outline its vision for 2035 that has renewed buzz around President Xi’s plans for himself.
President Xi has never spoken about his plans but dropped enough hints over the last few years that he does not intend to walk away after completing his two terms that end in 2022. One of them was the decision to scrap a constitutional bar introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1982 that prevented China’s president from serving more than two terms. That move had sparked off speculation that 67-year-old Xi Jinping could end up becoming China’s President-for-life.
The 67-year-old Chinese President has already emerged as the communist party’s most powerful leader after its founder Mao Zedong, holding the posts of party General Secretary, head of the military besides the Presidency.
In October 2017, Xi was only the second Chinese leader after Mao to have had an eponymous ideology included in the party’s charter while in office. President Xi firmly established his stamp of authority at that party plenary when he got the party leadership to end the system of collective leadership, a safeguard introduced by Deng Xiaoping to protect Chinese people from an autocratic regime similar to Mao Zedong’s years in power.
This year, he had the Xi Jinping Research Center for Diplomatic Thought opened that elevated his philosophy on par with Mao.
The 2017 plenary meeting that surrendered the leadership’s powers to Xi Jinping had been preceded by another purge of rivals in the party and the army, mostly by filing corruption cases against them. According to one analysis, commander-in-chief had purged 73 general-rank officers by 2016 and elevated officers loyal to him.
The CCP’s closed-door plenum consisting of about 204 full central committee members and 172 alternate members is held annually to review the policies of the party and the government. Previous plenums – the party’s name for these key meetings – have been used to signal personal moves, indicating leadership succession plans. But, there were none in the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in its fifth plenary session’s document, which included a longer-term focus to 2035 by which time Xi would be 82, the same age as Mao Zedong when he died in 1976.
China watchers link Beijing’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and at the Indian borders to Xi Jinping’s superpower ambitions vis-a-vis the United States that come across in his signature projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), upgrading Chinese cities into smart cities through 5G and artificial intelligence, and pulling more countries into the ambit of the Chinese financial system.
The success of this strategy was on display this week when the United States secretary of state Mike Pompeo attempted to turn Sri Lanka into a partner in its alliance against the Chinese. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to have told the US team about the island’s reluctance to take sides, particularly in light of the billions of dollars that Beijing had poured into the island for years.
China watchers said the distinct possibility that President Xi Jinping could remain in power would be a key factor that countries would take into account when dealing with Beijing. “This is not a democracy where there is a possibility that the leadership can change after a certain period,” one of them said.
Like in the US where Donald Trump faces a challenge from Joe Biden, who is expected to be less unpredictable if he reaches the White House. Most observers believe that Biden was unlikely to be as shrill as Trump on China but it is going to be difficult for any US president to adopt a very different approach given President Xi’s ambitions.