After the conclusion this week of the 19th congress of the Chinese Communist Party, General Secretary Xi Jinping is no longer first among equals. Having consolidated power for five years, he has effectively bent the party to his wishes, ousting rivals, real and potential, elevating allies and ensuring that various institutions of the party and government serve only him. The unanimous decision to enshrine his name and ideology in the party’s constitution has elevated him to a level unmatched by any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. The world must now wonder what Xi will do with that power.
Since the death of Mao, the CCP has dispersed power in an attempt to guarantee that there would be no single individual with Mao’s authority and control over all instruments of state power. A collective leadership would help prevent the abuses of Mao’s era, while generating a more stable, predictable and institutionalized governing party. The result was an increasingly technocratic leadership that delivered growth but was unable to respond to sudden events and was marked by factions and rivalries.
Xi would have none of that. Since assuming China’s highest office five years ago, he purged rivals and did his best to recentralize power in his hands. He used an anti-corruption campaign to tackle one of the country’s — and the party’s — most dangerous weaknesses, to present himself as a man of the people and to remove any competitors.
Everything has been done, Xi insists, for China. In a marathon 3½-hour speech on the opening day of the Congress, Xi spoke of a “new era” for China, and the country’s long-awaited return to its “rightful” place as one of the world’s leading economic and cultural powers.
As a reward, the faithful at the Congress voted to add “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” into the Communist Party’s constitution. He is only the third leader to have his name attached to “thought” (or ideology) — after Mao and Deng Xiaoping — and Deng’s name was added only after his death. Since Xi is still alive, he has effectively equated himself with the party and will thus remain the ultimate arbiter for party decisions until his death. Even if he gives up all his titles, he will remain the living embodiment of party ideology.
“Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” can be consolidated into two basic principles. First, the party holds all instruments of power and controls every aspect of life in China and it cannot be challenged in its decisions on how to use them. The state — as guided by the CCP — is the supreme expression of the Chinese dream, not the people within it.
Second, China is reclaiming its rightful place as a world power and it will do so on its own terms. China will accommodate the existing global order only as it sees fit. That is a declaration of authority and determination that all countries in the region must factor into their own calculations.
Equally revealing is the composition of the new Standing Committee of the Communist Party Politboro, the most powerful group of decision-makers in China. Of the seven, only two are holdovers from the last five years: Xi and Premier Li Keqiang. The other five are Han Zheng, the Shanghai party secretary; Wang Yang, party head of Guangdong province; Zhao Leji, who will lead the anti-corruption campaign; Wang Huning, an ideological adviser; and Li Zhanshu, one of Xi’s closest aides. Significantly, none of these five is an obvious successor to Xi — among other things, they are all too old to stay in office given party rules about the ages of officials. In the absence of a next leader, Xi does not have to work on a transition, a move that gives credence to whisperings that he will remain in power after 2022, when the usual 10-year term would run out.
Xi spoke of a two-stage development plan that would make China a “great modern socialist country” by mid-century. Stage one will ensure that socialist modernization is basically realized by 2035. Stage two would end in 2050, when China will become “a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.”
Neither is guaranteed. China is a huge country with huge problems. While the CCP has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, a high price has been paid. The country has been devastated by industrialization, with pollution exacting a tremendous toll in cities and the countryside. Inequality has reached extreme levels: The anti-corruption campaign was needed to defuse public anger at the rapacious behavior of party officials. Breakneck growth has created bubbles throughout the economy and mountains of hidden debt that could swamp the financial system. These are problems that even a strongman like Xi will have difficulty handling.