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Xi Jinping, the leader of China, continues to consolidate power. This week, top officials of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) declared that Xi’s leadership is “the key to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” That statement sounds banal to Western ears, and one more example of the hagiography that dominates Chinese media coverage of their leader.

To more discerning observers, however, it is a portent, an indication that Xi will defy precedent and remain in office for at least a third term, and likely longer. He is being elevated to a status in China equal to that of Mao Zedong. Along with that role is a consolidation of power that should be more worrisome. Checks and balances are needed to level decision making and avoid excesses and mistakes. That is the most important lesson of the Mao era, and one that may soon be ignored in Beijing.

Officially, the central committee of the CPC last week held its sixth plenum, an annual meeting attended by 348 full and alternate members. This meeting assumed special significance because it is the last before the party congress scheduled for the second half of 2022 and which will select the CPC leadership for the next five years.

Officially, the plenum released a communique that referred to a “draft Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century,” a document that detailed the CPC’s history and most notable accomplishments in its first 100 years. It concluded that “China has achieved the First Centenary Goal of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects” and that all Chinese should “resolutely uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Central Committee and in the Party as a whole.”

While that sounds like the work of bureaucratic functionaries, a historical resolution is anything but routine. This is only the third time that the CPC has adopted such a document, and each came at critical moments for the party. The first was passed in 1945 and it allowed Mao to consolidate power. The second was adopted in 1981, pushed by Deng Xiaoping after a brutal struggle with the Gang of Four. It not only confirmed his grip on power but also made the famous judgment that Mao’s achievements outweighed his liabilities. That set the bounds on criticism and ensured that there would be no challenge to Deng’s or the party’s leadership and legitimacy.

Xi has similar ambitions. This week’s resolution declares that “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered an irreversible historical process” under Xi, a statement that elevates him to a status equal to that of Mao and Deng. Claiming that, under Xi, the party “has solved many tough problems that were long on the agenda but never resolved and accomplished many things that were wanted but never got done” marginalizes — if not dismisses — the work of his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

Xi is credited with “a series of original new ideas, thoughts and strategies on national governance revolving around the major questions of our times … ,” which makes him “the principal founder of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. This is the Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21st century.” This is, the communique reports, “the best of the Chinese culture and ethos in our times and represents a new breakthrough in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context.”

The conclusion of this language and reasoning is that his unique abilities and insights demand that Xi remain in power after his second term in office expires. The man who prepared China for a new era is the obvious choice to lead it into that period. This would directly contravene one of Deng’s most important legacies — a two-term limit for any Chinese president, which was adopted precisely to avoid an enduring presence and the consolidation of power that could lead to the excesses and malignancies of Mao’s rule.

This third term appears to have been Xi’s goal for some time. The 2016 plenum declared Xi to be “the core” of the party leadership, a seemingly anodyne phrase that in fact signaled his ascendance to the status of first among ostensible equals. Two years later, the CPC agreed to eliminate the two-term limit on the presidency. The failure to identify a potential successor, which has typically occurred during the second term, convinced China watchers that Xi had no intention of stepping down. Next year’s CPC party congress will reveal whether he remains in power.

While a third term is the most likely outcome, it is not guaranteed. For all its successes, China is also experiencing intense strains and challenges. Relations with Western countries are plumbing new depths. This is a result of Xi’s readiness to discard Deng’s admonition to maintain a low profile and to be more assertive in international relations. It may not be a new Cold War, but China is increasingly viewed as a challenge and a competitor by many nations.

There are mounting domestic concerns. The economy is being buffeted by real estate bankruptcies, of which the Evergrande debacle is only the first. Inequality is growing — Xi has said that he will make solving that problem a priority — and the economy faces structural constraints.

The tightening of Xi’s grip on power and his readiness to make key decisions means that he will be held responsible for all outcomes, good or bad. China is entering a new era and its neighbors must be prepared for a range of consequences.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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