Society, Talking Point

China’s leading man

Xi Jinping unveils his Politburo picks as the Party Congress closes


No smiling matter: China's new Standing Committee members join Xi and Li on stage

In the early 1940s, IBM’s president Thomas Watson suggested that “there is a world market for about five computers”. By computers he meant those vacuum-tube machines as big as living rooms. Yet the remark has gone down in history as one of the worst tech predictions of all time.

Making predictions on Chinese politics is an equally difficult task, because so much of the elite politicking is hidden from public view. Rumour is commonplace. For instance, five years ago Xi Jinping mysteriously went missing for a week prior to being selected as China’s top leader during the Communist Party’s 18th national congress. Some commentators sensed blood in the water. “Xi Jinping is arguably the weakest General Secretary ever,” a columnist wrote in Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper in November 2012. “Xi Jinping is no strongman. Neither does he have the blessing of a strongman. He is alone. He will have some difficult days ahead.”

Fast forward five years and that forecast could not have proven more wrong. Xi has turned out not only be a strong personality but, according to the BBC, “the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong”.

How powerful has Xi become?

A total of 2,280 Party delegates gathered in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for the 19th Party Congress. Following a marathon three-and-a-half hour speech by Xi – in which he detailed the Party’s work during his first five-year term – the delegates retreated behind closed doors for nearly a week. The backroom discussions culminated in a unanimous vote to include a new guiding principle in the Party’s constitution: “Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era”.

Every Chinese leader has his own political philosophy incorporated into the Party constitution to sum up their personal legacies. These seemingly bland treatises are ranked in a strict ideological hierarchy: the names of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin rank at the top with the ‘-ism’ suffix; next is “Mao Zedong Thought” and then there is “Deng Xiaoping Theory”. Jiang Zemin warrants an entry with this “Three Represents” while Hu Jintao comes last with his “Scientific Outlook on Development”.

Only Mao and Deng have had their names attached to elite-level ideologies and Deng’s was only added to the constitution after his death. (The names of Jiang and Hu, Xi’s immediate predecessor, don’t appear in the Party constitution.) That means that Xi is now on a par with Chairman Mao, a founder both of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) and the People’s Republic of China. It also means that Xi has higher stature than Deng (‘Thought’ trumps ‘Theory’, you see), the man who ushered in China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s.

“The more I study Xi’s report, the deeper I feel his thoughts are,” said Chen Min’er, Party boss of Chongqing, during one of the meeting’s rare open-door sessions. “The more I discuss it, the more abundant I feel its content is.”

So expect “Xi Jinping Thought” to become a recurring theme in the Chinese media and government circles over the next five years. One outcome is that Xi’s enemies may find it harder to challenge his authority. And another is that it may hint at an ambition to rule beyond the limits of his second term.

Isn’t the Congress an election?

The primary agenda of the twice-a-decade gathering is to pick a new crop of leaders (see WiC380 on how the CPC’s “intra-party democratic election” works). The great significance of this Congress: Xi has emerged from the summit more powerful than ever, with no obvious successor on the horizon.

The CPC’s top decisionmaking body, the Politburo Standing Committee, has undergone a major reshuffle as only two of its seven members were re-elected: the 64 year-old Xi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who is 62. The other five – including anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan – are all 68 or older, and have been replaced. (Though Wang may still get a leadership role outside the Standing Committee, according to Reuters.)

The outcome appears to stick to an unwritten Party rule that senior leaders should only seek re-election if they are 67 or younger. However, given that all the new Politburo Standing Committee members (see box for their backgrounds) are older than 60, none of them are viewed as an heir apparent to Xi – who himself became a Standing Committee member in 2007 aged 54.

A couple of younger candidates were tipped to make it into Beijing’s power apex, including the aforementioned Chen Min’er and Guangdong’s Party boss Hu Chunhua (who is reportedly backed by former leader Hu Jintao). But both missed out. Had either one of them got into the top seven, they would have been deemed a strong candidate to become the next CPC general secretary.


Further down the power ranks, only 10 of the 25-member Politburo have retained their seats. Meanwhile, up to 75% of the Central Committee, which is composed of 204 members and 172 alternate members, are new faces too.

The new arrangements seem to contradict a system that’s governed power transitions for the past three decades – and they reinforce the speculation that Xi is working to extend his reign beyond the 20th Party Congress in 2022.

How did foreign media react?

“Breaking the mould on the succession, as with so much else, is part of the Chinese president’s New Era, as he [Xi Jinping] has termed it,” Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote, adding that even if Xi decided to stand down in 2022, his influence might have grown so great that he could continue to effectively rule the country.

The Guardian, meanwhile, reported that such is the secrecy that cloaks Chinese politics that the identities of the new Standing Committee members only became certain when the door opened on Wednesday morning and Xi escorted his six comrades onto the stage.

Earlier this year, international news agencies had speculated that Xi might abolish the Politburo Standing Committee completely and reinstate the position of “Chairman of the CPC”. That hasn’t happened. But the New York Times notes that Xi has already assumed so many titles (more than a dozen and counting) that he is often referred to as the “chairman of everything”. “He is president, general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission, to name a few. He leads working groups on issues as varied as Taiwan and internet security, and he has been hailed as the Party’s ‘core leader’, the US newspaper wrote.

Such a concentration of power might not be healthy, other newspapers have warned. “It is dangerous. No one should have that much power. One-man rule is ultimately a recipe for instability in China, as it has been in the past – think of Mao and his Cultural Revolution,” the Economist opined.

(Reporters from all of the media outlets above, along with the Financial Times, were not invited to attend the event that unveiled the new Standing Committee this week, AFP reported.)

And the Chinese media’s view?

Most local outlets have stayed focused on the political messages from the summit. “The Congress has given clear answers to such important questions as to what kind of banner the Party should hold, the direction the Party should take and the kind of mental state, historic mission and goals it should have,” the People’s Daily commented in a keynote editorial.

Xinhua, as usual, summed up the more favourable reactions from overseas. The Russian news agency RIA, for instance, identified the Party Congress as “the reason China achieved the Soviet Union’s unfulfilled goal” because of the leadership’s long-term planning.

Even Francis Fukuyama, who once proposed the triumph of the West and ‘The End of History’, now admits the decline of Western democracy, the Global Times noted. “People’s interest [in the Party Congress] reflects the unique advantages of the current political system with Chinese characteristics which forms a sharp contrast to the downward evolution of Western political systems,” it assured its readers.

The tone in the China Daily was grandiloquent. On Tuesday, under a front page headline reading “China’s wisdom to benefit the world”, it noted the congratulatory messages from around the world. The newly selected Congress “will contribute enormously to global growth, governance and tackling joint challenges, according to influential political and opinion leaders,” it celebrated

On Wednesday it shared another example of the glowing feedback. On its front page it quoted former US defence secretary William Cohen as saying: “I have very often said that China’s transformation in recent decades is one of the most remarkable events in human history. I trust that General Secretary Xi Jinping’s statement of his vision for China’s future will enable this transformation to continue to flourish.”

The next day the newspaper said that the new leadership will benefit from a key gain in the past five years which it put down to Xi’s anti-graft campaign. This had “restored faith in the Party’s capability to lead the way” and persuaded the people to make a “last charge towards national rejuvenation”.

So what should we know about Xi Jinping Thought?

The central message is that Xi will restore China to greatness. His speech may have taken more than three hours to impart, but the basic premise is that he is leading the country into a “new era”. Mao made China independent of foreign powers. Deng made it more prosperous. And Xi will make it powerful again.

Xi is also drawing on two, longer term “centennial goals” of the CPC. The first – when the Party celebrates its centenary in 2021 – is that China should have achieved a moderately prosperous society. In the second, by 2049, a century after the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949, China must emerge as a “strong, democratic, civilised, harmonious and modern socialist country,” he said.

Those objectives began to take shape under Jiang Zemin and Xi has mentioned them publicly more than 100 times. His lengthy report to Congress added his own phrase the “great rejuvenation” 27 times for good effect. And to help achieve the centennial targets, he has drawn up a two-stage plan set to begin in 2020 (another clue, perhaps, that he wants to stay on beyond 2022).

According to the new blueprint China will realise ‘socialist modernisation’ by 2035 and become a modern socialist country ‘with global influence’ by 2050.

Realising that vision might require Xi to be at the helm for a while. That said, his 2050 target will only reach its culmination when he is 97, which might be taking the longevity a little too far. But for a little perspective: Jiang Zemin – who attended the latest Congress and is an emblem of the staying-power of China’s top leaders – turned 91 in August.

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