A visitor watches a video of President Xi Jinping talking at an exhibition in Beijing about China's military achievements, on October 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Jason Lee
A visitor watches a video of President Xi Jinping talking at an exhibition in Beijing about China's military achievements, on October 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Jason Lee

Never since Deng Xiaoping, if not Mao Zedong, has a Chinese leader entered a National Congress with as much power as Xi Jinping will at the upcoming conclave.

In many respects, the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) could be called Xi’s congress. Having already accumulated sweeping power since taking over the ruling party’s reins in 2012, the 64-year-old strongman is widely expected to consolidate his rule further at the week-long gathering that opens next Wednesday.

Yet while it is beyond doubt that Xi will further stamp his mark on the world’s largest political party and most populous country at the much-anticipated event, the magnitude of his influence remains to be seen.

That’s why international observers and indeed almost all of the CPC’s 90 million members and the 1.3 billion citizens of the tightly controlled People’s Republic of China (PRC) will closely watch for the signals and outcomes of this gathering.

Xi’s status within the party and the lineup of the top leadership are undoubtedly among the most watched at this twice-a-decade political summit.

Xi’s status in the CPC

Late last year, Xi, who is already head of the party, the state and the army, was officially elevated to “core leader” status. This symbolically puts him on par with Mao, Deng and Jiang Zemin – the PRC’s first-, second- and third-generation leaders respectively – and above Hu Jintao, his immediate predecessor, who never got the title.

The term was invented in 1989 by Deng, the paramount leader who ruled the PRC from 1978 until his retirement in 1989, to reinforce the authority of Jiang, his anointed successor. It doesn’t entail any particular powers, but it conveys prestige. In Confucianism-influenced China and Chinese politics, status and ranks really matter. That’s why the country’s highly censored state media have also called Xi “the supreme leader” and “the highest leader.”

Having already accumulated sweeping power since taking over the ruling party’s reins in 2012, Xi Jinping is widely expected to consolidate his rule further at the week-long congress that opens next Wednesday.

While the “core” status and other titles don’t necessarily bestow Xi with any real powers, many high-level powerful steering committees created and/or led by him do.

As he controls almost all key aspects and areas of the world’s second-biggest economy and military, Xi has already been dubbed China’s “chairman of everything”. But there is a chance that at the coming congress that will no longer be a nickname but an official title. Chinese troops have, reportedly at his behest, referred to him as “chairman”. This has led to a speculation that Xi will seek to restore the position of party chairman and fill it himself.

The position was held by Mao, the PRC’s founder, from 1949 to his death in 1976. After Mao, who ruled the communist country with absolute power and iron fist, no Chinese leader – except his brief interim successor Hua Guofeng, who held all the titles but none of the power – has been called “chairman” because, after the disastrous Cultural Revolution, Deng abolished the title to prevent the concentration of absolute power and the return of a Mao-like leader.

Should Xi get the title, that will put him on par with Mao. This would signify not only Xi’s total power over the party, the state, the military and other aspects of Chinese society, but also his real intention to stay for a third term.

Indeed, should this happen, it is a clear signal that the strongman autocrat will “do a Putin”, seeking to prolong his rule beyond his two-term limit that ends in 2022.

Another thing to look out for is how Xi’s political philosophy is adopted by the 2,287 delegates attending the event. Every Chinese leader since Mao has had theirs enshrined in the party’s constitution as a “guiding ideology”. Xi’s is no exception.

Xinhua, the PRC’s official press agency, has already confirmed that the charter will be amended at the congress to “include the key theories and strategic thoughts”. Such an announcement, coupled with Xi’s current powerful position, makes it very likely that not only Xi’s ideological contribution but also his name will be hallowed in the amended constitution.

This will place him in the same pantheon as Mao and Deng, who had “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory” respectively. Though Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” and Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” were added to the charter, they didn’t bear their names.

What will be closely watched is the word attached to his name. Will it be “Xi Jinping Theory” or “Xi Jinping Thought” or something else? Should it be “Xi Jinping Thought”, this would signify that Xi wants to be put in the same league with Chairman Mao.

Top leadership lineup

Another way to assess Xi’s power and intention is the composition of the Politburo and especially its Standing Committee that will be unveiled by the end of the secret conclave.

The top team in 2012 was largely made up of those chosen by Jiang and Hu, Xi’s two immediate predecessors. Among the seven members of the 18th Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the communist-run country’s highest ruling body, Xi apparently had only one ally, in Wang Qishan.

Wang was charged to lead Xi’s fierce and unprecedented anti-graft campaign that ensnared some 1.2 million corrupt or disloyal officials – including prominent political rivals of Xi, such as Bo Xilai and Sun Zhengcai, two Politburo members.

While it remains unclear whether the 69-year-old anti-corruption czar will retire, four other members of the PSC and six members of the 25-seat Politburo, the second top decision-making body, will step down at the twice-a-decade reshuffle because of the party’s unofficial retirement age of 68.

These retirements, coupled with the recent dismissal of Sun Zhengcai, will provide Xi with a great opportunity to replace the top leadership with his loyalists.

Indeed, many of Xi’s trusted allies are likely to be promoted to the country’s top two echelons of power at this congress. These include Li Zhanshu, director of the party’s General Office. A close and long-standing friend, Li is often seen as Xi’s right-hand man and is almost certain to ascend to the PSC.

Another is Zhao Leji, head of the party’s influential Department of Organization. Zhao, 60, belongs to the so-called Shaanxi clique, referring to those who come from Shaanxi, Xi’s home province. Like Li, he is already a Politburo member and likely to be elevated.

Besides politicians with ties to Shaanxi, those who used to work under Xi have been promoted since he got the top job in 2012. Notable among these is Chen Min’er, Xi’s propaganda chief during his time as party boss of Zhejiang (2002-2007). Chen, 57, replaced disgraced Sun as Chongqing party boss in July. Already certain to get a place in the Politburo, Xi’s trusted confidant is even tipped to go straight to the PSC from the third-tier Central Committee.

If Chen Min’er is elevated to the CPC’s highest decision-making body, while Hu Chunhua, a Politburo member, isn’t, this will strengthen the view that Xi’s influence will prolong beyond 2022. The 54-year-old party secretary of Guangdong, China’s economic powerhouse, has long been considered a rising political star and a future leader of the Asian giant. After Sun’s shock fall, by virtue of their age, Hu and Chen are now seen as potential successors to Xi in 2022 or 2027 if he seeks to stay for a third term.

Yet a key setback for Hu Chunhua, widely seen as one of Jiang Zemin’s men and Hu Jintao’s protégé, is that he doesn’t belong to Xi’s inner circle.

Hu and Chen are being closely watched because their promotion (or lack thereof) will also tell a great deal about Xi’s true intentions. If neither of them or any under-55 members of the Politburo emerge from the 19th Congress as a clear successor to Xi, it is likely that he will extend his term in 2022.

There are other indicators that will reveal the extent of Xi’s power and his ambition. These include the party’s retirement-age rule and Wang Qishan’s future. If Wang, 69, continues to lead the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection or is offered a different prestigious position, such as replacing Li Keqiang as premier as some have suggested, this will indicate that Xi is willing to break party’s unwritten “seven up, eight down” rule. It will also be a sign that he seeks to stay in power beyond 2022.

In any event, it is perhaps safe to say the imminent congress is more about Xi Jinping than the ruling party or the PRC.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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