Xi Jinping speaks during the opening session of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Photo: Reuters / Aly Song
Xi Jinping speaks during the opening session of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Photo: Reuters / Aly Song

Already seen as China’s most powerful leader in decades before the Communist Party of China’s 19th National Congress, Xi Jinping came out of this five-yearly conclave even more powerful.

The week-long event that ended last Wednesday unanimously decided to enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought” into the ruling CPC’s amended charter, making Xi the first living leader since Mao Zedong to be accorded such an honor. This decision by the choreographed congress has far-reaching implications.

Symbolically, it put Xi on par with the revolutionary Mao, who founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, and above his three other predecessors.

Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi’s two most recent predecessors, only had their political ponderings recognized at the end of their tenures as party general secretary, in 2002 and 2012, respectively. Moreover, their theories didn’t bear their names.

Deng reformed Mao’s ruinous economics

Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader lauded as the architect of the PRC’s economic reform and opening policy that transformed the country economically ruined under Mao into an economic powerhouse, had his name and political contribution incorporated in the document six months after his death in January 1997.

Besides, unlike Chairman Mao, who had a Thought after his name, Deng’s political thinking was only seen as a Theory. Terminologically, “Mao Zedong Thought” is more elevated than “Deng Xiaoping Theory.”

Against this background, having both his name and Thought, i.e. “Xi Jinping Thought,” hallowed in the party constitution just after five years into his traditional two-term presidency raises Xi to an even higher stature than Deng and to the almost godlike status of Mao.

His rapid elevation to such a highest status by some 2,300 delegates representing nearly 90 million communists across the one-party country at the twice-a-decade gathering, China’s most important political event, officially bestowed Xi with not only huge prestige but real sweeping powers.

Any challenge to Xi orthodoxy seen as heresy

Institutionally, any challenge to Xi Jinping and his dogma, which is henceforth studied and practiced by not only the party’s 90 million members but many others of the 1.3-billion-people country, can be interpreted as an ideological heresy. This certainly makes it hard, if not impossible, for any rivals to oppose Xi and his policies during his lifetime, regardless of whether he formally holds a party or state position, because such a defiance could be taken as a threat to the party.

Practically, and most importantly, the elevated status provided Xi with the mandate — or at least, the justification — to stay in power beyond his second term that ends in five years’ time.

Practically, and most importantly, the elevated status provided Xi with the mandate — or at least, the justification — to stay in power beyond his second term that ends in five years’ time.

As hinted by the title of his own ideology, namely “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, Xi is now mandated to lead the CPC — and through it, the PRC — into “a new era.” This means it is very likely that the autocratic leader will break the party’s quarter-century precedent to stay in power beyond 2022.

As a succession rule established in the early 1990s, like his two immediate predecessors, Xi will step down at the next congress, after serving two five-year terms.

The likelihood that he will extend his rule at least until 2027 is also reinforced by the fact that the congress — or more precisely, Xi himself — didn’t identify a candidate to replace him as the leader of the CPC and the PRC.

No clear successor to Xi evident

Again, designating a potential successor had long been a key norm. But, for the first time in 25 years the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s and the country’s highest ruling council, doesn’t have an obvious successor to become party chief and state president.

All the five newcomers of the all-powerful seven-member committee, currently aged from 60 to 67, will either be too old or lack leadership experience and qualities to succeed Xi in 2022.

At the 18th congress in 2012, Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai, both born in 1963, and then the two youngest members of the 25-strong Politburo, were identified as potential leadership successors in 2022. Yet, while Sun was purged just a few weeks ago, Hu failed to get a seat on the PSC and, consequently, is now probably fading away.

Even Chen Min’er, the 57-year-old party chief of Chongqing and a trusted protégé of Xi, recently seen as an heir apparent to the latter, was not elevated to the inner sanctum of Chinese politics.

Broad range of party elites will be heard

Before the congress, it was speculated that Xi would fill the PSC with his trusted associates. The committee, which has ultimate power over the largest political party and the second largest economy in the world, however, included a relatively broad range of voices from party elites.

Only Li Zhanshu, 67, and Zhao Leji, 60, the youngest of the five new members, are apparently Xi’s close allies.

Wang Yang, 62, comes from the Communist Youth League. Premier Li Keqiang, who retained his seat on the top table, and Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, belong to this faction.

Han Zheng, 63, and Wang Huning, 62, are regarded as the part of the so-called “Shanghai clique” headed by former leader Jiang Zemin as they both began their careers in Shanghai, where the 91-year-old Jiang used to be party boss.

Still, though they come from different factions in the party, they are all Xi’s “yes” men.

A Xi regime seems assured to be prolonged

All in all, without a clear heir and especially with his name apotheosized, coupled with the fact that over half of the 18 other members of the Politburo are his allies, Xi’s reign and influence will be extensively prolonged.

Though he retired from official positions in 1989, Deng Xiaoping remained a paramount leader until his death in 1997. Mao Zedong ruled the communist country with absolute power and an iron fist from 1949 until he died in 1976, at the age of 83.

While it remains too premature to say he will become a ruler for life, Xi Jinping will likely stay on as party secretary, or party chairman, or head of the armed forces after 2022. This will enable him to reign supreme for an extended period.

On this reading, there is a real prospect that he will become China’s new Mao Zedong. For better or worse, this will hugely impact not only the Asian power, but possibly the region and the world at large in the decades to come.

If Mao’s long, tyrannical and turbulent rule and other dictatorial regimes are any guide, Xi’s extensive and absolute rule might be a bad — not good — thing, for China.

Xuan Loc Doan

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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