Xi Jinping Cements Control After 20th Party Congress

There was little doubt about who would emerge ascendant from the 20th Party Congress. Nonetheless, the numerous profiles written on the man over the past week reinforce just how much power Xi Jinping has managed to accumulate as he segues into his third term as General Secretary of the CCP. Shunting his predecessor offstage, shutting women out of the Politburo, and gearing up for greater confrontation around the world, Xi reminded his domestic and international audiences that he is firmly in command of the CCP, with all of the risks and rewards that entails.

Throughout Xi’s rise and rule, he has maneuvered his way into becoming arguably the most powerful person in the world. Reporting on Xi’s evolution “from ‘counter-revolutionary’ to absolute power,” Verna Yu and Emma Graham-Harrison from The Guardian described Xi’s infatuation with control:

Xi’s fear of the disintegration of the party and collapse of its rule translates into a quest for total control over everything, from the personal lives of individuals to China’s giant multinational firms, say analysts.

“What strikes me most about Xi Jinping is his Stalinist way of governance, using his apparatus to purge the party, [emphasising] the party’s unified leadership and going back to the real party dictatorship,” said Jean-Philippe Béja, a research emeritus professor at Sciences Po in Paris. “No one is beyond the reach of the party.”

[…] Like Stalin, Xi believes in party control by party institutions, making him “a more orthodox Marxist-Leninist leader than Mao”, said [Michel Bonnin, an expert on the Cultural Revolution at the Paris-based École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales]. “The obvious problem is that the country might choke under such tight and rigid control.”

[…I]f anything, political triumph is likely to cement Xi’s hardline instincts to protect a system that many “red princelings” like him see as both inheritance and mission. [Source]

Analysts saw Xi’s personnel appointments to the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee as an extension of his control. Former China director of the U.S. National Security Council Evan Medeiros gave this forceful assessment: “The biggest surprise is how fully, completely, and resoundingly Xi Jinping and his confidants dominated this Party Congress. We are in a new era of maximum Xi Jinping. There is literally no balance in this leadership. Xi Jinping has stacked the top—the seven men that run the country—with people that are his closest friends.” Speaking to The New York Times about the ruling elite surrounding Xi, University of Chicago professor Dali Yang stated, “He was dominant already and is even more dominant now. […] He owns it.” Hong Kong Baptist University professor emeritus Jean-Pierre Cabestan, noting both the lack of gender balance and factional balance, described it thus: “Xi is surrounded by yes-men.” 

In Foreign Policy, Henry Gao argued that Xi’s efforts to embed his status in official Party doctrine have transformed the CCP from a political party into a personal party, with Xi at the “core”:

Another obsession of Xi’s is his emphasis on “one leader,” which was first reflected in the 2016 slogan of Four Consciousnesses, i.e., political consciousness, overall consciousness, core (meaning Xi) consciousness, and alignment (with Xi) consciousness; the 2018 slogan of Two Safeguards, i.e., to “resolutely safeguard General Secretary Xi Jinping’s core position of the Party Central Committee and the core position of the whole party” and to “resolutely safeguard the authority and centralized and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee”; and the latest Two Establishments in 2021, i.e., the “establishment of Comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Party Central Committee and the core of the whole party” and the “establishment of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era as the guiding thought of the party.”

Casual observers of Chinese politics might regard such wordplay as petty and pointless, but it is not. Instead, it serves a real purpose: to establish Xi’s position as the one supreme leader. Despite everything, the theoretical side of communism is still important in the party’s internal self-justifications and propaganda. Thus, what might appear to outsiders as mindless recitation of meaningless words by party officials actually serves an important purpose: the inculcation of Xi’s status as the indisputable leader.

Again, Xi was able to score another major victory on this front, by inserting into the revised CCP constitution an obligation for all party members to strengthen the Four Consciousnesses and achieve the Two Establishments. Of all the amendments in the constitution, this one is the most important, as it basically turns the CCP from a political party into a personal party, building on the emphasis on Xi’s ideology in everything from classrooms to apps. [Source]

Xi has also turned public-facing Party institutions into vessels for cementing his status as the indisputable leader. It is the “great luck of the party, great luck of the country, great luck of the army and the great luck of the people” that Xi remains “at the helm”, declared the People’s Daily, which recently disseminated new buzzwords glorifying Xi. Agnes Chang, Pablo Robles, Vivian Wang, and Isabelle Qian from The New York Times also reported on Xi’s appropriation of museums to remake China in his image:

Even accounts of the party’s history now revolve around Mr. Xi, as if its evolution was all building inexorably toward his leadership. Take the Museum of the Communist Party of China, which opened last year in Beijing.

The museum is ostensibly dedicated to the party’s 100-year history. But almost an entire floor of the three-story exhibition space is about Mr. Xi.

The museum’s closing display is a paean to Mr. Xi’s vision for China. The center photo evokes a comparison to Mao, with Mr. Xi wearing a Mao suit.

[…] The museum seems designed to reinforce the cult of personality around Mr. Xi and suggest that his agenda has the backing of history. His quotations are plastered on the walls throughout the exhibitions — even those about events decades before his birth, such as anti-imperialist student protests in 1919 — as if only he can explain and validate these key moments in party history. [Source]

Xi’s sweeping success at the 20th Party Congress came at the expense of norms that once appeared to govern the Party, including a two-term limit for its leader and an age limit for his peers, among other norms. Jonathan Brookfield, writing in The Diplomat, argued that “the continued existence of a recognizable institutional framework may owe less to the power of norms and institutions than Xi’s political calculations.” Another casualty of Xi’s reign are the thousands of opponents, and even former allies, eliminated by his sophisticated campaign of anti-corruption purges. Reviewing the ways in which Xi has transformed China and amassed power, Carlotta Dotto, Simone McCarthy, Nectar Gan, and Noemi Cassanelli at CNN highlighted the scale of Xi’s political purges:

Xi has overseen a wide-scale anti-corruption campaign within the Communist Party to cement his grip on power. Critics have called it a political purge, but the push has appeared to win public support for cracking down on a culture of excess and corruption among both “tigers” — high-ranking officials — and “flies” — lower-level cadres.

4.6 million officials [have been] investigated since the 18th Party Congress in late 2012, when Xi came to power.

553 of them were senior officials.

Xi has also built a cult of personality around himself as the “core” of the party and strengthened its role in all aspects of life. [Source]

However, the convention-defying centralization of power under one figure, drawing comparisons to the cult of personality under Mao Zedong, risks backfiring on Xi. “With old Party institutions melting away under his watch, Xi may be inaugurating a new period of political uncertainty that is superficially stable, but structurally fragile,” posited Professor Susan Shirk, chair of U.C. San Diego’s 21st Century China Center. “A central committee, politburo and standing committee all dominated by Xi would mean a significant loss of checks and balances,” said Willy Lam, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, described the CCP as “little more than a house of cards” in the absence of strong rules governing its leadership appointments, adding, “Xi’s confirmation this month is merely the breeze triggering its inevitable collapse.” Even the CCP’s internal, confidential reporting system has become increasingly censored under Xi, yielding less ground-level feedback and risking more ill-informed decision-making.

Elaborating on this potential for instability, Jude Blanchette wrote for Foreign Affairs about how Xi’s third term could spell trouble as the CCP devolves into a “Party of One”:

Rather than a moment of course correction, the 20th Party Congress sees the CCP—a regime that has long enjoyed a reputation of competence, pragmatism, and predictability—cross a threshold into outright dictatorship and, with it, a likely future of political ossification, policy uncertainty, and the ruinous effects of one-man rule.

[…] China now enters a period of pronounced uncertainty, driven by the likely open-ended rule of an autocrat. Although some observers now append the title “ruler for life” to Xi, this is only one possible outcome for the country—and not necessarily the worst. Even assuming that Xi plans to step down at some point in the future, what would happen if he died unexpectedly or suffered a serious health complication that left him incapacitated? How well would the system operate when it came time to select and install a replacement? What impact would this have on the domestic and global economy? In a similar vein, although the prospect of a leadership challenge or coup remains remote owing to the sheer scale of logistical hurdles and political dangers, Xi’s positioning as a potential ruler for life simply aggravates the incentives for opponents to scuttle his agenda or plot his exit. Authoritarian systems and authoritarian leaders always appear solid on the outside—until suddenly, they don’t.

[…] The old ways of conceptualizing Chinese politics no longer prevail. Opposing factions won’t constrain Xi. The much-vaunted but rarely seen reformers aren’t coming to rescue economic policy. Coming to grips with Xi’s continued rule is the first step to navigating it. [Source]

In a personal reflection on the implications of Xi’s protracted rule, Yangyang Cheng described for The Guardian how despite purging China of hope, Xi nevertheless cannot prevent small acts of resistance:

I cannot recall when I entered a state of perpetual mourning. I grieve for the country I left with no certain prospect of return, the direction it’s heading in, the plight of the world, the foreclosed possibilities. Sorrow tears into my organs and gnaws at my bones. But what I fear more than pain is numbness: to give in to the powers that be, and give up on imagining otherwise.

I remind myself that for a Chinese woman, learning how to read and moving to a foreign country were once revolutionary acts conceived in fugitive spaces. No control is absolute. Power at its most menacing and totalising is also insecure and unsustainable. I hold no illusions about the long night ahead, but each refusal of injustice preserves an opening. Every act of rebellion, however spectacular or humble, is a reclamation of the self and a love letter to a stranger. Across the darkness, another searching gaze catches the flicker, and a sacred bond is cast: I see you. I feel you. We are still here. [Source]


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