Whether or not Chinese President Xi Jinping signals a successor Wednesday, he’s amassed enough power to effectively rule for decades.
The Communist Party approved a sweeping charter revision at the end of its twice-a-decade congress Tuesday that elevates Xi to a status alongside the nation’s most vaunted political figures. The document put Xi’s contributions on par with those of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping and also declared him the party’s “core” leader indefinitely.
Getting his personal legacy enshrined in the party’s governing document gives Xi a platform to exert influence long after his second — and ostensibly final — term ends in 2022. The changes came a day before the party was expected to announce a new leadership lineup that could signal whether he intends to anoint a successor.
“It does make the naming or not of a successor moot, as it is by now clear that Xi has no plan to relinquish control,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “The only question is how he will do so, and he has probably not yet decided. After all, five years is an exceedingly long time in politics, even in a non-democratic state.”
Xi has sought to turn China into a global economic and military power, modernizing the armed forces while launching a vast program to build infrastructure from Asia to Europe. Yet his focus on keeping the party at the top of China’s power structure raises questions over his commitment to implementing tough reforms, expanding the role of the market and adhering to established global rules of the road.
The president will walk onto a red-carpeted stage in Beijing to present China’s top political body to the world around noon Wednesday. Hundreds of reporters will be on hand to see if the Politburo Standing Committee includes members young enough to rule for a decade after 2022.
The procession provides a theatrical climax to the weeklong congress, a largely closed-door gathering of 2,300 delegates who choose leaders for a nation of 1.4 billion. Xi kicked off the pageant with a marathon speech last week that outlined plans to complete China’s restoration as one of the world’s great powers by 2050.
“The Xi Jinping era is being characterized as the third era of CCP history, with the previous being the Mao and Deng eras,” said Andrew Polk, co-founder of research firm Trivium China in Beijing, referring to the Communist Party. “At this stage, there is little reason to suspect that era will end in 2022.”
Both Mao and Deng enjoyed political clout beyond their formal titles. Xi has been cast in state propaganda as the leader who would finish their campaigns to rectify China’s suffering at the hands of colonial powers.
“By 2050, two centuries after the Opium Wars, which plunged the ‘Middle Kingdom’ into a period of hurt and shame, China is set to regain its might and re-ascend to the top of the world,” the official Xinhua News Agency said Tuesday in a commentary.
The congress also selected 204 full Central Committee members, who will in turn elect the Standing Committee on Wednesday. The Standing Committee will recommend a new Central Military Commission, giving Xi a chance to cement control over the People’s Liberation Army. The Central Committee, which meets at least once a year to ratify major policies, includes younger officials who have served directly under Xi and could extend his influence for years.
The list includes Chongqing party chief Chen Miner, 57, and Guangdong leader Hu Chunhua, 54, two next-generation leaders often cited as potential successors. Left off was Wang Qishan, 69, a Xi ally who was seen as a bellwether for the president’s plans to stay on when he reaches a similar age five years from now.
‘Xi Jinping Thought’
Xi’s elevation in the revised charter may reduce his need to test the party’s retirement conventions. The document listed “Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” alongside those of Mao and Deng that helped the party survive civil war and the fall of the Soviet Union.
Xi’s theory builds on Deng’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the party’s explanation for introducing capitalism into its communist political structure. By declaring a “new era,” Xi is moving beyond Deng’s reforms while paying homage to them.
Mary Gallagher, director of the University of Michigan’s Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, said the language suggests behind-the-scenes debate about how much authority to give Xi.
“This addition is somewhat of a compromise perhaps between Xi and other top leaders,” Gallagher said. “Xi Jinping stands above the rest, but only through affiliation with a former leader’s thought. To me, it demonstrates the complicated context of Xi Jinping’s concentration of power.”
Still, Mao is the only other sitting leader to have his name written into the party charter since 1945, when “Mao Zedong thought” was included as a guiding ideology alongside Marxism. Deng’s name was added to the charter after his death in 1997.
While Xi’s immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, also secured contributions to the document, neither was featured by name. Both made way for a successor under a two-term system established by Deng a quarter of a century ago.
By eclipsing Jiang and Hu in the party’s governing documents, Xi has given himself the authority to challenge that system.
“He is establishing a new imperial political system,” said Du Guang, a former researcher at the Central Party School, the party’s think-tank in Beijing. “With the amendment of the party charter and the installation of his own people on the Central Committee, he can do whatever he wants in the next five years and beyond.”
(An earlier version of this story corrected the day of the Xinhua report in the 10th paragraph.)
— With assistance by Ting Shi, Keith Zhai, and Peter Martin