One of Xi Jinping’s first moves after taking China’s top job as Communist Party general secretary in 2012 was to reinstate regular “democratic life sessions” with the other leaders of the 25-member Politburo. , a staple of the Mao Zedong era.
The reinstatement of this practice, which involves self-criticism before the secretary general, was a small but symbolic example of how Xi has distanced himself from China’s collective leadership of recent decades and amassed power not seen since the time of Mao. .
The 69-year-old Xi is expected to break precedent at the Communist Party Congress that begins Oct. 16 and extend his decade-long leadership for another five years — or more — cementing the party’s resurgence in all respects. of China, with Xi officially at its “core”.
Although the exact composition of the next Politburo Standing Committee will give clues as to the extent to which Xi has neutralized what remains of the opposing factions, few party watchers expect a significant change in direction or focus.
Rather, Xi is keen to maintain or tighten his grip, analysts say, a concentration of power that has seen increasingly dogmatic policy enforcement that risks unintended consequences as views are discouraged or stifled. and opposition comments.
Critics point to China’s persistence in its policies despite setbacks, whether with COVID-19, an abrasively aggressive diplomacy, or the suffocation of the once-vibrant “platform” economy, as proof of the risks of an increasingly government. more authoritarian.
The irony, according to former party member Wu Guoguang, is that a leader who has gained power by suppressing opposition is inevitably insecure and therefore unwilling to share power or change course.
“Xi would fear that any self-correction could be used by his potential enemies to overthrow him,” said Wu, now a senior fellow at Stanford University in California.
While some party watchers said China may adjust some policies after the Congress — “fit with the times,” in party parlance — they expect Beijing to maintain its overall direction in coming years under Xi.
“Xi has had a hard time changing course. This is a weakness,” said Ashley Esarey, a political scientist at the University of Alberta.
The foreseeable absence of a clear successor will also allow Xi to rule unopposed, but potentially increases the risk the longer he remains in power.
“Xi’s reluctance to empower a younger successor and moves to break the norms of collective leadership have also arguably made China less resilient, as the country navigates into an increasingly uncertain future,” Esarey said. .
REJUVENATION AND HEADWINDS
Xi’s consolidation of power seems unhindered by the challenges that have accumulated in a chaotic year, from a faltering economy to an increasingly misplaced “zero contagion” policy and support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In his decade at the helm, Xi has prioritized security, expanding the state’s economic role, strengthening the military, a more assertive foreign policy and intensifying pressure to take over Taiwan.
When veterans chose Xi as their leader, the son of a Communist Party revolutionary was seen as a safe choice to put the party first and refresh an institution that had become sclerotic with corruption and less relevant in a failing economy. liberalization.
Xi’s promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 fueled hopes among liberals and Western governments that he might be a reformer. After all, his father had helped then-leader Deng Xiaoping implement China’s historic reform and opening-up when he was party secretary in Guangdong province.
RISE OF THE AUTHORITARIANS
But Xi took his mandate to save the party seriously and brought it back to the center of life in China. And himself at the center of the party.
In the name of fighting corruption and restoring public faith in the party, 4.7 million perpetrators had been investigated under Xi as of April 2022.
Many were purged, including rivals for power such as Chongqing’s popular former party chief Bo Xilai. These measures had the advantage of eliminating political enemies and promoting their own people to vacant positions, while also winning public support.
Xi also oversaw the crushing of dissent and banned “disrespectful” discussions about the party among members. All comments critical of Xi were removed from the internet.
In 2016 he became the “core” of the party and in 2018 he removed the two-term limit on the presidency, clearing the way to rule for life.
GREAT COUNTRY, GREAT BOSS
Administration experts argue that a country as large and diverse as China requires a strong central authority and a strong leader to get things done and prevent chaos.
They point to China’s success in alleviating poverty, its efficiency in building infrastructure and organizing events like this year’s Beijing Winter Olympics, and its effectiveness in quelling COVID-19 outbreaks.
“Part of the story is that when he came to power, many within the Chinese Communist Party expected a more forceful response to the escalating challenges it faced,” said Joseph Torigian, an adjunct professor at American University and an expert in authoritarian politics.
According to Torigian, while the party is not incapable of course correction, many people at the top are products of the same system as Xi and are likely to share similar views.
Dali Yang, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Chicago, said that while Xi is inclined to wield autocratic power, he may feel compelled to be more accommodating in a third term, especially given the growing backlash against policies of ” zero infections”.
“Before the latest COVID outbreak, although his policies inflicted difficulties, people were largely supportive of them. Today, with the economy in the doldrums and the country stuck in the ‘zero contagion’ (plan), he may have to be more open to different ideas,” he said.