China’s take on communism has always had an authoritarian touch, but Xi’s China is not that of Mao’s. With 140 million international travellers visiting the country every year and 100 million Chinese tourists going overseas, China is more open than it has ever been. As the country seeks to uncharacteristically pursue a more muscular foreign policy, a return to centralization is more throwback than a nuanced take on power. Having purged the Communist Party of 278,000 officials and with “Xi Jinping Thought” being taught across national curricula, the president has successively sought to consolidate power and marginalize elites so as to remain in charge.
Last summer it was announced that Sun Zhengcai was being investigated by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. He was then replaced as party secretary of Chongqing by a Xi ally and effectively sidelined. The episode of how Sun ceased to shine was greatly indicative of Xi’s future plans, effectively ridding himself of potential successors with the aim of continuing in power after the end of his term in 2022. Sun had been seen as a high flyer in the Chinese Communist Party, and he and one other were marked out to eventually take up seats in the Politburo as likely successors to Xi and Premier Li Keqiang. Following last week’s announcement, Xi’s intended trajectory is now clear: He aims to remain at the helm after 2022.
Xi’s anti-corruption drive has created a list of enemies within the party and the wider business community. He therefore has to act quickly to build his power base and ensure his plan of building a “moderately prosperous” society is on track whilst he works to project Chinese power overseas. It is key that his centralization of power is seen to be for the greater good — if not, the focus on corruption will be viewed as a cynical power grab.
Having purged the Communist Party of 278,000 officials and with ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ being taught across the country, the president has sought to consolidate power and marginalize elites so as to remain in charge.Zaid M. Belbagi
To the general population, politics remains the preserve of the party, so as long as their personal circumstances improve they can be expected to show little opposition to Xi’s plans. If, by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the party’s founding, he can assure a per capita GDP of $10,000 he will have gone some way to improving the lot of China’s working masses: A promise he is well on track to keeping.
The official communication of the abolishment of presidential term limits went some way to indicating how Xi has used the party apparatus to rubber stamp his plans. At the opening of the annual gathering of the National People’s Congress, Wang Chen, the legislature’s secretary-general, told delegates and ergo the 89 million members of the party that the proposal was the result of a massive public consultation effort. However, in many respects, though continually insisting on the importance of institutions to the Chinese political system, it is clear that in reality they are becoming less important. The party has been vigorous in suppressing dissent historically, but it has always erred toward the institutionalist over the personalist. Bound by strict rules and norms, namely term limits for its leadership and rule by consensus, the party is increasingly becoming overshadowed by Xi’s strongman style of rule and his belief that China’s particular political complex requires a specific kind of one-man rule.
Collective leadership was what made the Chinese political system so resilient after the upheaval of Mao’s tenure. Allowing for long periods of stable governance and swift succession, the system was diametrically opposed to the all-or-nothing forceful leadership of Xi. It is unclear at this stage what Xi’s exact ambitions are, and indeed the presidency is not the summit of power and influence in China. Xi could retire from the presidency in 2023, but retain the party and military chief roles. Deng Xiaoping was the ultimate authority in China for over a decade, able to play a critical backstage role without ever being party chief or president. In this position, he led the dramatic reforms that lifted China out of poverty and chaos. Whether Xi decides to lead from the front or behind will have a significant impact on the long-term durability of China’s peculiar blend of authoritarian communism.