China’s Xi Jinping enters his most important year yet as he prepares for unprecedented third term as Communist Party leader

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the New Year gathering organized by the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing on Dec. 31, 2021.Li Xiang / The Associated Press

Dressed in an ill-fitting suit and red tie, Xi Jinping waved awkwardly as he was introduced alongside the rest of President Hu Jintao’s leadership team at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 22, 2007.

He had just been appointed to the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which put him in line to succeed Mr. Hu in 2012, when the older man would reach the end of his second term and step down. Little was known about Mr. Xi at the time. He was seen as a consensus choice among CCP factions controlled by Mr. Hu and those loyal to his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Even five years later, Mr. Xi remained something of a cipher, enough that some Western commentators viewed him as a potential liberal reformer.

That interpretation proved incorrect. Over the past decade, Mr. Xi has amassed more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, and has wielded it to radically reshape both the country and the Communist Party. He has used a corruption crackdown to ruthlessly purge the CCP of potential rivals and boost his popularity among the public. Under Mr. Xi, the once retreating state has advanced into all corners of life. He has launched heavy-handed crackdowns in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, while threatening to invade Taiwan and promoting an aggressive, “wolf warrior” foreign policy.

Now, as he comes to the end of his second five-year term, convention dictates that Mr. Xi prepare to step down and hand the baton onto the next generation, even if he intends to retain considerable influence in the background, as Deng Xiaoping and Mr. Jiang both did for decades. Instead, next year, Mr. Xi is expected to begin an unprecedented third term as President and CCP General Secretary.

A third could easily turn into a fourth: Mr. Xi will be 69 next year. His father – a revolutionary who lived during considerably harder times – was almost 90 when he died. There is no obvious successor being groomed to take Mr. Xi’s place, nor any sign he intends to relinquish power while he is alive.

What signals have emerged from within the Party augur the opposite. In November, the CCP Central Committee issued a resolution “on the major achievements and historical experience of the Party,” only the third such motion ever passed. The resolution put Mr. Xi on par with Mr. Mao, as leader of a third era of Chinese politics (the second being shared by all three of Mr. Xi’s predecessors). It recognized Mr. Xi as the “core” and “chief representative” of the Party and named a body of theory for him, which it termed “the Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21st century.”

Chongyi Feng, an expert on modern Chinese history at the University of Technology, Sydney, said that in some ways Mr. Xi is “even more powerful than Mao.”

“Mao had to face challenges from many of his contemporaries, from generals who would not easily submit to his control,” Dr. Feng said. He described Mr. Xi as a “Red Emperor,” more similar to China’s imperial leaders than his Communist predecessors, who all shared power with others to a greater or lesser extent. This interpretation was echoed by David Shambaugh, author of China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now.

“He is an emperor-like figure in the modern period,” Dr. Shambaugh said. “One in singular control of all organs of the Chinese state and military power.”

Over the past decade, he added, Mr. Xi has overthrown “30-plus years of governance in China that the three previous leaders all bought into and institutionalized, and brought back one-man rule.”

While Mr. Xi is uniquely powerful, his position within the party has not gone entirely unchallenged. There have been limited signs of discontent over his seizing the reins of power, through which he has essentially curtailed the ambitions of a generation of future leaders. While the historical resolution was effusive in its praise for Mr. Xi, it did not go as far in criticizing his predecessors as some had expected, nor did it throw out previous repudiations of Mao, retaining language critical of the “catastrophic Cultural Revolution.”

“The text of the resolution is a compromise,” Dr. Feng said. In particular, by endorsing a previous resolution passed under Mr. Deng, the new text does not offer carte blanche for Mr. Xi’s radical reforms. “If the second resolution is still valid, then it is technically illegal for him to get rid of the term limit on his position. It’s illegal for him to promote a cult of personality. ”

While no one expects Mr. Xi to fail to secure a third term, internal opposition could be successful in blocking other changes to the Party’s structure that might help enshrine his power, such as reviving the position of chairman, or further shrinking the Standing Committee to concentrate even more power under himself .

Prior to Mr. Xi being anointed in 2007, Mr. Hu was believed to have been pushing for more of his allies to be added to the Standing Committee, and to cut its membership. Neither move was successful. But Mr. Hu was a far weaker leader than Mr. Xi. The latter has shown himself to be remarkably astute at navigating internal Party politics, and ruthless when it comes to purging rivals who step out of line. Dr. Mr. Feng said that for the next 12 months Mr. Xi’s “primary purpose, all of his energy and internal diplomacy, will be focused on the 20th Party Congress,” at the end of the year.

Mr. Xi has shown himself to be an astute student of history, determined that his Party will not repeat what he views as the mistakes that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has worked hard to empower and shore up the CCP, reversing a slow retreat from many spheres of life that took place under Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu, and asserting absolute control over private industry, the internet and the People’s Liberation Army.

Above all else, the CCP prizes stability, and by making himself leader for life Mr. Xi would appear to be offering that. But at the same time, no matter how powerful he is now, he has opened the door to potential future chaos, said Nathan Attrill, an expert on Chinese politics at Australian National University.

“Succession is the Achilles heel of Leninist political systems,” he told The Globe. “Every political disaster in a Communist country has ultimately been about succession.”

“As long as Xi Jinping makes it to the end of next year, he will be the leader for the foreseeable future.” Attrill said, adding that Mr. Xi has set the stakes so that his death may be the only path to a succession. “There is no designated successor, and if there was they would need to be constantly looking over their shoulder.”

Dr. Shambaugh said that by returning the country to “a kind of one-man neo-totalitarian dictatorship,” Mr. Xi may have strengthened his own position and that of the CCP in the short term, “but in the medium and longer term, I think he’s actually caused the Communist Party some challenges down the road.”

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