Yesterday marked the closing day of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which opened on Oct. 16. Today, the CCP’s Central Committee will meet in plenary session to approve the membership of the party’s Politburo and Standing Committee. Xi Jinping is expected to be reelected to a third five-year term as head of the CCP. The only question is whether he will be conferred the title of “Chairman,” as in Chairman Mao.
With Western democracies showing signs of worsening political and economic decay beneath uncertain leadership, one cannot help but marvel at the sight of China confidently going through the rituals of political affirmation rather than of brutal contestation. Whatever in-fighting has occurred is safely hidden from view. The name of the game is projection of strength and stability under a unified leadership.
So dominant has Xi become as China’s leader that he is now mentioned, in the simplified periodization of the country’s recent history, as the third figure in a triumvirate, after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. “The Chinese nation … has stood up, grown rich, and become strong—and it now embraces the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation,” he told the 19th Congress five years ago. Xi will not only be the head of the CCP; he will also be the chair of the Central Military Commission and, of course, the president of the People’s Republic of China.
Xi has, in the last 10 years, pursued the consolidation of state power over the world’s most populous country (1.4 billion people) with unrelenting determination. This goal owes much to the lessons the Chinese communist leadership drew from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They saw that the Soviet collapse became inevitable once the communist party lost its unity and grip on power. They swore not to allow that to happen to China.
Upon his election as party general secretary in 2012, Xi quickly secured control over the whole party by launching an anticorruption campaign that targeted high-ranking party officials who had enriched themselves during China’s unprecedented economic boom. He did the same thing in the military, purging it of leaders previously thought untouchable. It was a popular move: The public saw it not as an elimination of political rivals but as a stern application of the law against the corrupt.
He sought to tame the internet by mounting a massive system of control and surveillance that effectively paralyzed the communicative capabilities of independent social media voices and potential dissidents. At the same time, recognizing the power of digital connectivity, his media team introduced a “Xi app” that not only propagated his thoughts but also functioned as an all-purpose platform for accessing essential services.
The outside world had hoped to see a Chinese leader who could match Deng’s bold opening of the country’s economic system with the necessary reform of its closed political system. Xi has turned out not to be that leader. He was unimpressed by the Chinese billionaires who amassed enormous private fortunes and used their wealth to buy political influence. He clipped the wings of those who thought their global reach had made them financial superstars worthy of adulation. He went after businessmen who parked their money abroad and kept it out of the reach of the Chinese government.
He closed down gigantic property developers who had taken deposits from aspiring homeowners but failed to deliver as scheduled. He built homes for rural folks using funds “donated” by China’s billionaire class. He took to task the owners of computer game businesses for turning the country’s young people into game addicts.
Xi regards capitalist development not as an end in itself, but only as a means to secure a prosperous life for all. People who heard him attack protectionism in defense of economic globalization at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017 wrongly thought he was singing praises to free market capitalism. Far from it. He was only thinking like a Marxist for whom socialism made sense only in the context of a productive and developed economy. Like Deng, he regarded the development of productive forces as the historic role of capitalism, not socialism.
He remains a staunch Leninist, for whom the Communist Party represents the distillation of the highest consciousness of the working class and, as such, must provide direction to the government and to Chinese society as a whole. Today, Xi is not just the leader of the party; he is the party. The personality cult that has grown around him, not seen since Chairman Mao’s time, attests to that.
But, as in all autocratic systems, political succession is a critical problem. Xi has no visible successor. That is why every China observer keenly watches the lineup of China’s leaders as they walk onto the front stage at the closing of each party congress. All eyes will be on the person closely following Xi. That photographic moment more or less spells out China’s line of succession.
An interesting side note to the 20th Congress was the selection of Wang Huning as secretary general. A former professor of politics and dean of the law school at Fudan University, he is widely regarded as Xi’s principal adviser.
In 1988, Wang Huning was invited to tour the United States. After visiting 30 cities and almost 20 universities, he wrote an influential report titled “America Against America,” which has become a kind of sourcebook among Chinese intellectuals for what ails the United States.