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Chinese President Xi Is About To Solidify His Power Over China

Here's how Xi is using the upcoming Party Congress to do so.

07/28/2017 04:05 pm ET | Updated 10 hours ago
Krisztian Bocsi/Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping will face great opposition at this year's Congress.

LONDON ― As the Communist Party of China prepares for what is widely expected to be a historic party congress this autumn, President Xi Jinping put one Politburo member, Sun Zhengcai, under investigation and got his right-hand man, Wang Qishan, to publish a long article prominently in the People’s Daily to underline the importance of party disciplinary work. Given the increasingly tight control Xi exercises in the party and the media, the timing of the two events could not have been coincidental. 

The publication of Wang’s article is important as many in the Chinese establishment had hoped that the party rectification, presented publicly as the anti-corruption campaign, would be wound down after the completion of Xi’s first term at the forthcoming 19th Party Congress. The assumption that underpins such an expectation is that Xi has already substantially strengthened his hold on the party and the state, and should turn his attention to setting out his specific reform agenda at the congress and implementing them in his second term.

Wang’s article reminds anyone in the party who has entertained such thoughts, that this would be wishful thinking, stressing that the great achievements in governing the country since the 18th Party Congress in 2012, are due to Xi’s resolute leadership, in particular in making the inspection system in the party work effectively. According to Wang, the controlling of the party ― and harshly disciplining its members ― are the keys to the party’s success and will be sustained and enhanced after the party congress.

Wang’s article reminds anyone in the party who has entertained [thoughts of governmental change], that this would be wishful thinking.

By taking such a high-profile stance Wang is reminding the establishment that under Xi’s leadership he is responsible for correcting the current ails of the party. His article does not imply he will be dispensable, as it lays stress on continuity and persistence. But Intentional or not, it raises questions over whether he, having reached a typical age of retirement from the powerful and exclusive Politburo Standing Committee, will indeed do so. 

Wang also makes it clear that the authority for party inspection or rectification comes from the central leadership, the core of which is Xi Jinping. According to Wang, Xi takes a personal interest in this, and sees it as something that should be institutionalized, rather than as a campaign with a termination date. The implication is clear: as long as Xi remains the core of the leadership, party rectification will not stop.

His moves to maintain dominance in the Communist Party have ensure that Xi does not have any major political opponents in the upcoming congress, but he is still facing strong resistance in other forms. In fact, the existence of Wang’s article makes that clear. Has Xi been free of opposition, it would have been unnecessary for Wang to publish this article in the run up to the congress, rather than waiting to address the congress’ purpose after the event had occurred. 

Resistance in the party

Thomas Peter / Reuters
China's Premier Li Keqiang speaks with reporters after the closing ceremony of last year's Congress.

Xi is seeking to make substantial changes to some of the norms or conventions which were first put in place after the now infamous Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union that altered many of China’s relations in the region. This is where he faces great resistance.

The prospect that some of the norms put in place in the post-Tiananmen era are to be ditched causes serious concern in the higher echelons of the party. Many see this as departing from the formula that underpinned the party’s successes, and as a threat to their vested interests. Xi clearly sees his alternative as better for the party and the country. To those who resist it is about political survival.

And Xi has already begun to take three key institutional steps to ensure that any political resistance does not take hold.  

Although the first of the three may seem less direct, it is a clear move by Xi to maintain control of the public narrative. 

The cornerstone for political stability up until this point was an institutionalized succession process, by which a new generation of top leaders was identified and put in apprenticeship for five years before taking power for a maximum of two five-year terms.

In line with the norm since the early 1990s at least two younger leaders will be named as apprentice leaders at the 19th Party Congress, so that they can take over in the 20th Party Congress in 2022. In the previous rounds of this process, their identities were known by this stage in the preparation for congress. 

Xi intends to stay in power after the end of his two five-year terms in 2022.

However, this time, no names have been revealed so far. After the 6th plenum last year, a ministerial level official also declared publicly that the customary retirement age for top level leaders was not binding, but that the statute was merely ‘folklore.’

Together these two moves seem to confirm that Xi intends to stay in power after the end of his two five-year terms in 2022 ― but it does not stop there. 

The co-ordinated release of the Wang article and the sacking of Sun Zhengcai appears designed to reduce the resistance in the run-up to the 19th Party Congress. By taking down one of the twenty-five most senior leaders and party Secretary of Chongqing for as yet unspecified violation of party discipline, Xi is sending a powerful message to the party.  

The message is simple: party rectification will continue and those who do not measure up or are unwilling to stand behind Xi should expect to meet the same fate as Sun ― a clear message of Xi projecting confidence and a call to others to cease resistance.

But this should not be mistaken to imply Xi is so powerful and confident that he knows he can have his way at the 19th Party Congress. If he did he would not have to put up such an aggressive display of power prior to the congress, as it could be counterproductive.  Indeed, if Xi thought he had an unchallenged authority at the 19th Party Congress, he would just reshape the Politburo and its Standing Committee as he saw fit.  

In such a scenario Xi may well either let Wang retire, in line with the norm, or appoint him to replace Li Keqiang as Premier so that Wang will aggressively implement his economic reform agenda.  Keeping Wang on carries a heavy political price. The other Politburo Standing Committee members who have to retire while Wang stays on will be bitterly resentful. Xi will only keep Wang on in his current portfolio if he feels that he will still need Wang to persist with the party rectification. 

Even so, the outcome of the 19th Party Congress remains uncertain at this stage. Chinese politics in a lot of ways is not so different from democratic ones in at least one crucial area: unpredictability. The resistance knows what Xi is trying to do and will do everything they can to obstruct his powers, but the likelihood of their success is low. It will be an interesting event to watch, as both sides keep some cards we have yet to see close to their chest, and only bring them out to play them at the congress. 

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