All Hail: Xi Jinping Confirmed As "Most Powerful Chinese Leader Since Mao"

The phrase “Socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era” is hardly catchy, but wields immense power. Xi Jinping became the first incumbent leader since Mao to have his name and thought added to the Party’ guiding principles, symbolising a major elevation in his power.

Bloomberg reports “China’s ruling Communist Party approved a revised charter that enshrined President Xi Jinping’s name under its guiding principles, elevating him to a status that eluded his two immediate predecessors. The amended constitution voted on by the Communist Party in Beijing listed ‘Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era’ alongside the theories of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. While presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao also secured contributions to the document, neither was featured by name. The revisions confirmed Xi’s rapid consolidation of power and will reinforce speculation that he might seek to stay on after his second term ends in 2022.

No Chinese leader since Mao has managed to put his stamp on the party’s prevailing ideology in its foundational document before stepping down. ‘Enshrining ‘Xi Jinping thought’ in the Constitution will ensure that Xi Jinping is considered one of the great transformative leaders’ of China, said Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

The move ‘again puts him on par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.”

Chinese media and state officials had been signalling Xi’s elevation since his opening speech at the 19th Party Congress, as the BBC explains "The unanimous vote to write in ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ took place at the end of the Communist Party congress." The congress began last week with a three-hour speech by Mr Xi where he first introduced his philosophy called ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era’. Top officials and state media then began repeatedly mentioning this ideology, calling it ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, in a sign that Mr Xi had cemented his influence over the Party. The BBC's China editor Carrie Gracie says enshrining ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ in the party constitution means rivals cannot now challenge China's strongman without threatening Communist Party rule. Previous Chinese Communist Party leaders have had their ideologies incorporated into the party's constitution or thinking, but none, besides founder Mao Zedong, have had their philosophy described as "thought", which is at the top of the ideological hierarchy.

Leading party bosses have been positively gushing in their praise of Xi during the congress. The party chief of Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo described Xi’s teachings as “intellectually incisive, visionary and magnificent”. Mr Bayangolu, who heads up Jilin province fawned “General Secretary Xi Jinping is the party’s helmsman”, using a term often used to describe Mao. The Guardian reports that Xi gave a short and glowingly optimistic address to delegates.

“Our party shows strong, firm and vibrant leadership,’ Xi said in a brief address to more than 2,200 delegates. ‘Our socialist system demonstrates great strength and vitality. The Chinese people and the Chinese nation embrace brilliant prospects. Today we, more than 1.3bn China’s people, live in jubilation and dignity. Our land … radiates with enormous dynamism. Our Chinese civilisation… shines with lasting splendour and glamour.”

The question now is whether this increased power is also a stepping stone to extending his reign beyond 2022. The Guardian delves into this question “Bill Bishop, the publisher of the Sinocism newsletter on Chinese politics, said the birth of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ confirmed the rare levels of power and prestige enjoyed by its creator. ‘It means Xi is effectively unassailable … If you challenge Xi, you are challenging the party – and you never want to be against the party’. Jude Blanchette, an expert in Chinese politics from New York’s Conference Board research group, said: ‘This is about amassing power and credibility and legitimacy and authority within the system to drive through more effectively what he sees as the right path for China. If you tower above the party, then it is very difficult for anyone below you to decide they don’t want to implement your commands.’ Writing in the Financial Times, Australia’s former prime minister Kevin Rudd said the fanfare around China’s leader suggested Xi, who took power in 2012 and had been expected to step down in 2022, would in fact rule well into the next decade. ‘Five years ago I said he would be China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping. I was wrong. He is now China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong,’ Rudd wrote.

Some commentators are reserving judgement on Xi’s leadership ambitions until the announcement of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. It currently consists of seven people and meets weekly to set policy. “Susan Shirk, the head of the 21st Century China Centre at the University of California, San Diego, disputed the portrayal of Xi as an almighty Mao-like figure. ‘He’s ruling differently, for sure, and people are intimidated by him because of the anti-corruption campaign.’ But Shirk said she was reserving judgment on whether Xi was attempting ‘a real dictatorial play’ until the new line-up of China’s top ruling council, the politburo standing committee, was announced on Wednesday. If that committee included at least one of three possible successors – Hu Chunhua, Chen Min’er or Zhang Qingwei – that would signal Xi’s intention to step down in 2022, she said. If no clear successor emerged, however, it would fuel fears that Xi was ‘going for broke, all-out to be a dictator’ and planned to remain in power indefinitely. ‘I’m prepared to call him a dictator after that. But I am waiting to see,’ said Shirk, US deputy assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton.”

These were Bloomberg’s thoughts on the succession question:

Here are the key scenarios to watch for on Wednesday:

  • No Obvious Heir - Xi walks out with six other men who were born before 1960. That would leave nobody young enough to rule for 10 years after 2022, according to current retirement conventions that mandate stepping down at age 68. By not clearly signalling an heir apparent at the middle part of his term, Xi would be departing from party traditions in place since 1992. That would fuel speculation that Xi wants to stay on as party leader. ‘Most likely he won’t appoint clear successors at the party congress,’ said Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California and author of the 2016 book ‘China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay.’ ‘The safest thing to say is Xi has a lot of flexibility.’
  • Successor Emerges - Xi walks out with two officials born in the 1960s, young enough to stay in power through 2032. Many analysts view the most likely successors as Chongqing’s new party chief Chen Miner, 57, and Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua, 54. It’s important to see who walks out first, signaling a higher rank. Hu was appointed by Xi’s predecessor, former President Hu Jintao, while Chen once worked under Xi as a provincial propaganda chief. Hu is the leader of Guandong province, which has a population of 104 million people and an economy larger than Mexico’s. He’s an advocate of automation as a solution to slowing growth and rising wages, and has urged factories to ‘replace humans with robots.’
  • Standing Committee Shrinks - Xi walks out and only four people follow him on stage. Cutting the Standing Committee to five members from seven would put Xi in charge of China’s smallest leadership group in three decades. The move would continue a shift to smaller leadership bodies that began five years ago, when the committee was slashed from nine members. Another reduction would make it less likely that potential successors are among the new members. ‘A smaller Sanding Committee grants more power to the party chief because he can quickly convene a top meeting and needs fewer support votes to push through his agenda,’ said Gu Su, professor of Philosophy and Law at Nanjing University. ‘A bigger standing committee, like a nine-person committee, runs the risk of policy stagnation because the decision-making process is longer.”
  • Retirement Norms Shattered - Xi walks on stage followed at some point by anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan, 69. Keeping the anti-corruption chief in the Standing Committee would remove an age limit in place since 2002, setting a precedent for Xi to do the same after he reaches the same retirement age in 2022.