China’s Xi Jinping at the pinnacle of power
On 22 October, President Xi Jinping was reappointed for a third term as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. With no successor in sight and the field clear of rivals, his personality cult and accompanying total control over the lives of China’s 1.5 billion-plus population can only intensify. Things will likely get much worse for human rights and civic freedoms before they start to get any better, and China’s model will remain influential internationally. But absolute power won’t last forever. When the economy – the main source of legitimacy of the Chinese party-state – falters, all the blame will fall on the all-powerful Xi.
The medium was the message at the closing ceremony of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s 20th Congress. The carefully choreographed ritual held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing culminated on 22 October with the coronation of Comrade Xi Jinping as the undisputed, revered leader of the official party. It was a display of monolithic power not seen since the days of Mao Zedong.
The CCP Congress elected a new Central Committee and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and passed an amendment to the party’s constitution making Xi’s ideas ‘core’ elements of the party’s identity. The new Central Committee selected the members of the new Politburo and its Standing Committee, the party’s core leadership bodies, packing them with Xi loyalists, and handed Xi an unprecedented third term at the helm of the party.
Xi has not yet been re-elected as China’s president, but he will be as soon as the National People’s Congress rubber-stamps party appointments when it meets in March 2023. When that happens, he will become the longest-serving ‘president of everything’ – party, state and military – in the history of modern China.
The Chinese party-state
China’s political system may well seem opaque, but it’s by no means characterised by the type of uncertainty innate to democracies. In democratic regimes, rules are predictable but results aren’t – they can’t be taken for granted until the votes have been counted. In China’s ‘people’s democratic dictatorship’ – an expression coined by Mao and enshrined in the country’s constitution – there’s no such thing as an election that could potentially unsettle those in power.
China’s constitution states that the country is a one-party state directed by the CCP. No political opposition that might challenge the CCP’s primacy is allowed to exist. There are instead eight additional political parties with ‘advisory’ functions under the aegis of the CCP. Their role is to provide a facade of fake pluralism.
The Chinese state and the CCP are simultaneously two and one and their respective structures are remarkably symmetric. But career paths are built through the party, not the state, with key party structures often prevailing over their state parallels. The Central Committee for Discipline Inspection, for instance, enforces rules and fights corruption within the CCP, but because most government officials are party members, it acts as the country’s top anti-corruption body.
Formally, the CCP is shaped as a pyramid, with those at each level selecting delegates to the next. National Party Congress delegates are elected in territorial units as well as functional groups such as state-owned companies, the public service sector and the army. The most prominent among them are sent to the Central Committee, which selects the members of the Politburo, the Politburo Standing Committee and the Central Military Commission, as well as the CCP General Secretary.
In practice, top positions are negotiated behind closed doors by current and retired Politburo Standing Committee members long before the formal proceedings of the CCP congress begin. The Standing Committee’s inner workings are unclear, but conventionally it seems to represent a form of collective leadership with each member having an equal vote and the General Secretary setting the agenda and convening its meetings.
The twin state structure follows the same logic. Ritual elections are held locally, with the slightest expression of dissent repressed. Local legislative bodies select delegates to the next level, all the way up the National People’s Congress, a body of almost 3,000 members who gather once a year to ratify – often unanimously – the decisions made well in advance by the highest leaders of the party-state.
The president of everything
Having secured his reappointment to the party’s top political and military positions, Xi will soon be confirmed as China’s president and leader of the state’s Central Military Commission, and therefore of the People’s Liberation Army. He will play these roles for at least five more years, maybe 10 – and possibly for life.
Right now, it’s hard to imagine Xi ever retiring. Crucially, there’s no potential successor in sight, and certainly nobody wishing to be seen as such. Part of the duty of China’s supreme leader is to ensure a smooth succession. But those who could have been in line for the top job have either been forced to retire or marginalised to the point of not even getting a seat at the Central Committee.
The only disruption at the carefully planned closing ceremony on 22 October was what looked like a live purge: during the event Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor as president, was escorted off stage, apparently against his will. In what turned out to be a fitting metaphor, an empty chair remained next to Xi after the party elder was pushed away.
Belated official explanations referred to undefined health issues. But some saw this as a pre-emptive strike to prevent Hu making any gesture of protest against Xi’s power grab. Others speculated that the ‘unplanned’ departure from protocol had in fact been carefully staged to humiliate Hu. In his inaugural speech, Xi had described Hu’s time in office as one of party weakness and corruption, hedonism, money worship, bureaucratism, excessive interest group power and ‘historical nihilism’. Hu’s protégé, outgoing prime minister Li Keqiang, is among those set to retire, despite being two years younger than Xi.
The only way to know for sure if Hu was indeed purged, given the opaque nature of Chinese politics, will be to watch whether his name begins to disappear from official speeches and documents. But one thing is transparent: the Hu era of counterbalancing factions is definitely over.
China’s 1982 constitution, framed to avoid a repeat of the worst excesses of the Mao era, provided for several different offices of power within the party-state structure; while the de facto role of supreme leader remained, leadership to some extent entailed negotiation. But now China has gone full Xi. There are no figures that could counterbalance Xi’s power. Power is now more centralised on a single figure than it was for decades.
Who but Xi will take the blame if things get ugly? If he refuses to share power, he’ll hardly be able to share the blame. Xi should realise that once at the very top, the only way is down.
The new Politburo Standing Committee is completely dominated by Xi men. Power is also as masculine as it has ever been: no woman has ever served on this elite body, but now, for the first time in 25 years, there are no women in the 24-member Politburo either, while the 205-member Central Committee remains 95 per cent male.
The party’s second-in-command, China’s likely prime minister, Li Qiang, is a close Xi ally. He’s also the official who recently imposed a draconian two-month lockdown on Shanghai – a measure the government has tried to sell as a success but that fostered widespread discontent. Number three, Zhao Leji, has led anti-corruption policies, a tool Xi has long used to purge opponents and concentrate power. Number four, Wang Huning, is Xi’s ‘ideologue’, the architect of ‘Xi thought’. The other three also have tight links with Xi.
Who are China's new leaders? The CCP just announced its new Politburo Standing Committee— Neil Thomas 牛犇 (@neilthomas123) October 23, 2022
The result: a clean sweep for Xi allies and a consolidation of power unseen since the Mao era
1. Xi Jinping
2. Li Qiang
3. Zhao Leji
4. Wang Huning
5. Cai Qi
6. Ding Xuexiang
7. Li Xi
The 22 October coronation was a decade in the making. Since Xi’s rise to the top in 2012, China became more totalitarian than at any point since the Mao era, with a growing focus on order and discipline and increasing controls affecting every aspect of everyday life – a strategy made most visible under the COVID-19 pandemic, when a ‘zero COVID’ policy was imposed that meant severely enforced, long-lasting lockdowns of tens of millions of people at a time.
Xi started off on an anti-corruption platform that resulted in massive purges – dealing with a real problem but conveniently targeted to get rivals and opponents out of the way. For a decade, he amassed power by appointing allies to key positions in the party, the state and the military. He restructured the armed forces, tightening his control over them. In 2018, he pushed through a constitutional amendment so he could be awarded a third five-year presidential term.
Xi embraced a ‘rule by law’ strategy – which, unlike the rule of law, according to which nobody is above the law and citizens can hold the state accountable, instrumentalises the law as a tool of political control by the state. As part of this strategy, he cracked down hard on domestic civil society and academic freedoms. Xi has increasingly gone after exiled dissidents – with recent revelations of what appears to be a string of secret Chinese police stations abroad.
China has increasingly exported its repression and extended its ‘rule by law’ strategy beyond its borders. It started with Hong Kong, where it erased its special status and ruthlessly suppressed the democracy movement, some of whose leaders were sentenced to several years in detention just as the CCP’s 20th congress drew to a close. China is increasingly aggressive towards Taiwan, where an attempt to annex by force can’t be ruled out.
Democracy, Chinese style
The mere mention of the word ‘democracy’ is censored on social media and demands for democracy are severely punished. However, Chinese propaganda aggressively promotes internationally what it defines as China’s own version of democracy – a version associated with superior ability to promote economic development.
Operating in several languages, Chinese state media peddle a specific element of ‘Xi ideology’ to global south audiences: so-called ‘whole process democracy’, described as a form of democracy that is ‘exercised through a combination of elections, consultations, decision-making, management and oversight’. The dubiously pluralistic official narrative stresses that, being a common value to all humanity, democracy can take many culturally appropriate, equally valid forms, none of which should be imposed upon others.
In December 2021, as the USA hosted its Democracy Summit, to which China was not invited, it held its own well-attended International Forum on Democracy. There the Chinese government presented its official doctrine in the form of a paper, ‘China: Democracy that Works’, and Chinese state media persistently emphasised the virtues of the Chinese ‘full-fledged people’s democracy’ in contrast with the failings of the USA’s, a system ‘activated at the moment of voting and deactivated immediately afterwards’, as deputy foreign minister Le Yucheng put it.
Since the outset, the People’s Republic of China has tried to present itself as a democracy on the grounds that the CCP consults with people on the ground, listens to their views and legislates accordingly. But it has claimed that the measure of a successful democracy ultimately lies in its ability to improve its people’s quality of life. Within this framework, the right to economic development trumps political and civic rights such as the freedom of expression.
These arguments are now being wielded in the context of a global battle for global legitimacy and influence. They may be finding eager audiences in many global south countries where people are increasingly fed up with the failings of highly defective democracies. They’re seductive, too, for political leaders eager to free themselves of democratic accountability.
Xi has brought ideology back – and with it, total control. For Xi, controlling behaviour is not enough: thoughts and beliefs must be controlled too.
Following the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping, supreme leader from 1978 to 1989, individual initiative was no longer demonised and Marxist-Leninist ideology was downplayed in favour of the state-led ultra-capitalism that fuelled China’s rise to economic superpower status. The state no longer monopolised people’s private lives. While keeping people under surveillance, it didn’t demand they mobilise in favour of the regime – it just made sure they wouldn’t mobilise against it.
All that changed under Xi, who put together an enormous repressive apparatus and a pervasive propaganda machine that combined into a surveillance state, with people tracked online and offline and every aspect of behaviour policed. The apotheosis of this is apparent in the Xinjiang region, where the predominantly Muslim population is being subjected to an industrial-level ‘re-education’ programme aimed at turning them into model Chinese citizens, which United Nations (UN) human rights institutions have denounced as encompassing massive human rights violations, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity.
Recently the state has moved to restrict even non-partisan entertainment and social media use, suspicious of celebrities and tech entrepreneurs and seemingly determined to stop people identifying with anything other than the party-state.
In its 19th congress in 2017, the CCP unanimously passed an amendment to its constitution enshrining ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ as one of its guiding principles, alongside the thought of Mao and Deng. A new amendment passed at the 20th CCP congress elevated Xi to the position of ‘core’ leader and his ideology as the ‘guiding principles’ for China’s future development. The cult of personality that an elaborate structure developed to stop happening again is back with a vengeance.
Xi 2.0: Study the Great Nation
Since ‘Xi Jinping thought’ became a guiding principle of the CCP, children have been force-fed it starting in primary school. And in 2019, Xi launched the high-tech equivalent to Mao’s Little Red Book: an app, Study the Great Nation, that teaches and tests knowledge of the leader’s thought.
Within a few months of launch, the app had more than 100 million registered users, largely as a result of party orders to officials across the country to ensure the app became part of people’s daily routine.
Students and workers alike are pressured by their institutions to read Xi news and speeches, watch Xi videos, take quizzes and earn points based on their knowledge of the Xi philosophy. For public officials, stats including time spent in front of their screens and accumulated points are automatically submitted to their supervisors and help determine their chances of keeping their jobs and climbing the ladder.
It’s little surprise so many have integrated the app into their daily routine, whether out of conviction or cynicism.
In China’s tightly controlled society, protests are rare. But discontent can still flare, as it has over the ‘zero COVID’ approach. Anger recently erupted on social media over the reported death of a teenage girl in quarantine. Pandemic-related restrictions recently triggered student protests at two universities. In one of them, protesting students chanted slogans against ‘formalism’ and bureaucracy.
Days before the CCP Congress began, a protester draped two banners on a highway overpass in central Beijing, calling Xi a dictator and a traitor. The banners didn’t last, and censors went on to scrub any reference to them off the internet. On social media, just to say you’d seen the photos became an act of defiance – but one that saw people have their accounts locked. Anti-Xi messages have continued to spread through other means, from graffiti in public toilets to photos of the overpass banners airdropped to fellow passengers on public transport.
For the foreseeable future, Xi can expect to rule the world’s second-largest power free from constraints. His decisions will continue to affect not only the daily lives of China’s 1.5 billion-plus people but many others around the world. And they can only be increasingly bad decisions, as he faces no checks and balances, or anyone who can call him out when he’s wrong.
But Xi and the CCP may be storing up problems for the future. China’s power rests on its economic miracle, which both helps reduce the potential for domestic pressure and enables China to buy international influence. But what happens if the economic miracles stop coming?
Analysts have forecast a real GDP growth of only 3.3 per cent for 2022, and growth rates under five per cent for China for the rest of the decade. Recent warning signs have come in a crisis in the Chinese property market, which has seen some people express dissent by refusing to pay their mortgages. There are other economic clouds on the horizon, including surging debt, a reliance on investment in non-productive infrastructure and low consumption rates. China also faces a demographic challenge as its population ages, lowering the proportion of the population who are of working age.
A big factor behind the current economic slowdown is the zero-COVID policy, but Xi remains committed to it and seems to lack the flexibility to change course. There is no counsel of experts that could help him make different choices. He’s also made it increasingly clear, including through restricting the tech sector, that the once pre-eminent goal of economic growth is now secondary to social control.
Who but Xi will take the blame if things get ugly? If he refuses to share power, he’ll hardly be able to share the blame. With no obvious successor in sight, it’s plausible to foresee that when Xi finally gives up the reins, his insider group will be discredited by association and a future leader of China will be a reformer who moves to dismantle the Xi legacy. Xi should at some point realise that once at the very top, the only way is down.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Civil society should continue to scrutinise China’s human rights record, including by following up on the recommendations of the UN’s report on China.
International human rights institutions should expand their monitoring and reporting on China’s rights abuses, including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Businesses with interests in China should refuse to be instrumental in repression, including by not enabling censorship and surveillance.
Cover photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images