Will China’s XI do a Mao Zedong?

Here’s what to expect at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress which starts next Wednesday.

Published: 11th October 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th October 2017 07:52 AM   |  A+A-

On October 18, 2,287 party delegates, representing 89 million party cadres and 4.5 million grassroots party organisations, including senior party leaders, will gather in Beijing to elect the 19th Central Committee of China’s Communist Party (CCP). The Committee in turn will elect the Politburo and its apex Standing Committee. In reality, this jamboree will be largely ceremonial and will mark the end of the ongoing muscle flexing between party factions staking claims to top positions. Most importantly, the meet will formally confirm Chinese President Xi Jinping’s second term as party chief.

This event, held twice a decade, carries wide-ranging implications. Popular prognosis over the meeting’s outcome has already boosted investor sentiment making China’s stock exchange index so upbeat that analysts project Hang Seng to breach the proverbial 30,000 mark before end of this year. Its political implications are also being inferred and these have deeper implications for neighbouring countries and for all those having stakes in how China evolves in the future.

But the most pressing question is: How far will President Xi succeed in imprinting his decisions on China’s future leadership? When Xi was elected as the general secretary in 2012, the Standing Committee and Politburo members were not selected according to his choice. His predecessors (Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao) were openly seen pushing for their proteges.

Xi had no known faction backing him and he himself was a ‘compromise choice’ between Jiang’s Shanghai faction and Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League. But thanks to his rapid rise, Xi has not only been compared to China’s Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, he is increasingly seen as adopting Chairman Mao’s imagery. Just like Mao, Xi’s hometown has come to be a tourist destination with myths knitted over his personality.

By last October, Xi had already been designated as the ‘core’ of the party leadership, an epithet only Mao and Deng enjoyed; it was only affectionately conferred upon Zemin by his benefactor Deng Xiaoping. Also, unlike Presidents Jiang and Hu, who both worked closely with their premiers Li Peng and Wen Jiabao, the current premier Li Keqiang doesn’t have much influence with President Xi. The fact that Xi’s strongest rival of 2012, Jiang’s protege Bo Xilai, was disgraced just before the 18th Party Congress greatly facilitated Xi’s rise. And unlike Deng or Jiang, Hu had vacated the chairmanship of the most powerful central military commission along with the presidency—leaving Xi peerless.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has since opened investigations even against senior party leaders. Last month, rising star and prospective candidate for post-Xi premiership, Politburo member Sun Zhengcai was removed from all posts and is currently being investigated. Xi has marginalised those not aligned to his politics, set up several new groups headed by him and has also put himself in charge of existing ones.

Xi has taken charge even of the leading group for economic affairs which is normally headed by the premier thereby sidelining Li. He has reorganised military structures and has put himself in direct command. Xi has been helped by rising inequalities, overcapacity of production, skilled manpower, foreign exchange reserves, rapidly ageing population and externals challenges from terrorism, climate change, protectionism,  and US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un making the CCP seek stronger leadership.

This is where Xi’s vision of “great rejuvenations of the Chinese nation” through his Belt and Road Initiative and his ‘China Dream’ and ‘reorganising great power relations’ promise the Communists a continued hold on power. This enhances Xi’s leverage in anointing China’s seventh generation leaders to be formally elected at this meet. Five of the seven members of the Standing Committee retire after they cross the age of 69, while President Xi and Premier Li continue for the next five years. For these five vacancies, party factions have been pushing their loyalists. Even Xi is seeking to promote his ‘Shaanxi clique’.

Firstly, all eyes are set on the newly-appointed general secretary of Chongqing, Chen Min’er, known to be Xi’s protege. Last month, he replaced his disgraced predecessor Sun. Chen Min’er is not even a Politburo member and yet is expected to be catapulted to the post of vice president. Second, Guangdong party secretary and Politburo member Hu Chunhua may become the executive vice premier to lead from 2022 after Li retires. Known as ‘little’ Hu for his close proximity with former president Hu Jintao, Hu Chunhua has since openly professed his loyalty to Xi. Others think Premier Li may push his protege, Vice Premier Wang Yang, for this seat.

Zhao Leji, another member of Xi’s Shaanxi clique and director of the organisation department, could become the chair of National People’s Congress. Shanghai party secretary Han Zheng has worked closely with Xi since 2007 when Han was the mayor of Shanghai and Xi, Shanghai’s party secretary. Finally, Xi’s chief of staff Li Zhanshu and reforms advisor to three presidents Wang Huning are also in the reckoning and there could always be a last minute surprise.

There is also talk of Xi replacing the position of general secretary with chairman—a position held by Mao Zedong. Compared to the general secretary who’s the first among equals, chairman connotes supreme leader. Xi may do this either now or during the next party congress in 2022 as there are also rumours of him breaking away with the well- established convention and seeking a third five-year term as China’s leader.

Swaran Singh
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU


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