Does Xi – China’s most powerful leader since Mao – plan to ‘do a Putin’?


China’s ruling party moved on Tuesday to confirm Xi Jinping’s status as the country’s most powerful leader in decades by adding his name and ideology to its constitution. Xi’s concept of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era’ was added to the party constitution at the close of its twice-a-decade congress, The Guardian reports.

“The amendment of the party constitution effectively confirms Xi Jinping’s aspiration to be the Mao Zedong of the 21st century — that means a top leader with no constraints on tenure or retirement age,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a political expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The fact that he has become the new helmsman of the ship of state, providing guiding principles for party, state and military, provides the perfect justification for him to stay number one well beyond the normal 10 years,” he added.

By enshrining Xi’s political thought into its constitution, China’s ruling Communist Party put him in the same company as the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong, and cemented his power ahead of a second five-year term, Reuters notes.

“This is about further erasing any distinction between Xi Jinping and the party,” said Jude Blanchette, who studies the party at The Conference Board’s China Center for Economics and Business in Beijing.

“Add on to this having supply-side structural reform and One Belt One Road written into this, which were Xi’s signature policies, this makes questioning or non-compliance with those tantamount to betrayal of the party.”

“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,” Australia’s former prime minister Kevin Rudd wrote in the Financial Times.

However, 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, The Guardian adds.

“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.

Other observers believe Xi could become even more powerful as he consolidates his authoritarian rule.

Credit: Wikimedia

“Xi is on the road to be China’s most powerful leader, but he hasn’t reached the peak,” says Wu Qiang, an independent commentator based in Beijing and former professor of political science at Tsinghua University. “[Over the next five years] Xi will institutionalize his power in the party. In the end, he may get rid of the politburo, and become the real ‘President’ of China,” he tells TIME magazine:

The key question that remains is whether any younger leaders are promoted to the PSC, as these by implication will be the cadres groomed to assume the top posts of president and premier at the 20th Congress in 2022. The most common candidates mentioned are Hu Chunhua, Zhang Qingwei and Chen Min’er, though if none make the cut, then it will look like Xi is preparing to stay on for longer than the next five years.

“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,” said the Conference Board’s Blanchette.

“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. ….Current displays of loyalty were “a striking indication of just how singular the party is under Xi”.

He added: “We are not at the point, like in the Cultural Revolution, where mangoes that Mao Zedong touched are worshipped. But we are certainly seeing a movement towards a new type of politics … one that is borrowing heavily from [the Mao era].”

Some observers believe Xi plans to “do a Putin” and remain in power behind the scenes if and when he is required to leave office.

Many analysts are predicting that Mr Xi will not appoint any officials young enough to be considered a guaranteed successor to him as president — something that has not happened in 25 years. That could set the stage for Mr Xi to carry on as party head beyond 2022 when his second term as general secretary expires, The FT adds.

“The amendment is indirect confirmation that he will stay on until 2027,” said Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

If no successors-in-waiting appear, that would raise new speculation that Mr. Xi may try to keep power in some form after his second five-year term as president ends in 2023. At the very least, it would add a great deal of uncertainty to a succession process that recent Chinese leaders tried to make more predictable and stable, The NY Times adds.

“The most important outcome of a midterm congress such as this is the designation of a successor,” said Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California [and regular contributor to The Journal of Democracy]. “If the old rules apply, we should expect to see a similar outcome. But this time nobody is sure.”

As former insider to Chinese security affairs Guo Wengui [who has been described as a specter haunting China’s kleptocracy – awaits a decision on his pending application for political asylum in the U.S., the exiled billionaire’s shadow looms over the ongoing 19th Party Congress, notes China Digital Times, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy:

Guo has promised to hold a parallel press conference that would shine light into the black box of elite Party politics (which he appears to have called off indefinitely, as his YouTube account has been suspended), and has claimed that he has classified information explaining the power-jockeying behind the the top leadership ……Reporting on a May meeting between Guo and security officials who were unauthorized to be in the U.S. conducting official business, The Wall Street Journal’s Kate O’Keeffe, Aruna Viswanatha,and Cezary Podkul explain how China’s quest for Guo’s return resulted in serious diplomatic confusion in D.C.


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