China watchers were glued to the words that CCP chairman Xi Jinping uttered in his two-hour-long speech on Monday while looking for signs of any policy signalling that could mark a significant shift. The speech is examined for the policy statements, which didn’t mark any significant shift from the previous pronouncements by Xi over the past two years.
Xi has been building up the narrative of a self-reliant policy in a turbulent world for a while now. He is the ultimate crisis manager. An ability he has honed over the years.
In the early 1980s, when Xi Jinping was county party chief in the Hebei province, his mother, Qi Xin, wrote a letter to the province’s party chief to take an interest in the progress of his son’s career.
The party chief, Gao Yang, revealed the details of Xi’s mother’s letter, a great embarrassment for the family at the time. But Xi has managed to survive many such incidents and made the crisis work for himself.
China today finds itself in a challenging international environment. Xi wants to use his luck again to push the country to the position of ‘leading world power’ — replacing the US.
Xi securing the third term means he will likely remain in power until 2032. Xi hasn’t appointed a clear successor, a deliberate move that he may do so at the next Party Congress in 2027 and is likely to remain in the seat as the Chairman of the CCP until 2032.
His rise has been marked by silently observing a crisis and jumping on the opportunity when the time comes.
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Removing the rivals
A small group of 600 individuals, primarily from the Jiang Zemin faction, had picked Xi around 2007 when Hu Jintao was the Chairman. Despite Hu taking the reins of power, the influence of the Jiang Zemin faction has prevailed, and Xi has done everything to snuff out the influence of Jiang and his allies.
“They believed that the unassuming, low-key Xi would be more easily controllable than the flamboyant Bo, who would eventually fall in 2012 after a convoluted scandal. If this is true, one can only imagine their regrets. But Jiang and Zeng were hardly alone among party elders in settling on Xi,” wrote Deng Yuwen, a Chinese writer and scholar, in Foreign Policy.
When the party discussed ex-Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai’s debacle, Xi jumped to ensure his rival princeling would disappear from the corridors of Chinese politics forever. Xi ensured that Bo was punished, which set a precedent in Chinese politics as members of the Politburo Standing Committee were spared from criminal punishment.
But Xi has a clear-headed approach to punishing his rivals. The appearance of Zhang Gaoli, former Vice Premier, during the 20th Party Congress after being accused of sexual assault by tennis player Peng Shuai, tells us that Xi protects those he considers allies.
Some elders who lifted Xi to the pedestal after the Bo Xilai scandal sat listening to Xi’s speech at the 20th Party Congress on Monday.
But that doesn’t mean all those opposing Xi have been silenced. There remain silent opposers among Chinese elites who fear retribution if they speak up.
“Xi’s sources of support mean that while his power may have been challenged, it has not suffered any attrition. He has his own solid bases of popular support. As varied and large as his opposition may be, especially among China’s elites, it is also disunited, fearful, unable to organize, and lacks a shared vision of any alternative or avenue for change. Xi’s enemies are many, but so are his weapons,” wrote Deng in his essay.
Xi’s style of punishing his rivals draws inspiration from the Chinese political theory of legalism, which makes him a feared and revered leader at the same time.
According to The Wall Street Journal, citing insider sources, Xi might be about to pack the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) with his friends — demonstrating who will be awarded or punished in Xi’s China. We will find out about the personnel changes on or after Sunday when the meeting concludes.
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Xi never wastes a good crisis
Xi’s success was understanding the zeitgeist of Chinese society during the transition between Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. China’s rapid economic rise through reform and opening up had created an underbelly of corruption which every Chinese elite almost accepted as a state of affairs and the outcome of the Chinese story of offering an alternative economic growth model.
But Xi sensed an opportunity to squash all opposition by using the zeitgeist of tackling corruption and offering ‘common prosperity’ as the new deal to the Chinese public.
Sources have told the author that a new brand of young bureaucrats approve of Xi’s ‘common prosperity’ campaign as fixing inequality is seen as one of the policy reforms required to maintain internal stability in China.
During the 19th Party Congress, there was a lingering expectation that Xi could appoint a successor during the 20th Party Congress. But instead, he chose to consolidate power and purge even the security officials who had helped him elevate to the position in the first place.
Reading the 20th Party Congress speech shows that there is much continuity in policy thought from the last 19th Party Congress. The pronouncements on science and technology, Chinese-style modernisation, common prosperity, and national security have much continuity between the two congresses.
But the difference can be parsed by contextualising how Xi plugs himself into these crises to offer a solution which has been building up for a long time — even before Xi came to power.
“We must adhere to the priority development of education, the self-reliance and self-improvement of science and technology, and the leadership and drive of talents, accelerate the construction of a strong country in education, science and technology, and talents, insist on educating people for the party and the country, comprehensively improve the quality of independent training of talents, and focus on creating top-notch innovative talents. The world’s talents use it,” said Xi Jinping in his speech at the 20th Party Congress.
The focus on promoting science and technological research suggests that Xi feels that China faces hurdles in national rejuvenation as it has failed to advance in key industries without heavily relying on the outside world.
Xi knows another crisis is brewing on the horizon because of constraints imposed on Chinese companies from accessing foreign technology, and he wants to tame the storm with his usual style.
“Confronted with drastic changes in the international landscape, especially external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China, we have put our national interests first, focused on internal political concerns, and maintained firm strategic resolve,” said in his speech on Monday.
Xi was once a rookie princeling who had used his family’s support to move into influential party positions. Xi has gone from strength to strength with each action choreographed to mint his name as the ultimate crisis manager.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with a focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)