Analysis | The Party Today, Xi Jinping Tomorrow

Analysis | The Party Today, Xi Jinping Tomorrow

William Truban

- American Political Affairs Specialist, China Affairs Specialist at The International Scholar

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The 19th National Party Congress has just wrapped up on October 24th and a number of major developments have come out concerning both the future and the leadership of the People’s Republic of China. On Thursday October 26th, President Trump dropped another hasty characterization of a world leader. Instead of “rocket man”, Trump’s adulation of Chairman Xi Jinping as “the King of China” is becoming increasingly accurate. Many already hailed Xi Jinping as the most powerful leader of China since Deng Xiaoping, the man seen as creating the state capitalist system lauded for its growth in the face of the 2008 Financial Crisis. However, Chairman Xi has taken this a step further by simultaneously having his name written into the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party and failing to name a successor to the Standing Committee. He even has a new ideological foundation proclaimed with “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Quite a mouthful. While these might seem like minor issues, they demonstrate not only the power of Xi Jinping within the CCP as well as his desire to rule past the normal two terms emphasized after the death of Mao Zedong. The biggest implication remains that we haven’t seen anything when it comes to the power of Chairman Xi. 

The biggest implication remains that we haven’t seen anything when it comes to the power of Chairman Xi.

Which is striking since no one expected Xi to be this powerful when he became Party Chairman and President. Xi grew up during the Cultural Revolution the son of a Party Official, one who was quickly purged and struggled against as part of Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Xi’s father was sent to a factory in Henan while Xi was sent to Shaanxi Province as a part of the Over the Mountains and Into the Countryside initiative that forced Red Guards and youths of the six grades seriously involved with the Cultural Revolution to the fringes of the nation. In Shaanxi province, the original province the modern Chinese Communist Party came to control and project power from, young Xi lived in a cave and was forced to do manual labor. After the ideological phases of the Cultural Revolution, he studied chemical engineering at Tsinghua University and became involved in the Chinese Communist Party with the goal of being more of a Party man than anyone else. After work as an assistant and several provincial posts, Xi finally rose to the national level and was elected to the Central Committee. 

Known as a hard, disciplined worker who followed the Party line, he was appointed to be Party Chief of Shanghai in 2006. A stepping stone to national positions, Shanghai had experienced a series of scandals at the time and the uncontroversial, unopposed, and quite unremarkable Xi Jinping cleaned it up. Afterwards, he was elected to the 17th Standing Committee as Vice President and expected to succeed Hu Jintao, Party Chairman and President at the time. In this role, he developed a relatively successful Beijing Olympics in 2012, ran the Cadre training school, and engaged in frequent trips across the world to bolster foreign affairs credentials. It was only natural that Xi Jinping would rise to be leader of the Party, though at the time many wondered who he was. In fact, most people outside of the Party only knew Xi as the husband of Peng Liyuan, who was a famous singer with national recognition. No one expected the Party man, uncontroversial and unremarkable to become as powerful as he did. 

Xi Jinping has risen to a new level of personal power within the Chinese Communist Party.

In his time as Chairman, Xi has consolidated all power in himself and shirked the ‘collective rule’ mentality of his predecessors. All effective power of the CCP has been invested in him through Central Leading Groups that of which he is the Chairman. His control of the military is unquestionable and numerous reforms have been enacted to reduce malfeasance and improve readiness. He has set out a path of reform for the Party with the Four Comprehensives, an effort that has been amplified by the anti-corruption campaign led by the faithful Wang Qishan. Xi has laid out a China Dream, with the idea of a restored China that is respected throughout the world and the center of global dynamics. This is underscored by the Belt and Road Initiative that aims to restore the Silk Road trade routes across Eurasia and connect Chinese industries to the European economies at a lower cost outside of the American maritime domain. Basically, nothing short of a complete overhaul of the People’s Republic. 

While this has placed him as the most powerful leader since Deng, who technically did not even hold an official leadership position but was commonly known to lead China, Xi’s recent effort to put himself in the Constitution demonstrate that he is not Deng Xiaoping but Mao Zedong. While Deng was also written into the Party Constitution, this only occurred posthumously. Mao Zedong is the only leader to have been written into the Constitution while alive. This means Xi Jinping has risen to a new level of personal power within the CCP as Mao is famous for his extreme levels of control within the Party and his ability to overrule any other major leaders in China. The similarities between the two become even more evident with Xi Jinping’s failure to elevate a possible successor to the Standing Committee by the October 25th deadline, indicating that he will likely stay on beyond the normal two terms for General Secretary. While there are term limits for the President no such limits exist for General Secretary of the Party and, in China, it’s the Party that actually counts.

In the People’s Republic of China there are two separate systems: The systems of the bureaucracy and the systems of the Party. The systems of the bureaucracy cover the main positions of President, Vice President, and other positions Americans typically associate with the power in a government (Wright 19-21). Voltaire said that Prussia was not a state with an army but an army with a state. It is easier to think of China as a Party with a state. The Party controls all elements of the state, including how it functions and who functions within it. This means that Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Party has the ability to overrule what any President says if he chooses to remain past the typical two terms. 

With Xi going nowhere and his power consolidated in a way not seen in 25 years, it is more important than ever to understand what the General Secretary means with his new ideological basis of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. Its Fourteen Points lay out the direction of the CCP, which shows its intention of avoiding the middle-income gap and being nationally rejuvenated on the international stage. We can see this with slogans about developing a “Moderately Prosperous Society”, with deadlines for achievement by 2020, as well as commitment of hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize infrastructure throughout Central Asia to develop the Silk Road Network. Even with Taiwan a softer tone has been established as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen called for a breakthrough in relations with China on October 26th. Taiwan has been a continuing sore spot for the CCP as it is emblematic of an incomplete revolution. These positions have ideological salience with the Chinese population and certainly demonstrate a government in lock step with domestic desires.

These efforts certainly make sense for the CCP and Xi Jinping as the basis for their legitimacy resides in effectively delivering economic growth and national pride. Failure on either of these fronts would be an existential affair and can very easily come from poor outcomes regarding Taiwan, the Belt and Road Initiative, the South China Sea, or economic growth rates. There are a lot of expectations for China at this time, especially to change the world system as the United States continues to abdicate responsibility and attack strategic institutions. This Party Congress has set the trajectory on both the domestic and international stages and it will be interesting to see just what Xi Jinping will do next as the most powerful leader of China in recent history. No matter what, he will be at the center of their momentum.

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

Banner Photo Credit:

  1. "The 19th five-yearly congress of the Communist Party of China opened on Oct 18 in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing," The Tibetan Review

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