Chinese Communist Party Congress affords another step for Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power
In coming days, Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to further cement his standing as the Communist Party’s most powerful leader in decades. But last week, a flicker of dissent appeared in China’s capital.
Two banners had been hung on an overpass Thursday amid a column of smoke in Beijing’s northern Haidian district. One called for students and workers to strike and oust Xi, labeling him a traitor to his country.
The other condemned life in China during his 10 years as the party’s general secretary. “We want food not COVID tests, reform not Cultural Revolution, freedom not lockdowns, votes not leaders, dignity not lies, to be citizens not slaves,” it read.
Images of the banners circulated on the Chinese internet before social media censors quickly removed the offending posts.
The rare protest in a nation where ubiquitous surveillance and censorship work in tandem to swiftly crush political opposition was all the more remarkable for its timing, just ahead of the high-profile political conference where Xi is all but certain to break precedent by being anointed to a third five-year term.
It also served as a reminder that even one of the world’s most powerful men can’t claim total control — at least not yet.
Regardless, the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will almost surely take him a step closer.
“We have ensured that the party will never change its nature, its conviction or its character,” Xi said Sunday from the People’s Great Hall in Beijing at the opening ceremony. “The rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is now on an irreversible historical course.”
The twice-a-decade party congress is a heavily managed and notoriously opaque affair. The decision on Xi’s third term and the personnel changes at the upper echelons of leadership — all expected to be announced on Oct. 23, the day after the event concludes — are traditionally determined ahead of time behind closed doors.
“It’s probably the most clear party congress for a heck of a long time,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. “The real issue is how much more powerful he gets after.”
Lawmakers abolished term limits in 2018, allowing Xi, who turned 69 this year, to maintain his positions as president, general secretary and military chairman for life. The new makeup of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top governing body, will decide the degree of autonomy Xi will have in moving forward with his vision for the nation.
In the face of rising economic and social challenges, Xi’s ultimate aim has been to make China an undisputed world leader in economic prosperity, technological innovation and military strength under the ongoing control of the Communist Party.
“He is not somebody who is grabbing power for the sake of being power hungry,” Tsang said. “He is going to push harder because he wants to achieve his China dream.”
Continuing to stack party leadership with loyalists will enable Xi to aggressively pursue his goals. However, analysts say autocratic control means there are few checks on miscalculations and that full responsibility falls on one man.
When Xi first took the helm in 2012, few saw him as becoming the supreme leader of today’s brash, nationalistic China. Many had hoped he would continue to lead the country on a path of reform and openness that led to more international engagement and collective party leadership, and would step down under the two-term limit enacted by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
But Xi has ruthlessly consolidated power and has increasingly turned the nation inward. He eliminated political rivals in a wide-ranging anti-graft crackdown, snuffed out an already limited civil society and has promoted loyalists into top government posts.
Voices of dissent have been jailed, intimidated or censored as state media trumpet his achievements and stoke nationalism. He’s branded himself as the core of the Communist Party and the Chinese dream, instilling his own “Xi Jinping Thought” into the country’s politics, business and educational curriculum.
In his televised speech, Xi touted China’s increasing clout as a political and economic force on the world stage. Through trade and overseas investment, the country, with a population of 1.4 billion, has become an even more integral part of global manufacturing and consumption, complicating decoupling efforts. At home, Xi boasted about the improvement of citizens’ daily lives and the elimination of extreme poverty.
“These were historical feats accomplished by the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people striving in unity ... feats that will be forever recorded in the nation’s history and that will profoundly influence the world,” he told the assembly of nearly 2,300 party delegates.
As Xi has modernized the People’s Liberation Army, he hasn’t hesitated to flex the country’s military muscle, with 975,000 soldiers and the world’s largest navy. As China’s military influence grows, Japan, Taiwan and Australia, among others in the region, have looked to bolster their own defense capabilities.
The party has also strengthened its hold on contentious territories such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, virtually eliminating challenges to China’s claims even as its crackdown on ethnic minorities and local populations has drawn condemnation from abroad over shocking human rights violations.
“The [party] can say: Now China is strong and we can do whatever we see fit and we are not taking orders from anyone else in the world,” said Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University.
Nonetheless, Xi is facing some of the country’s biggest challenges in recent memory.
The leader’s uncompromising zero-COVID policy initially stamped out domestic spread of the virus, allowing an economic rebound and return to normal life much faster than in other countries. But as the rest of the world has reopened, China has held fast to strict lockdowns, quarantines and contact tracing programs. That has stymied economic activity and fueled public discontent, particularly after a two-month lockdown this year in Shanghai, China’s most populous city.
Economic growth, a major tenet of the country’s international influence, has stagnated, leading to pessimism among China’s middle class and high unemployment especially among urban youth. Both foreign and domestic private enterprise is losing faith in the Chinese market as a result of the COVID-19 curbs and a crackdown on China’s tech giants. The real estate sector, which accounts for about a quarter of the country’s GDP, has been besieged by mortgage boycotts and debt defaults.
In a nod to some of those issues, Xi laid out efforts to increase employment and economic development, as well as boost birthrates in response to concerns about the country’s aging population. However, he declared his zero-COVID policy a major success, indicating that the government would continue to adhere to its rigid containment measures.
As Xi’s authority has grown, more international concern has emerged. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization this year addressed China for the first time as a challenge to the alliance’s security and values.
China’s continuing ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin have also strained the country’s relations with Europe. Weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Xi trumpeted a “no limits” partnership with Moscow. As Russia’s military has suffered heavy losses, Xi’s task of balancing diplomatic interests and claiming neutrality has become more difficult.
Xi could face a similar challenge in his determination to exercise China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan, which is quickly becoming one of the most contentious issues in U.S.-China relations. On Sunday, Xi again emphasized reunification with Taiwan as a crucial part of national rejuvenation.
“We have always shown respect and care for our Taiwan compatriots,” he said. “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification ... but we will never promise to renounce the use of force and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”
In August, a visit to Taipei by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was met with fiery condemnation from Beijing and an unprecedented level of military drills around the self-governing island. Analysts said that while Xi’s response was somewhat restrained by the looming party congress, he won’t face the same hindrances in the next few years.
“Xi Jinping will be in a better position compared to this year to impose a more assertive stance in terms of foreign affairs,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.
Experts said the lack of a clear successor is another indication of Xi’s ambition to remain leader for at least the next decade. Though this choice keeps the party free of obvious challengers, it could also destabilize the party if he was suddenly unable to govern.
“The problem of succession will be the most difficult problem to solve under the current system of highly centralized power,” said Chien-wen Kou, director of the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “There will be a vacuum in power and competition among factions. ... Since the original rules of the game have been broken, the power competition at this time will tend to be a zero-sum game.”
Officials aren’t taking any chances at the tightly choreographed ceremony, where the sense of order has been heightened this year by pandemic prevention controls. In Beijing, the government has stepped up security as well as the surveillance of dissidents or potential protesters.
Thursday’s banners didn’t survive long on the Chinese internet. Before long, censors scrubbed photos from social media along with any direct or covert mention of the display. Among the expunged keywords were “Sitong Bridge,” where the signs were hung, “Haidian,” “Beijing,” “banner,” “brave” and “I saw it.”
“I don’t think Xi will ever feel secure. He always looks to potential enemies to make sure he can continue his grip on power,” said Johns Hopkins’ Hung. “This kind of insecurity, it’s never ending.”
Yang is a Times staff writer and Shen a special correspondent.
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