Communist Party of China (CPC) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s consolidation of personal power was certainly the lead story at the party’s 20th National Congress. While a third term as General Secretary was a foregone conclusion, there were questions about how successful Xi would be in packing the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and the Central Committee as well as the Central Military Commission with his loyalists. In the event, he passed all examinations with flying colours — side-lining thoroughly the factions led by previous General Secretaries Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
However, what does Xi’s unquestioned dominance in the CPC signify? He offered a broad answer soon after the conclusion of the congress with a trip to Yenan (Yan’an) in central China’s Shaanxi province with the rest of the 20th PBSC. In 2012, Xi had led the members of the 18th PBSC to an exhibition in Beijing titled, ‘Road towards Rejuvenation’. The concept of ‘national rejuvenation’ or more precisely, the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ would become a leitmotif of his first term.
Similarly, in 2017, the 19th PBSC’s visit to the historic building in Shanghai that was site of the CPC’s 1st National Congress foreshadowed an intense campaign in Xi’s second term to revive the party’s revolutionary fervour and ethos as an antidote to corruption, and moral laxity in public life. There were constant reminders for cadre and ordinary citizens at every turn – “do not forget the original aspiration, firmly remember the mission” of the party.
The visit to Yenan is significant because it is the site of the 7th CPC Congress in 1945, which marked Mao Zedong’s triumph over rivals and competing ideas within the party allowing him the opportunity to reshape the party over the next several decades. Xi is, thus, indicating that he has the party well in hand, and ready for the next stage of its development.
The danger really is that Xi’s untrammelled power will also lead him down the same path that Mao went after the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.
Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) were cataclysmic events in modern Chinese history. Mao ended the first project only because the party still had leaders of stature bold enough to criticise him; he would need a successful military conflict against India in 1962 to recover his standing in the party. The Cultural Revolution, meanwhile, only really ended when Mao passed away in 1976.
Xi’s economic policies too, have led to upheaval in the Chinese economy, which has been compounded by the US-China trade war, COVID-19, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. If during the Great Leap Forward, Mao believed that sheer will would be enough to power China past developed economies in industrial production, Xi too, now appears to think that political commitment under the party’s guiding hand will be enough to reduce income inequalities and regional disparities in China. Thus, Xi’s signature economic concept — but a vague one at that — of ‘common prosperity’ appears several times in the 20th Congress Report.
Similarly, Xi has justified “tenaciously” pursuing the zero-COVID policy on the grounds that “we put the people and their lives above all else”, never mind the chaos, uncertainty, and sheer terror that sudden and frequent lockdowns have created for hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese across the country. At the 20th Party Congress, he even justified it saying it had led China to “win widespread international recognition”, and that the country’s “international influence, appeal, and power to shape have risen markedly”.
If Xi believes he can avoid the mistakes that Mao made when he centralised power at the expense of collective leadership, it is none too clear, why.
The magnitude of Xi’s domestic challenges is huge. He faces an ageing population, massive local government debt, declining productivity in the economy, and continuing trouble involving minority ethnic populations. Add to these, increasing scepticism of China’s intentions from large sections of the global community. These challenges threaten to undermine cherished targets such as the ‘Second Centenary Goal of building China into a great modern socialist country in all respects’ by 2049, that is, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.
It might be instructive, here, to consider the controversy towards the end of the 20th Congress over the rather abrupt and public removal of former CPC General Secretary Hu Jintao from the stage. The official version that Hu was unwell could well be true, but the whole episode only underlines the fact that even the most carefully choreographed event in the Chinese political calendar can end up being remembered for the ‘wrong’ reasons. It also suggests that as powerful as he may be, Xi will be unable to cater to every “‘black swan’ or ‘grey rhino’ event”.
This might be useful to keep in mind for those assuming that Xi or the CPC sees China’s path forward very clearly.
Jabin T Jacob is Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi-NCR and Honorary Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. Twitter: @jabinjacobt. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.