In Depth

‘Emperor Xi’: What Xi Jinping’s new status means

In Depth: Chinese leader’s political philosophy to sit alongside Mao’s in Communist constitution

Thousands of delegates crowded into Beijing’s Great Hall of the People for the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, but they weren’t there for the speeches; instead, these 2,300 men and women were part of a carefully choreographed piece of political theatre.

Held every five years to reshuffle party positions and set the tone for the next five-year session, the event lends “a veneer of intraparty democracy to decisions made beforehand in secret”, The Economist says.

And at no time was that more obvious than yesterday, when a motion proposing that President Xi Jinping’s doctrine be incorporated into the party constitution saw 2,300 hands rise into the air.

“Xi’s thinking will now infuse every aspect of party ideology in schools, the media and government agencies,” The New York Times says.

Until now, only the political philosophy of the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, has been adopted as CPC ideology during the ruler’s lifetime - 1980s moderniser Deng Xiaoping had to wait until after his death.

“It’s the coronation of Emperor Xi,” Asia expert Nick Bisley, a professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, told Time magazine. “He is without question the paramount leader.”

Xi’s grip on power

Effectively, the revised constitution confirms that Xi’s leadership is synonymous with the party’s future.

Since becoming general secretary in 2012, Xi “has amassed such personal power... that he is now referred to as its ‘core’,” says The Sydney Morning Herald.

If there was any doubt about his status, the President today unveiled his new Politburo Standing Committee, the top ruling seven-man council who act as a Cabinet of sorts - and whose youngest member is 60. Not one of the three men considered Xi’s potential successors was named.

Concluding the National Congress without naming a potential heir is an indication of “the president’s strong grip on the future of China, much beyond the culmination of his second term in 2022”, the International Business Times says.

The future under Xi

In a marathon three-and-a-half hour opening address, Xi outlined the course the superpower will follow for at least five years.

It offered little in the way of concrete plans, the Financial Times says, but warned that “severe challenges” awaited China’s ruling party. 

Xi predicted a “prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful” future for the country - the “new era” in the title of his speech.

“It is clear that Mr Xi wants to be seen as the founder of this new era,” says The Economist.

His success will be measured against the party’s two goals: eliminating poverty by 2021 and achieving “fully developed nation” status by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

Xi also envisions China “moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind”. However, there are fears about how the country's “international swagger” might adversely affect relations with the West, The Guardian says.

“As Xi persists – and if he persists with being a strongman internationally – I think relations with the United States in particular, but also perhaps with Europe, will worsen,” Roderick MacFarquhar, a China specialist at Harvard University, told the newspaper.

“What everyone will discover is that China will have… its own ideas about [being a responsible international player] and they will not include being nicely-nicely in the South China Sea, they will not involve being nicely-nicely with the Japanese,” he added.

Xi: man of the people?

Much of the praise heaped on Xi in the past week has the ring of the “politically correct” adulation of favoured political figures. But behind the rote public displays of enthusiasm are stirrings of a genuine cult of personality - a remarkable achievement for the buttoned-down premier.

In an endorsement of his leadership, an Ipsos Mori poll found 92% of Chinese around the world believed the country was headed in the right direction.

Some of Xi’s popular support is built on improvements to living standards. Since 2012, he has delivered on China’s GDP growth target every year and lifted 60 million out of poverty, Quartz reports.

His anti-corruption purge of more than a million party members has also impressed those tired of self-serving bureaucrats, although critics say “most of the top officials who have been disciplined have been supporters of his opponents”, says the BBC.

And although he lacks the charisma of Mao, Xi’s spin doctors have successfully presented him as a man of the people, writes China correspondent Carrie Gracie, saying: “He tours leaky back alley homes, ducking through washing lines and wearing no face mask - the message that this is a leader prepared to breathe the same polluted air as you.”

Party politics

Despite Xi’s policy victories and popular backing, he “does not have the almost godlike dominance that Mao once wielded”, says the New York Times.

“The party is in the driver’s seat and it has never been stronger, with more assets at its disposal, or played a larger role in Chinese society,” China analyst Jude Blanchette told The Times.

Xi may have to wield his power far more carefully than Mao, but with his ideology now entrenched in his country’s constitution, he will undoubtedly be leading China into a “new era”.

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