BEIJING — China’s Communist Party formally elevated President Xi Jinping to the same status as party legends Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping on Tuesday, writing his name into its constitution and setting the nation’s leader up for an extended stay in power.
The move will make Xi the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, with ambitions to tighten party control over society and make his country a superpower on the world stage.
The unanimous vote to enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era” in the constitution came on the final day of the week-long 19th Party Congress, a five-yearly gathering of the party elite in the imposing and cavernous Great Hall of the People on the western side of Beijing’s iconic Tiananmen Square.
The meeting effectively marks the start of Xi’s second five-year-term as party general secretary, but the chances are now higher that this will not be his last — although in the opaque world of Chinese party politics, nothing is certain.
“The amendment of the party constitution effectively confirms Xi Jinping’s aspiration to be the Mao Zedong of the 21st Century — that means a top leader with no constraints on tenure or retirement age,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a political expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“The fact that he has become the new helmsman of the ship of state, providing guiding principles for party, state and military, provides the perfect justification for him to stay number one well beyond the normal 10 years,”
The inclusion of Xi’s name in the party’s document makes him only the third Chinese leader to be so honored, with his ideology joining Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory as a “guide to action.” It will now become compulsory learning for Chinese students from primary schools through to universities.
China’s Communist Party imposed a system of collective leadership after the death of Mao, scarred by the madness, cruelty and famine one man had imposed through the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
As a result, Xi’s two predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao ruled through consensus — as the “first among equals” at the top of the ladder — and were limited to two terms in power.
Now the party is moving back in the other direction.
Xi’s power is not unlimited, and many of his key policy measures reflect ideas adopted by the party before he took power. Yet the past week has seen an explosion of sycophancy toward China’s leader, after his mammoth three-and-a-half-hour speech kicked off proceedings last Wednesday. This is a personal style of rule, much like Vladimir Putin’s in Russia.
Throughout the week, senior officials lined up, one after the other, to abase themselves, lauding Xi’s profound, courageous, thrilling, insightful masterpiece of a speech, that shone “the light of Marxist Truth” and moved some of them from the bottom of their hearts.
“In retrospect it was an overwhelming assertion of authority to a degree unseen since Mao,” said Francois Godemont, director of the China-Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Xi would have to still have to overcome significant obstacles if he wants to remain in power beyond the next party congress in 2022 when he will be 69 — not the least a convention that officials retire if they are aged 68 or above, said Yanmei Xie, a China policy expert at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing.
There had been speculation Xi would break from convention by asking his right-hand-man, the powerful head of the anti-corruption authority Wang Qishan, to stay on for another five years. Yet the 69-year-old Wang’s name does not appear on a new list of Central Committee members, implying the retirement convention remains in place, at least for now.
He would also have to amend the constitution if he wanted a third term as president — or appoint a crony and remain in power behind the scenes, a trick Putin pulled off in 2008.
Nevertheless, the fact that Xi’s name figures in the constitution puts him on a par with the party’s “immortals,” Mao and Deng, who had no term limits and didn’t retire, said Xie.
And the constant drumbeat of propaganda about loyalty to his leadership makes it more difficult for anyone who dares challenge him.
“The introduction of Xi Thought makes the question of succession while Xi is alive a moot issue,” said Bill Bishop, pubisher of the Sinocism newsletter. “So long as Xi has not met Marx, he is is the man with an eponymous theory in the party constitution, so no one will have more authority than him,” — no matter what title Xi holds.
Xi Jinping Thought embodies two important principles, experts say: first that the party is in control of every aspect of life in China, from the economy to the Internet, from politics to culture and religion. The party must be more disciplined, and more responsive to people’s needs, but its leadership must not be questioned.
The second is that China is on a path to become a true global superpower — very much on its own terms.
“Under his reign, there is no more hope of convergence,” said Godemont, referring to the idea that China would become more open, more ruled by law and more democratic, as it became wealthier, that its interests and political system with ultimately converge with those of the West.
The idea of political reform in a Western sense is now firmly out of the window.
Xi’s message is one of a nationalist, assertive China, one that he says will not threaten the world, but will resolutely defend its interests.
“By the middle of this century or before, China aims to close the gap economically and militarily with the United States, and become the ultimate arbiter in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Lam.
If Mao’s era was one of revolution and nation-building, while Deng’s was one of reform and opening that set China on the path to becoming a global economic power, Xi’s era is, perhaps, one of control and nationalism.
Deng’s influence on the course of Chinese history was massive but his power was wielded less explicitly, often from a position behind the scenes. As a result, his “theory on socialism with Chinese characteristics” was not formally incorporated into the party constitution until after his death.
Former leader Jiang’s ideological contribution is recognized in the document as the “Theory of Three Represents,” as is Hu’s “Scientific Outlook on Development,” but neither man is mentioned by name.