China: Xi, 69, plans to stay in power till his 80’s

November 08, 2022 09:28
Photo: Xinhua

While Chinese leader Xi Jinping claims to be constructing a “great modern socialist country,” the Communist Party’s recent 20th congress saw China regress in significant areas, including excluding women from top leadership positions, dropping nonsupporters of Xi from key ruling bodies and concentrating power in Xi’s hands.

Moreover, as Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, said in an online interview with The Market NZZ, “Xi was not elected for five more years, but de facto for another 10 or 15 years.”

Technically, Xi was given a third five-year term as the Communist party’s general secretary – a more powerful position than head of state or commander in chief, posts that he also holds. Xi has removed all obstacles to staying in power indefinitely.

This parallels the country’s earlier years, with Mao Zedong serving as leader of the People’s Republic of China from its birth on October 1, 1949 until his death on September 9, 1976 at age 82.

The centralized autocracy created by Xi certainly expedites executive decision-making, but political analysts note that such a system also lays the groundwork for uncertainty, with no designated heir and no institutional procedure as to when and under what circumstances the incumbent is to step down.

According to Wuttke, “Xi Jinping is a man in a hurry: he wants to go down in the history books as the man who reestablished China as a great power.” That, it seems, is more urgent than grooming a successor.

While Xi’s two immediate predecessors both stepped down after two terms in power, Xi has dismantled this process. In fact, at the congress, he demoted 59-year-old Hu Chunhua – who is the right age to become the next leader. Instead of promoting him from the Politburo to its Standing Committee, Xi kicked him off the Politburo entirely.

Another danger inherent in the autocratic system is that, with no independent voices around him, Xi may not receive full and unvarnished reports. It is interesting to note, for example, that Li Qiang, the Shanghai party leader responsible for the city’s tumultuous two-month lockdown earlier this year, resulting in widespread disruption, is expected to be the next premier despite never having served as vice premier, or indeed in any central government post. Loyalty, it seems, begets promotion.

This isn’t to say that the six other members of the new Politburo Standing Committee – Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi – are incompetent sycophants. They are all highly capable and Li Qiang had distinguished himself in major provincial posts.

One of Xi’s first acts after the congress was to take the six men to Yanan, Mao’s revolutionary base in northwest China from 1935 to 1948, which Xi called the party’s “holy land.”

Ten years ago, when Xi first became the party’s general secretary, he led all the Politburo Standing Committee members to the National Museum in Beijing, where they viewed an exhibit, “The Road Toward Renewal.” Xi then put forward the idea of the “Chinese Dream,” which he said was “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” That concept became the embodiment of Xi’s political ideology.

Five years ago, after winning a second term, Xi led members of the new Politburo Standing Committee to Shanghai to visit the site of the first Communist party congress in 1921. Xi led his colleagues in vowing never to stray from the goal of serving the people.

Yanan, too, is rich in symbolism. It was there that Mao in 1945 became the party’s supreme leader, similar to Xi’s position today. Xi called that meeting a “major milestone” in the party’s maturity in political direction, ideology and organizational structure, Xinhua news agency reported.

The beleaguered Communist party was holed up in that remote corner of northern Shaanxi province for 13 years and emerged to defeat the ruling Kuomintang in the Chinese civil war.

Coincidentally, it is 13 years to 2035, which Xi has set as the time when China would be among the world’s most advanced countries. While Xi will be 82 years old then, he apparently still plans to be around then, and in power. After all, Mao was in power at 82 and Joe Biden, 80 this month, plans to run for re-election as U.S. president in 2024.

By visiting Yanan, Xi is in effect saying that the party, facing new challenges, will once again emerge triumphant. While the outcome of the struggle with the United States may be unknowable, the process will certainly extend much longer than the five years of Xi’s new term.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.