The ruling Communist Party on Tuesday formally lifted Xi Jinping’s status to China’s most powerful ruler in decades, setting the stage for the authoritarian leader to tighten his grip over the country while pursuing an increasingly muscular foreign policy and military expansion.
The move to insert Xi’s name and dogma into the party’s constitution alongside the party’s founders came at the close of a twice-a-decade congress that gathered the country’s ruling elite alongside rank-and-file party members. It not only places him in the first rank, with past leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, but also effectively makes any act of opposing him tantamount to an attack on the party itself.
“The Chinese people and nation have a great and bright future ahead,” Xi told party delegates as the meeting came to a close after delegates approved the addition of Xi’s ideology of “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” to the party charter.
“Living in such a great era, we are all the more confident and proud, and also feel the heavy weight of responsibility upon us,” he said.
The concept Xi has touted is seen as marking a break from the stage of economic reform ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and continued under his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao; Xi has spoken of China emerging into a “new normal” of slower, but higher quality economic growth. The placement of Xi’s thought among the party’s leading guidelines also comes five years into his term — earlier than his predecessors.
“In every sense, the Xi Jinping era has begun in earnest,” said Zhang Lifan, an independent political commentator in Beijing. “Only Mao’s name was enshrined in the party ideology while he was still alive. We’re opening something that hasn’t been broached before.”
For centuries, Chinese emperors were accorded ritual names that signaled either they were successors in a dynastic line or the founders of an entirely new dynasty. What Xi accomplished this week was a modern equivalent of the latter, Zhang said.
“He wants to join that pantheon of leaders,” he said.
Despite being elevated to the status of both a political and theoretical authority in the party, Xi still lacks the broad popular support of the Chinese public that Mao had enjoyed, said Zhang Ming, a political analyst in Beijing who recently retired from a prestigious university.
“This (elevation) is a result of the party’s political system and not of the sincere support of the people’s hearts,” Zhang Ming said. “If he can achieve that, he would become Mao.”
Xi has described his concept as central to setting China on the path to becoming a “great modern socialist country” by midcentury. This vision has at its core a ruling party that serves as the vanguard for everything from defending national security to providing moral guidance to ordinary Chinese.
He has set the target date of 2049, the People’s Republic’s centenary, for the establishment of a prosperous, modern society. China has the world’s second-largest economy and legions of newly wealthy urban residents, but raising living standards for millions of people continues to be a challenge.
Zhang Ming, the retired professor, said the goals Xi laid out were lofty but mostly mere rhetoric. “These goals have nothing to do with the people but are just jargon that people shouldn’t take seriously,” Zhang said. “It is not important for him to achieve these goals, just as long as his power reaches its peak.”
The move came at the close of the 89 million-member party’s national congress at Beijing’s hulking Great Hall of the People, where nearly 2,300 delegates gathered to elect the party’s leading bodies and hear reports.
Although the delegates nominally have the power to vote on candidates, all choices are carefully vetted and the outcomes decided by negotiations among the top leaders.
The constitution was also amended to include references to the party’s “absolute” leadership over the armed forces, which have been modernizing rapidly under Xi, and a commitment to promote Xi’s signature foreign policy and infrastructure initiative known as “One Belt, One Road.” That initiative seeks to link China to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond with a sprawling network of roads, railways, ports and other economic projects.
Delegates also elected a 204-member Central Committee, roughly 70 percent of whom are newcomers. The committee holds its first meeting Wednesday morning, after which the new 25-member politburo and its Standing Committee — the apex of Chinese political power — will be announced.
Five of the seven members of the current Standing Committee were left off the list of new Central Committee members, as was expected under the party’s unwritten retirement age of 68.
That includes close Xi ally Wang Qishan, who led the party’s much-feared anti-corruption agency that has investigated well over 1 million party members over the past years, bringing down two former top generals and a one-time member of the Standing Committee.
Wang’s retirement ends a long career that saw him called on to help set up China’s first investment bank, deal with the outbreak of SARS in Beijing and assist in organizing the 2008 Summer Olympics in the Chinese capital.
Along with civilian turnover, the military has also seen a considerable infusion of new blood. Seven of the 11 members of the Central Military Commission headed by Xi are expected to be newly appointed, including one of its two vice chairmen.
Meanwhile, the number of women on the Central Committee remains static at 10, though it’s still not clear how many, if any, will make it onto the Politburo, where two have been sitting. No woman has ever made it onto the Standing Committee, a sharp contrast to elsewhere in the region such as Taiwan and Hong Kong where women have been elected leaders.