China: Xi Jinping tightens grip on power, set to get third term as leader

China’s ruling Communist party amends Constitution to enshrine Xi Jinping at its core; new Central Committee to select top leaders on Sunday; No. 2 Li Keqiang removed

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping, 69, is poised to clinch a third five-year leadership term as party general secretary | File Image

China’s President Xi Jinping is set to become the most powerful leader in decades, with the ruling Communist Party reaffirming his continuing dominance in running the nation on Saturday, one day ahead of giving him a widely expected third five-year term as leader. The week-long 20th Party Congress, which concluded on Saturday, ushered in a new Central Committee comprising the party’s 200-member central leadership, which will select a new slate of top leaders on Sunday.

Cementing Xi Jinping’s iron grip on power, the Party Congress effectively removed two key officials, Premier Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, from central leadership to make room for Xi’s allies; neither of them is perceived to be close to the leader. Li, China’s No. 2 official, is a proponent of market-oriented reforms, which are in contrast to Xi’s moves to expand state control over the economy.

A break from the precedent

Xi, 69, is poised to clinch a third five-year leadership term as party general secretary, breaking with precedent. Xi’s third term will solidify his place as China’s most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong, the founding leader of the People’s Republic. Xi’s third five-year term as party leader would break an unofficial two-term limit that was instituted to try to prevent the excesses of Mao’s one-person rule, notably the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, under which Xi suffered as a youth.

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The weeklong meeting also wrote Xi’s major policy initiatives on the economy and the military into the party’s constitution, as well as his push to rebuild and strengthen the party’s position by declaring it absolutely central to China’s development and future. Xi has put loyalists in key positions and taken personal charge of policy working groups.

The new leadership will be unveiled around noon (0400 GMT) on Sunday when Xi walks into a room of journalists at the Great Hall of the People, followed by the other members of the new Standing Committee in descending order of rank. In an unusual moment during the closing ceremony of the Party Congress, former President Hu Jintao, seated next to Xi, was escorted off the stage. Looking distressed, Hu, 79, appeared to resist leaving as stewards escorted him out. He had looked slightly unsteady last Sunday when he was assisted onto the same stage.

On the way out: Li and Wang

Li and Wang both have ties with the Communist Youth League, a once-influential group that has lost power under Xi. They are both 67 and therefore eligible under China’s age norms to serve another five years on the Standing Committee, which currently has seven members. While Li will step down in March as Premier (by then a new slate of government ministers will be named), Wang will have to move as head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Xi is likely to bring four new faces onto the Standing Committee, according to analysts and media reports.

The Premier is charged with overseeing the world’s second-largest economy. However, the influence of the position is widely perceived to have diminished as Xi has steadily consolidated control during his decade in power. “The congress calls on all party members to acquire a deep understanding of the decisive significance of establishing comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the party Central Committee and in the party as a whole and establishing the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought,” said a resolution on the constitution approved at Saturday’s closing session.

Also read: Xi Jinping: Quiet bureaucrat to one of China’s most powerful leaders

The three others who were dropped included Shanghai party chief Han Zheng, party advisory body head Wang Yang, and Li Zhanshu, a longtime Xi ally and the head of the largely ceremonial legislature. Current PSC members Wang Huning, 67, and Zhao Leji, 65, were both re-elected to the Central Committee and are expected to be reappointed to the Standing Committee. Two other Standing Committee members are past retirement age.

Cementing Xi’s core status

The Party Congress approved amendments to its constitution aimed at cementing the core status of Xi and the guiding role of his political thought within the party, which has about 96 million members. ‘Xi Jinping Thought,” which refers to his ideology, was enshrined in the party charter at the previous congress in 2017. In brief closing remarks, Xi said the revision to the constitution “sets out clear requirements for upholding and strengthening the party’s overall leadership.”

Among the amendments, the “Two Establishes” define Xi as the “core” leader of the party and his ideas as the guiding principles of China’s future development. The “Two Safeguards” assure Xi’s “core” status within the party and the party’s centralised authority over China. Another amendment enshrined “developing fighting spirit, strengthening fighting ability” in the party constitution, while a call to oppose and deter separatists seeking independence for Taiwan was also included for the first time.

Voting was conducted by show of hands in Central Beijing’s vast Great Hall of the People, where much of the week’s proceedings have taken place behind closed doors; the more than 2,300 delegates to the party congress wore blue surgical masks under China’s strict “zero-COVID” policy. The congress concluded with a military band playing “The Internationale”, a socialist anthem. At its first plenum on Sunday, the party’s new Central Committee will choose the next Politburo, which is typically 25 people, and its new Standing Committee.

Xi’s power appears undiminished by the events of a tumultuous year, including a sharp economic slowdown, frustration over his zero-COVID policy, and China’s increasing estrangement from the West, exacerbated by his support for Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

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