At a party plenum that followed the close of the twice-a-decade Communist Party congress, Xi introduced the men at his side — the newly chosen members of the seven-member standing committee, the party’s apex of power. Xi is at the top.
The Chinese people, led by the party, have put in “sweat and toil” to “open a Chinese path to modernization,” Xi said in a speech. “This is a great yet enormous undertaking. The enormity of the task is what makes it great and infinitely glorious.”
A week earlier, he had opened the 20th National Party Congress with a triumphalist report delivered to more than 2,000 delegates that emphasized the party’s mission of transforming China into a socialist superpower and a “new choice” for humanity.
Xi Jinping’s quest for total control of China is just getting started
By not stepping down after a decade as general secretary and head of the Central Military Commission, the party’s two most important positions, Xi has overturned norms that previous leaders had hoped would institutionalize peaceful transitions of power and prevent a return to one-man rule. The 69-year-old Xi — who in 2018 abolished presidential term limits, a sign that he would not follow the unspoken principle — has not designated a potential successor.
“There is no bottom line. There are no rules. All the rules have been broken,” said Cai Xia, a former professor at the Central Party School who was expelled from the party in 2020 for criticizing Xi. “Before there was still resistance, but this time you can see from his report that the future of China’s is entirely driven by his will.”
When Xi came to power in 2012, he was seen as a low-key pragmatist that some hoped would be a reformer in the vein of Mikhail Gorbachev or at least of his own father, a revolutionary leader who helped implement economic liberalization under Deng Xiaoping.
But he moved decisively in the other direction. He called Gorbachev a coward and ordered cadres to study the fall of the Soviet Union. The party expanded the surveillance state and oversaw a campaign of mass detention in Xinjiang that the United Nations said may constitute crimes against humanity. Authorities cracked down on Chinese civil society while lawmakers imposed a draconian national security in Hong Kong to stop anti-Beijing protests.
As paramount leader who demands absolute loyalty, Xi undermined a system of collective rule as well as power sharing among factions within the party — conventions honed by the party since the 1980s to ward off personality cults. He declared a “no limits” partnership with Russian president Vladimir Putin just before the Kremlin invaded Ukraine in February.
Under a banner of nationalism promoted by Xi, an army of “wolf warriors” appears increasingly willing to flout diplomatic norms to appear more patriotic at home. On the standing committee unveiled Sunday, those seven members are his closest allies.
“He will have his third term as a very strong leader. He consolidated power and placed his own people in the standing committee,” said Yang Zhang, assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University.
Few signs that China is trying to escape its ‘zero covid’ trap
By stacking the standing committee, Xi is undoing an age norm that mostly had held since the 1990s. Then-party leader Jiang Zemin used the informal cutoff of 68 to force out older leaders and promote replacements. For the next three decades, that trigger drove turnover at the top of the party. No more.
Xi is expected to ramp up his ambitions in his third term, focusing especially on national security, upgrading the country’s technology sector and seeking to establish China at the top of the global order.
Still, his hold on power is not unlimited. He must navigate through a severe zero-covid policy that has hamstrung the economy and left large swaths of the population vulnerable to more transmissible omicron variants of the coronavirus.
China’s increasingly combative relationship with the United States and a slowdown in the Chinese economy, exacerbated by rising unemployment and a worsening property market, will pose further challenges. During his speech at the opening of last week’s congress, Xi warned that the party must gird itself against efforts to “blackmail, contain and exert pressure” China and be ready to weather “dangerous storms.”
With the departure from top leadership of economic czar Liu He and the former party secretary of Guangdong province, Wang Yang — who were seen as helping smooth relations with the United States — Xi will likely adopt a more hardline approach toward Washington. China also is expected to turn increasingly inward as Beijing renegotiates its relationship with the West.
“Xi Jinping has emphatically set the Chinese economy on a path toward realizing his vision of a state-dominated and self-reliant economy that will continue engaging with the rest of the world but entirely on its own terms,” said Eswar Prasad, a professor of economics at Cornell University.
Yet Xi will encounter risks in his third term, from divisions within his own coterie of allies to the dangers of over-centralized power.
“When all the power is one person’s hands, all of the responsibility must be borne by that person,” former professor Cai said. “If he make disastrous mistakes, it is not just 1.4 billion people bearing this consequences of this disaster. This person himself will also have to pay a price.”
Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.