Xi Jinping Feng Li/Getty Images

The Paradox of Xi’s Power

Chinese President Xi Jinping has now been catapulted into the Pantheon of the founders of the People’s Republic, becoming as the most powerful leader that the world’s largest one-party state has had in decades. But Xi's ability to shape Chinese society may turn out to be far more limited than he, his allies, and most observers expect.

CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – At the end of the six-day 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the roughly 2,200 delegates decided to add “Xi Jinping Thought on the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics” to the CPC’s constitution. With that, it became official: the era of Xi has begun.

Only two previous Chinese leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, have had their personally branded ideology enshrined in the CPC’s charter. Xi’s two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, did not have their names linked to any ideological doctrine, much less one elevated to such a high status within the CPC. Chinese leaders are clearly eager to confirm what the world already knew: Xi’s authority now equals that of the CPC’s heaviest heavyweights.

Besides symbolically catapulting Xi into the Pantheon of the founders of the People’s Republic, the 19th National Congress delivered him two substantive political victories. First and foremost, he stalled the designation of a successor, thereby leaving open the possibility that he himself could serve a third term as Chinese president.

All five of the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the CPC’s top decision-making body, are in their 60s – too old to be groomed to take over for Xi in five years, given the party’s unofficial retirement age of 68. Had one or two new Politburo Standing Committee members younger than 55 been promoted, Xi would be expected to step down in 2022, when he hit the two-term limit as president, just as Jiang and Hu did. The alternative for Xi would be to purge the designated successor, as Mao and Deng did. Neither scenario would be appealing.

With no successor in play, however, the possibility that Xi will serve a third term (at least), should decisively alter the political calculations of both his loyalists and those still hedging their bets. Loyalists will now reiterate their allegiance, while those on the fence are likely to hop on the Xi bandwagon. As for Xi’s rivals, they must be thoroughly demoralized.

Xi’s second major victory at the 19th National Congress was the promotion of two close allies to the Politburo Standing Committee. His current chief of staff, Li Zhanshu, will take over the National People’s Congress. The NPC, which has never been much more than a rubber stamp for Party decisions, will now have its legislative agenda dictated by Xi himself.

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In fact, Li’s leadership of the NPC may turn out to be the key to dismantling one of the last barriers to Xi’s political ambitions: the two-term limit for presidents, established in the constitution. While nothing prevents Xi from retaining a party title, such as general secretary, he will need to amend the constitution if he wants to remain China’s head of state. And, with Li in charge, such an amendment will sail through the NPC.

Another trusted loyalist, Zhao Leji, will take over from the 69-year-old Wang Qishan as the chief of the anti-corruption agency – a crucial position, responsible for keeping the CPC in check. Wang has overseen Xi’s anti-corruption drive – which has purged many of Xi’s rivals and consolidated his power – since it began. By appointing Zhao, Xi has effectively put every senior Chinese leader on notice.

Xi’s triumph at the 19th National Congress has understandably fueled widespread speculation that his now-formidable power will enable him to impose his vision of hardline authoritarian rule, underpinned by Chinese nationalism, in the coming years. And that is a possibility. But it is far from guaranteed.

The reason is simple: though the CPC’s internal power dynamics haven’t change much in the last few decades, Chinese society has moved far beyond the Maoist or even the Dengist era. Few Chinese, including members of the party, genuinely believe in any official doctrine. Economically, the private sector accounts for more than 60% of China’s output, and the CPC has become practically irrelevant in the daily lives of ordinary Chinese.

This is the paradox of power in the era of Xi. Yes, he is the most powerful leader that the world’s largest one-party state has had in decades. But his ability to shape Chinese society may turn out to be far more limited than he, his allies, and most outside observers expect.

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