China’s Xi Gains Power as Communist Party Designates Him a Historic Figure
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has formally etched his name alongside the greatest figures in the annals of Communist Party history, paving the way for him to strengthen and extend his rule over the world’s most populous country.
China’s most senior officials approved a resolution on the party’s accomplishments since its founding 100 years ago that portrays Mr. Xi as a core leader who has “promoted historic achievements and historic changes.” The decision puts him on equal footing with revolutionary patriarch Mao Zedong and market reformer Deng Xiaoping, the only other leaders who enjoyed enough power to push through resolutions on the party’s history.
The elevation of Mr. Xi’s official status was a centerpiece of the annual fall gathering, or plenum, of nearly 350 full and alternate members of the Communist Party’s Central Committee in Beijing, according to the communiqué. The resolution ensures longevity for Mr. Xi’s agenda and armors him against criticism because that would require challenging the party’s narrative of history.
“Not everyone in the party is convinced that this centralization authority and the valorization of a supreme leader is the best way to build the party and strengthen China,” said Timothy Cheek, a professor at the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. “The historical resolution will decidedly answer those concerns, claim the moral high ground and, importantly, define political disagreement or dissent as disloyalty and treachery.”
The information office of China’s cabinet, the State Council, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The plenum was the sixth of the party’s current five-year political cycle. Sixth plenums have almost always been an occasion for setting up the theoretical fundamentals for a party congress at the start of a new cycle the following year.
Deng used the sixth plenum in 1981 to issue a resolution on history that condemned Mao’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution as a disastrous error, paving the way for market-opening reforms that would propel decades of double-digit economic growth. In 2016, Mr. Xi officially gained his title as the “core” of the party during a sixth plenum, to signify his ascendancies as the country’s most powerful leader in decades.
Rather than criticize the party’s past, as Mr. Deng did, Mr. Xi’s resolution described the party’s past 100 years as “the most magnificent epic in the history of the Chinese nation over thousands of years.” The resolution said similar glory was certain to be achieved in the “new era” under Mr. Xi.
The affirmation of Mr. Xi’s political supremacy gives him added power in picking his allies to rise in the ranks at the new party congress next year, when he is expected to defy precedent in recent decades to take a third term as party leader.
The son of a commander who fought in the Communist revolution and served as a vice premier under Mao, Mr. Xi has repeatedly wielded the past as a weapon to consolidate and expand his power. With the Communist Party celebrating its centenary in July, the Chinese leader spearheaded a national campaign to forge what he calls a “correct outlook on history.”
Part of that effort involved revising historical texts to remove famous quotations from Deng that warned against the dangers of one-man rule and advocated a foreign policy rooted in humility.
“Controlling the narrative of history and using that to suppress alternative points of view has been a key element in the party politics,” said Alfred Wu, a professor at the National University of Singapore. “It also reveals Xi, after controlling everything from the military to decision making, is now trying to go deeper and pursue the control of minds.”
In recent months, state media outlets have produced an outpouring of propaganda designed to elevate Mr. Xi’s image to new heights. People’s Daily, the party’s flagship newspaper, published a string of lengthy articles to praise Mr. Xi’s achievements in the run-up to this week’s gathering, praising him as a “Marxist statesman, thinker, and strategist.”
Transmitting that same message abroad, China’s official Xinhua News Agency posted a message on Twitter last week that described Mr. Xi as “a man of determination and action, a man of profound thoughts and feeling, a man who inherited a legacy but dares to innovate.”
Though Mr. Xi, 68 years old, has won public support at home for his anticorruption campaign, efforts at poverty alleviation and tough stance on global affairs, he faces a number of challenges.
China’s economy is struggling to shake off the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. An energy crisis has added to economic uncertainty, while also complicating the party’s plans to tackle climate change.
Amid those pressures, Mr. Xi has laid out an ambitious but risky plan to usher in a new era of “common prosperity,” in part by reining in what he sees as capitalist excesses among the country’s internet and property giants—two major drivers of economic growth.
The Chinese leader also must determine how to deal with Taiwan, the self-ruling island of 24 million that has increasingly become a focal point of growing tensions with the U.S. Chinese nationalists are eager for action on Taiwan, which the party considers part of China. Military analysts say any effort to take control of the island by force would be costly for Beijing.
To help him navigate those obstacles during his third term, and ensure the security of his legacy in the long term, Mr. Xi needs to ensure that he is surrounded by as many political allies as possible coming out of next year’s party congress.
The party is set to debate personnel moves behind closed doors next fall before selecting a new Central Committee. That body then selects a new Politburo—the top 25 leaders—and the Politburo Standing Committee, which represents the party’s inner sanctum.
Under Mr. Xi’s predecessors, members of the standing committee ran China collectively and by consensus, but the body’s role in crafting policy has since shriveled. Some political insiders say Mr. Xi could look to adjust the size of the standing committee, which currently has seven members, possibly expanding it as a way to award close allies with promotions.
Though he could remain on the standing committee, Premier Li Keqiang is expected to retire from his government role next year due to term limits. Possible successors including Wang Yang, a committee member and the current head of the top political advisory body, and Li Qiang, the current Shanghai party chief and widely considered to be among Mr. Xi’s political favorites, having worked as his assistant in the 2000s in the eastern province of Zhejiang, according to the political insiders.
Mr. Xi is unlikely to present a clear designation of a successor during the congress, but could either promote more young faces into the committee or no heirs into the top tier, they said.
The Central Military Commission, also led by Mr. Xi, is also due for a shuffle. At least four members have reached retirement age, including chief of the People Liberation Army’s Joint Staff Department Li Zuocheng, a veteran of the country’s brief and bloody 1979 war with Vietnam.
“Xi’s greatest challenge—other than some contingent natural disaster or war that would topple any leader—is himself,” said Mr. Cheek. “He has set himself up to be Chairman for Life. No matter how long he survives in this game of thrones, when he departs the scene he will not have provided for an orderly succession.”
Author: Keith Zhai, The Wall Street Journal