The pandemic was “the very crisis” China needed to seize power and Xi Jinping’s plan for 2022 is for “something greater”.
Xi Jinping has rewritten China’s constitution. He’s eliminated all signs of opposition. His “thought” reigns supreme. Is 2022 the year he seizes the Dragon Throne?
This year, Chairman Xi, 68, made everything about himself.
The Sixth Plenum of the party’s Central Committee was a seminal event in the Chinese Communist Party’s 100-year history. The History Resolution he proclaimed there was only the third time such a core ideological statement had been made.
Only, it wasn’t really about the past. It proclaimed Xi’s vision of the future.
It enthroned him alongside Mao Zedong as the Chinese Communist Party’s principal power. It all but guaranteed him an unlimited term in office.
All that stands between him and unlimited power is the 20th Party Congress scheduled for October. And Mr Xi’s been working hard to ensure its outcome is a fait accompli.
“Xi knows first-hand that China’s political system is a blood sport that demands constant displays of power and domination,” argues Centre for Strategic Studies China expert Jude Blanchette.
Rewriting the rules
In March, Mr Xi urged China to have “self-confidence in our path, self-confidence in our theories, self-confidence in our system, self-confidence in our culture.”
And in himself.
“At the recent party plenum, Xi’s status within the party was elevated yet again, with the official rewriting of China’s communist history to position him as the country’s modern saviour,” says Mr Blanchette.
But it was just one more step in a process that began before his election as PRC president in 2012.
By 2018, Mr Xi succeeded in having the role’s constitutional two five-year term limit abolished. He was already General Secretary of the CCP – a position without limits. He was also Chairman of the People’s Liberation Army – with no expiry date.
Mr Xi still holds these critical positions of power. But he wants more.
“Establishing comrade Xi Jinping’s position as the core of the central committee as well as the whole party was of decisive significance in advancing toward the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” the Plenum’s resolution reads.
But toppling the constitution has come at a cost.
Mr Xi has no anointed successor. And the whole point of the 10-year term limit was to enable China’s powerful family-based factions to compete relatively peacefully.
That pressure-release valve is now broken.
“Xi Jinping is representing somebody,” says University of Georgia associate professor Rongbin Han. “If he was to go after 10 years, somebody else from another faction might have an opportunity. Now he’s going to be there for an indefinite time. This, plus the massive anti-corruption campaign, makes it very difficult to rotate leadership among all those factions. And that would destabilise the top leadership.”
The power of one
“People generally recognise China as a party dictatorship, under the collective leadership of the party,” Dr Han says. “Now, power is more concentrated on one person. And taking power all on oneself is risky because you can’t blame anybody else.”
It’s in direct opposition to the efforts of his predecessors to emphasise collective decision-making processes within the CCP.
This attempt to decentralise power was largely a response to the personality cult that grew up around their founder, Chairman Mao, and the murderous consequences of his arbitrary power.
Now, Xi Jinping is attempting to construct a personality cult for himself to justify his increasingly arbitrary rule.
“Xi’s personality cult is a cult without personality,” says Geremie Barmé, founding director of the Australian Centre on China in the World. “Let’s face it, Xi Jinping hasn’t really done anything.”
Instead, he argues, Mr Xi is depending on a sense of international crisis to shore up his position.
“The clash with America has been a godsend. And thank god for Covid. Xi Jinping has helped create the very crises that history has given China this man to resolve.”
But the cult has so far fallen flat, says Mr Barmé. “We still have very few people screaming out ‘long live Chairman Xi’. But perhaps next year, with 20th Party Congress, we will see a further move by Xi towards an apotheosis, something greater.”
Mr Xi has already entrenched the idea that a third term is inevitable.
He’s headed off all criticism before the event to eliminate any sense of controversy.
All he needs now is to generate a sense of vindication.
“If you look at the news in China, the social media sphere, there are so many things going on,” says Dr Han. “The anti-corruption campaign, how China handled Covid and all those kinds of things have convinced a good number of people to accept Xi’s rule. There are people saying that if he unifies Taiwan, he can sit there forever – as long as he wants.”
Seizing the Dragon Throne
Xi Jinping and his backers are on the brink of victory.
But the last sprint to the 20th Party Congress in October is likely to see bold action to guarantee success.
It’s a process that began in 2012. That’s when Mr Xi launched a high-profile campaign against corruption. Almost all of its victories were against his political opponents.
In total, more than 400 members of the senior executive have been jailed.
“If we think about it, the anti-corruption campaign started as early as 2013,” says Dr Han. “By 2018, when the constitution revision is made, it’s already five years into Xi’s term. There were already hundreds of people at the very top levels being thrown out of office. And those offices are presumably filled with people who Xi feel more comfortable with.”
Another purge began in 2018. This time the alleged offences were vice, drug dealing and gambling.
In 2021 alone, more than 170,000 party officials of all ranks were formally disciplined. Estimates place a further 3000 as having been arbitrarily detained.
Former vice minister of public security Sun Lijun, detained for more than a year, was finally accused of creating a “political clique” that needed to be “purged” from the CCP. Former justice minister Fu Zhenghua was among those taken into custody.
Mr Xi has no obvious opposition.
Only uncontrollable circumstances can unseat him.
“Even if his own position remains unchallenged, Xi’s blueprint to transform China into a modern socialist nation by 2035 is far from assured,” Mr Blanchette says. “The domestic response to his policy agenda, the fundamental laws of economics, and the reaction of the global community will arguably shape China’s future as much if not more than Xi’s paper aspirations. Xi may be in power, but he’s not in control. This is a lesson all dictators learn at some point.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel