The Guardian view on Xi Jinping: the life and soul of the party
“The capability of any one individual is limited,” Xi Jinping as he assumed China’s leadership. Those words were unnecessarily self-deprecating. As the Communist party in Beijing on Wednesday, the man now known as “chairman of everything” laid out a vision for his nation so grand that it took to delineate; more than twice as long as his predecessor spoke for at the last party congress.
is entering a “new era”, Mr Xi declared repeatedly; standing “tall and firm in the east”, and ready to move closer to centre stage and become a “mighty force” able to lead the world on political, economic, military and environmental issues. Though his words built on his first address as leader, which laid out his “China Dream” of renewed national wealth and power, they were vastly more confident – and understandably so.
After Mao Zedong’s death and the end of his devastating , party survivors (including Mr Xi’s own father) sought to institutionalise politics so that never again could one man wield such power. The unwritten rule was that leaders would step down after two five-year terms; on that basis, this congress would mark the halfway point in Mr Xi’s tenure, and would anoint his successor. The general secretary is not, as some have suggested, Mao Redux. But, even given , there is little doubt that he is the country’s most powerful leader for decades. His anti-corruption campaign has proved both politically useful and immensely popular. He has established control – with unforeseen speed and thoroughness – through three concentric rings, asserting his power within the party; the party’s power over the country; and China’s power within the world. Many suspect he does not plan to step aside in 2022, and that no heir will be put forward at this meeting; one likely candidate .
Instead, the event is all about Mr Xi: how many of his people achieve which roles, and how his thinking is written into the party constitution. Since 2012, he has purged rivals and their allies, gained immense control over the military and taken charge of the economy, usually delegated to the premier. Every sphere from the media and law to universities, private businesses and even entertainment has been squeezed as the party has reasserted control. Meanwhile, China is a growing force overseas – opening its first foreign military base, in Djibouti; launching the vast . The loss of American capacity, authority and influence – the sheer sorry spectacle of the Trump administration – has been a gift. At Davos this year, Mr Xi positioned himself as the champion of globalisation, free trade and action on climate change; he was hailed as . State media boast of the power of Xiplomacy.
All of this has been made possible by China’s blockbuster economic growth; but the narrative of global renaissance is needed because those years lie behind it. The party requires a renewed source of legitimation. Mr Xi’s speech implicitly positioned him as modern China’s third great leader after the revolutionary (Mao) and the reformer (Deng Xiaoping) and suggested a greater focus on rebalancing development to tackle inequality and environmental problems. Easier said than done. Optimists suggest that only centralised authority can challenge vested interests and push through the reforms essential to China’s long-term prospects, such as overhauling state enterprise and taxes; reining in debt; and ending penalising rural migrants. Pessimists increasingly suspect that the anti-corruption drive is not the precursor of radical action but a substitute for it – and warn that in the long term concentrating power will bring instability at home and overseas. The challenges ahead are immense; the capability of any individual limited. But who would dare to remind Mr Xi?
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