With the exponential rise in China’s power, its internal politics -- opaque and dense in the best of times -- has come under increasing scrutiny as the world tries to make sense of the political system that lies behind the presumptive global superpower. One of the most important events in the Chinese political calendar took place just last week, the annual four-day meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
It was widely expected that CPC chairman and Chinese president Xi Jinping will further consolidate his power in the meeting attended by 384 full and alternate members of CPC’s Central Committee. It was also expected that Xi will ensure during the conclave that he doesn’t walk into the sunset at the quinquennial 20th Party Congress in 2022 when his two-year presidential term comes to an end. After all, he had notably got the CPC to remove the two-term limit on the presidency in 2018.
The portends also hinted at such a possibility. The Sixth Plenum had as its sole agenda the passing of ‘Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century’ — only the third time in CPC’s 100-year existence that a resolution on the party’s history has been passed. The two other instances were in 1945 and 1981 when Great Helmsman Mao Zedong and great reformer Deng Xiaoping, his successor, had used such resolutions to edge out their rivals, emerge as supreme leaders and implement their policies with a free hand. That such an agenda has been fixed itself spoke volumes about the status that Xi enjoys in the party. The question was of the degree of Xi’s supremacy.
That question is now settled. As the Sixth Plenum came to a close on Thursday, the CPC released a Communique containing a summary of the resolution that was passed at the plenum. The full text of the resolution has not been released at the time of writing.
Going by the communique and the press conference held by the party the day after, it is fair to posit that not only has Xi ensured that he will remain at the helm of the party for another term, if not two, but he has seemingly surpassed even Deng in the pantheon of greatest CPC leaders.
The Sixth Plenum indicates that Xi now stands shoulder-to-shoulder with party founder Mao. He has amassed extraordinary control over the Party to the extent that Xi is now the Party and the Party is Xi. That makes him virtually immune to internal skullduggery and even criticism because the total consolidation of party’s collective power gives Xi an impregnable moral and political armour.
The Sixth Plenum has also reinforced the centrality of the CPC in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and as its “core” leader, Xi now lies at the very centre of the concentric circle of power as the “sole guiding force for the party, the government and the army in the 21st century.” His anointment for further term or terms at the 20th Party Congress is now a mere formality.
To understand the true import of the Sixth Plenum, it may be worth breaking down the text of the Communique and analyse its significance.
Some scholars such as Srikanth Kondapalli have pointed out that the absence of an explicit mention of Xi’s tenure extension in the Communique suggests that it is far from certain and even points to the intensification of internal factionalism.
While it is nobody’s case that Xi has been able to put an end to factionalism within the party that rules over the most populous nation in the world, the need for an explicit mention of an extension of his term becomes superfluous when we see the structure of the Communique that situates a narrative of the party’s (and China’s) history in such a way so as to argue that China’s promised greatness cannot be achieved without ‘pilot Xi at the helm’.
This point is not made in explicit terms but presented as a fait accompli while carving an elaborate, if fictional, narrative where China’s “leap from a country with relatively backward productive forces to the world’s second-largest economy” has been made possible due to the Party whose glorious journey over the past 100 years mirrors the rise of the Chinese nation.
In this linear narrative, Chinese people, their efforts or external circumstances matter little in scripting the rise of nation. That agency is solely the prerogative of the CPC that has struggled, guided, acted, worked hard, transformed, modernized and led the country to its position of preeminence in the world, and in that task spread over a century, a group of extraordinarily prescient leaders (chief representatives of CPC, starting with Mao) have accomplished a series of historic achievements without ever committing any errors.
The resolution breaks down this history in roughly four eras: One, “the period of new-democratic revolution” that was achieved by Mao by blazing the “right revolutionary path” that “put an end to China’s history as a semi-colonial, semi-feudal society.” Two, the era of socialist “revolution and construction” that adapted Marxism to the Chinese context. This, again, is attributed to Mao.
The third era, the “period of reform, opening up, and socialist modernization” is attributed to Deng, Jiang Zemin and Hu Zintao when China (guided by the Party) first shifted “the focus of the Party and the country’s work onto economic development and to launch the reform and opening-up drive” under Deng, “safeguarded socialism with Chinese characteristics” under Jiang, and “and led the entire nation in advancing practical, theoretical, and institutional innovation during the process of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects” under Hu.
This leads to the fourth era where the indispensability of Xi is arrived at, first through effusive praise of his actions, and then through extensive advertisement of his achievements. A sense is driven through that China’s great rejuvenation — which is a historical inevitability — is intrinsically linked with the fate of its paramount leader.
In one of the most telling passages of the Communique where Xi’s continued tenure at the helm is justified, it is said:
Comrade Xi Jinping, through meticulous assessment and deep reflection on a number of major theoretical and practical questions regarding the cause of the Party and the country in the new era, has set forth a series of original new ideas, thoughts, and strategies on national governance revolving around the major questions of our times: what kind of socialism with Chinese characteristics, we should uphold and develop in this new era, what kind of great modern socialist country we should build, and what kind of Marxist party exercising long-term governance we should develop, as well as how we should go about achieving these tasks. He is thus the principal founder of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. This is the Marxism of contemporary China and of the 21st century. It embodies the best of the Chinese culture and ethos in our times and represents a new breakthrough in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context. The Party has established Comrade Xi Jinping's core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole and defined the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. This reflects the common will of the Party, the armed forces, and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups, and is of decisive significance for advancing the cause of the Party and the country in the new era and for driving forward the historic process of national rejuvenation.”
I have represented this paragraph in full because every word is worth poring over. According to China watcher Bill Bishop, the words “new breakthrough in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context” is better translated from Mandarin as “a new leap in the sinicization of Marxism”, and therefore the line should read: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era is contemporary Chinese Marxism, 21st century Marxism, the essence of Chinese culture and Chinese spirit, and it has achieved a new leap in the Sinicization of Marxism.”
Why is this clarification worth noting? Because this would place Xi as only the second leader to single-handedly engineer such a “leap” — a crucial ideological feat — after Mao, who is credited with the first. The other instance of “leap” in Sinicization of Marxism in the Communique refers to a joint endeavour between Deng, Jiang and Hu. Xi, therefore, stands next only to Mao. But that is not all.
Xi is also the creator and innovator of a series of “original new ideas, thoughts, and strategies on national governance revolving around the major questions of our times”, a man of rare intelligence, judgment, vision and clarity who has defined “what kind of socialism with Chinese characteristics we should uphold and develop in this new era, what kind of great modern socialist country we should build, and what kind of Marxist party exercising long-term governance we should develop, as well as how we should go about achieving these tasks.”
Further, we find Xi has been called “principal founder of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. This is significant because the ideology has previously been described as “the practical experience and collective wisdom of the Party and the people.” The shift from collective to acknowledging XI as the “principal founder” in an official document, once again places him on the same pedestal as Mao and opens the possibility that the term may be shortened to just ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ from the more ponderous version. This would signify one of the quirks of Chinese politics — reflecting the consolidation of power and cementing of legacy.
According to David Bandurksi in China Media Project, “This is something to look out for as the full ‘Resolution’ is released, but it is likely in fact that the shortening will be achieved fully at next year’s 20th National Congress of the CCP, following the pattern set by Mao, whose “Mao Zedong Thought” emerged at the 7th National Congress of the CCP in April-June 1945.”
Also worth noting is that the Communique calls ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ as not only a leap in Sinicization of Marxism, but an embodiment of “the best of the Chinese culture and ethos in our times.” In this reading, Xi is a civilizational leader, presenting the luminosity of Chinese civilization after a century of humiliation.
Given the fact that China’s “external environment has grown increasingly complex and grave over the past year under the combined impact of worldwide changes of a scale unseen in a century”, it needs someone like Xi at the helm who “has solved many tough problems that were long on the agenda but never resolved and accomplished many things that were wanted but never got done.”
So far, the reasons stacked up behind the argument to persist with Xi are those of merit and ideological acumen. The Communique then offers examples of Xi’s “courageous” leadership. With “Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, (the Party) has demonstrated great historical initiative, tremendous political courage, and a powerful sense of mission.”
Moreover, if CPC’s centrality is key in China’s progress and rejuvenation (a fact that has been painstakingly established) then the Party must thank Xi who has been instrumental in strengthening and rectifying the Party.
The Communique says: “the Party’s leadership systems have improved, and the way in which the Party exercises its leadership has become more refined… the Party’s ability to improve and reform itself and maintain its integrity has been significantly strengthened, and the problem of lax and weak governance over Party organizations has been addressed at the fundamental level. An overwhelming victory has been achieved in the fight against corruption, and this has been consolidated across the board. Through revolutionary tempering, our Party has grown stronger.”
“Revolutionary tempering” is a euphemism for the bone-deep, multi-year purges that Xi had initiated in the Party through anti-corruption drives and even in the “political-legal apparatus”.
These “truths” from “facts” having been ascertained, the Communique posits that ahead of the 20th National Congress in Beijing in the second half of 2022, “the entire Party must unite and lead the Chinese people in surmounting difficulties and forging ahead so as to make new and greater contributions toward building a modern socialist country in all respects, securing great success for socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era.” And how will that objective be achived?
The answer lies in the following passage: “The Central Committee calls upon the entire Party, the military, and all Chinese people to rally more closely around the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, to fully implement Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”
To sum, it is only Xi who possesses the acumen and the grand strategic vision to lead the Party into overcoming “all difficulties and withstand all pressures, and steer the great ship of socialism with Chinese characteristics to cleave the waves and sail ahead with unstoppable momentum,” mitigate “profound global changes and turned crises into opportunities amid complex situations on the international stage”. And this, says the Communique, “reflects the common will of the Party, the armed forces, and the Chinese people of all ethnic groups, and is of decisive significance for advancing the cause of the Party and the country in the new era and for driving forward the historic process of national rejuvenation.”
A day after the meeting got over, CPC conducted a presser on the Party’s adoption of historical resolution where Xi was called “helmsman” and “people’s leader”. Jiang Jinquan, who heads the party’s policy research office, said at the Friday presser: “As long as we uphold Comrade Xi Jinping as the core... the giant vessel of Chinese rejuvenation will have a helmsman and will be able to brave any storms.”
As China Medi Project points out, Xi was referred to as the “helmsman” and “pilot at the helm at the core” first in 2020 — a title that was previously used to describe only Mao.
The conclusion from these statements and symbolisms are clear: “chairman of everything” XI will remain at the helm as long as he wants, and there is none within the CPC right now, or likely to be in the near future, to challenge the primacy of the Party’s “core” leader.
A few more points are worth mentioning. Another indication that Xi’s continuation at the helm beyond 2022 is a mere formality is the fact that there has been absolutely no talk, not even a whisper, of a likely successor to Xi. If Deng’s policy of generational succession was being followed, that would have been a certainty by now.
Willy Wo-Lap Lam of The Jamestown Foundation points out that Xi, born in 1953, may continue for two more terms and retire from presidency (not Party chairmanship, the fount of true power) only in 2032 when he will be 79 years old. This means, writes Willy, “cadres belonging to the Sixth Generation —those born in the 1960s —will have a relatively slim chance of succeeding Xi, who represents the Fifth Generation… most 6G candidates will not be young enough to serve for two successive five-year terms. As a result, the chances of a seventh-generation cadre succeeding Xi as supreme leader are rather high.”
Finally, the historical resolution passed by the Central Committee this year differs in nature and spirit from the previous resolution passed in the Mao or Deng era. Mao had used the 1945 resolution to sideline co-party founders while Deng used the 1981 resolution to “cast aspersions on Mao’s ultra-radicalism, particularly the damage he did to the party and the country during the Cultural Revolution,” notes Willy.
In contrast, the resolution tabled by Xi mentions none of the disastrous policy misadventures committed by either Mao or Deng and consequently there is no mention of ‘Great Leap Forward’, Cultural Revolution, Gang of Four or Tiananmen Massacre.
This signifies a key leadership trait of Xi who is more interested in presenting a narrative where the “great, glorious, and correct party” can commit no wrong and is blessed with leaders who are almost clairvoyant in tracing the course of future.
In other words, Xi is not interested in the ideological vilification of Mao, or Deng because he senses seeds of nihilism in such a move. The Party must not be questioned. Its leaders have always been “correct” and the Party’s steps are always “right”. Xi is instead more interested in reinforcing the writ of CPC and his “core” leadership status and is careful in not spilling the Party’s internal struggles onto the public domain. In that sense, Xi is less of a risk-taker than is readily apparent.