Hwang Chun-mei and Jojo Man | Radio Free Asia
Xi has been preparing for total power and lifelong rule for the past decade, political commentators say.
The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which convenes in Beijing on Oct. 16, is expected to grant an unprecedented third five-year term to Xi Jinping, the CCP general secretary, and state president. In the run-up to the congress, RFA Cantonese and Mandarin examined the 69-year-old Xi’s decade at the helm of the world’s most populous nation in a series of reports on Hong Kong, foreign policy, Chinese intellectuals, civil society, and rural poverty.
Ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping will seek a third term in office at the 20th party congress, which opens on Sunday, amid tightened security in the capital, after a rare and anonymous public protest called for his resignation.
Photos circulating on social media showed guards keeping watch at major traffic flyovers in the city after someone hung two huge banners from the Sitong flyover on the Third Ring Road in Beijing, one of which called for Xi’s resignation.
“Remove the traitor-dictator Xi Jinping!” read one banner, video, and photos of which were quickly posted to social media, only to be deleted.
“Food, not PCR tests. Freedom, not lockdowns. Reforms, not the Cultural Revolution. Elections, not leaders,” read the second.
Keywords and accounts linked to the protest were rapidly deleted from China’s tightly controlled social media platforms, as the ruling party’s well-oiled censorship machine swung into action.
Searches for “Haidian,” the district where the banners appeared, and “hero” were all blocked by Friday, amid reports that social media users who talked about the incident were getting their accounts shut down.
Tightened security is in place across the country, even 3,600 kilometers (2,200 miles) west of Beijing in Tibet’s regional capital and other major cities, where even emojis were being monitored.
“On October 12, the Chinese government sent out orders to the heads of counties and cities in and around Lhasa, Shigatse, and Phenpo stating that no one should engage in religious activities or gatherings, or share religious material on their social media,” said a resident of Tibet.
Sharing general greetings carrying images or emojis of religious deities on social media is also forbidden, and “they are threatening that the administrator of the chat group and the members will all be punished if caught doing so,” the source told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity for personal security reasons.
On the eve of the CCP 20th National Congress, Xi Jinping has been hugely successful in gathering the reins of power into his own hands, reeling in control from disparate branches of party and government, and feeding a growing cult of personality around his personal brand of political ideology, analysts told RFA on Friday.
Xi currently holds, like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping before him, the moniker of “core” leader and CCP general secretary, alongside the presidency of the country and the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which commands the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
By 2018, six years into his tenure, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC) had removed presidential term limits from the country’s constitution, paving the way for a third term in office and breaking with the post-Mao political convention that leaders step down after two terms.
“After a decade of rule, Xi Jinping appears to have no intention of emulating his predecessors Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao, and has no intention of handing over the reins of supreme power to anyone,” political commentator Lu Chen wrote in a commentary broadcast on RFA’s Mandarin Service.
“[This] abolished the administrative reforms that Deng Xiaoping had worked hard to implement in response to the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976], and restarted the system of lifelong party leadership begun in the Mao era,” Lu said. “Technically, Xi Jinping can now be re-elected until the end of his life.”
Despite sporadic signs of public protest and dissent from within the ranks of the CCP, political analysts largely agreed that a third term in office for Xi is now extremely likely.
“Xi Jinping’s impending re-election is part of a process by which Chinese society has centralized power,” Lu said. “As Xi has drawn power to himself from the rest of the party, so the Chinese government has taken all power away from civil society.”
Liang Wen-tao, professor of political science at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, said there have been rumors of dissent within party ranks, including wild claims of a political coup attempt that placed Xi under house arrest.
“This is, after all, a break with convention, and will naturally be challenged [by some],” Liang, who is also known in Cantonese as Leung Man-to, said in a recent commentary for RFA’s Cantonese Service. “There have been different opinions on whether Xi could be voted back in.”
“But he has been planning to move to a system of lifelong tenure for a long time now,” he wrote.
Taming the elders
Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has long since disposed of the biggest hitters loyal to party elder Jiang Zemin, once believed to wield huge influence long after he stepped down after two terms in office, Liang said.
“By gradually replacing them with his own cronies, Xi has successfully suppressed the power of the Jiang faction in the military,” he said.
A string of corruption cases involving once-powerful chiefs of law enforcement has also seen off serious challenges to Xi’s rule from within the police, armed police, and political and legal affairs committee system, Liang said.
Xi managed this by bringing the People’s Armed Police under the sole command of the CMC when it had formerly been under the control of the CMC and China’s cabinet, the State Council.
He has also managed to eclipse the influence of party elders, who once ruled China from behind the scenes, according to New York City University politics professor Xia Ming.
“China now controls the whole of society since the pandemic,” Xia said. “Elderly people were the most vulnerable during the pandemic, so [the leadership] has been able to put huge pressure on elderly members of the Politburo, who take their health very seriously.”
A behind-the-scenes package of “services” for party elders, in conjunction with the Health Code COVID-19 tracking app, has also enabled the leadership to know where they are at any time, he said.
“This means the elders aren’t able to make political connections as they have done in the past, nor to make rash comments about the current government,” Xia said. “Even if they are dissatisfied with Xi Jinping, and have opinions about him, it’s much harder for them to exert the huge influence they did in the past.”
Meanwhile, Xi’s constant political pressure on state media and on China’s once-powerful internet conglomerates has suppressed not just outright dissent, but almost any public point of view not pre-approved by government censors, Liang said.
“With the establishment of party supremacy … over the media, Xi Jinping has been able to significantly curtail premier Li Keqiang’s political influence and thereby mitigate any political threat from him, albeit in a disguised manner,” he said.
What is less predictable than whether Xi will stay in power for a third term is how long that term will be, analysts said.
In the absence of major political leaks, commentators are still unsure of who will make it into the 25-member Politburo, still less of the makeup of the next Politburo standing committee, currently a seven-member body at the heart of political power in China.
The Asia Society has suggested five potential scenarios, including the promotion of current Shanghai party chief Li Qiang to the post of premier.
If Xi unveils a Politburo standing committee packed with his allies, this will send a signal that his power is now supreme, while a more balanced line-up could hint at intense negotiations behind the scenes at Zhongnanhai, analysts have told RFA in recent interviews.
Chen Chien-fu, associate professor of international relations at Taiwan’s Tamkang University, said three main factors will go into deciding who is in key positions of power: the age of candidates, internal power structures within the party, and the extent to which Xi feels psychologically secure.
Chen said he believes current propaganda chief Huang Kunming, Chongqing municipal party chief Chen Min’er, Ding Xuexiang, who currently directs the CCP’s powerful General Office, and Shanghai CCP chief Li Qiang are all likely contenders for a seat on the Politburo standing committee.
“The key point to look out for will be whether the next generation of leaders is dependent on Xi Jinping for their position, or whether they have a strong and independent power base of their own,” Chen said.
Chen said it is also worth looking at which officials under the age of 60 are promoted into the 25-member Politburo.
“These people could become important future contenders for the leadership succession in China,” he said.