Chinese President Xi Jinping is perhaps the most powerful leader China has seen since Communist leader Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China. Now Xi stands on the brink of becoming even stronger.
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China kicked off on Wednesday — a hugely important political event in China in which the party meets for roughly a week once every five years to decide on its leadership and set national policy priorities.
By tradition, the party changes its head every 10 years. Xi began his first five-year term during the last congress, and the party will reappoint him for his second five-year term during this one.
The party will also assign people to top leadership positions in the tiers below him, most notably the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. It’s a group, currently composed of seven people, who make up the most senior decision-making body in the Chinese Communist party. Its members have broad portfolios like running the economy or the country’s propaganda operations.
If Xi succeeds in getting his allies into many of those top leadership positions — and experts think there’s a good chance he will — he’ll have more control of the party and an enormous mandate to push his agenda for the country’s future.
Xi’s speech suggests he’s as ambitious as ever
To kick off this year’s congress, Xi delivered a whopping 3.5-hour-long opening speech outlining his accomplishments over the past five years and vision for the country’s future.
He heralded a “new era” in Chinese political life and repeatedly boasted of China’s status as a “great power.”
Xi spoke a great deal about making the economy more nimble and prosperous by doing things like improving state-owned enterprises — but he was clear it wouldn’t be moving toward a conventional market economy.
As the New York Times notes, Xi said the word “market” only 19 times, compared to 24 times by his predecessor Hu at the previous congress in 2012, and 51 times by then-President Jiang Zemin at the 1997 congress.
"He is emphasizing that he is strongly committed to the distinctive Chinese hybrid system in economics and party-led system in politics,” Julian Gewirtz, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School studying Chinese history and politics, told me.
Xi also championed China’s growing influence on the world stage, celebrating the country’s increasing control of the disputed South China Sea under his first term and calling for efforts to make the Chinese military more powerful. He also called for Chinese mainland control of Taiwan, the island nation off the coast of China that Beijing considers a renegade province.
Xi signaled that he would continue to ramp up one of the biggest themes of his first term: domestic repression. Under his rule, Chinese authorities have cracked down hard on free expression and civil society. During his speech, he suggested there was more to come — pledging enhanced internet censorship to “clearly oppose and resist the whole range of erroneous viewpoints.” (The government has blocked the international messaging service WhatsApp during the congress so far.)
Experts say that if Xi manages to secure more control of the party at this congress, he’ll likely feel emboldened when engaging with foreign leaders — and that includes his relationship with President Donald Trump.
Xi will host Trump during his first visit to Asia in November. If Xi meets analysts’ expectations at the party congress, then “Trump is going to meet Xi at the apex of his power,” according to Damien Ma, a fellow at the Paulson Institute, a nonpartisan Chicago think tank.
That means that while discussing issues ranging from trade to how to handle North Korea to cybersecurity, Xi could have a firmer hand at the negotiating table.
Xi will also likely feel more confident about projecting Chinese power across the globe through projects like the “One Belt, One Road” initiative in which China is building a behemoth infrastructure project fanning across Eurasia.
Of course, Xi may not need a boost in the first place. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of China at the University of California Irvine notes, Xi doesn’t have to do anything exceptional to increase China’s standing in a global order led by Trump.
“It has been a godsend to [Xi] to have a US administration in place in recent months that has been erratic in its diplomacy, has sent mixed signals to allies, and has pulled back on various forms of engagement with the world,” Wasserstrom told me.
“In some cases, all Xi needs to do to win points symbolically internationally is show up and say basic things, like appearing at Davos and expressing support for globalization or reaffirming China's commitment to the Paris Climate accords. He can look good even if he is in fact limiting the flow into China of international ideas and making it harder to international NGOs to operate.”
It appears that, for Xi, the world is for the taking.