Chinese President Xi Jinping has just accomplished something Donald Trump could only dream of: getting himself written into his party's constitution.
The Chinese Communist Party has voted to put Xi into the same pantheon as Communist Party legends Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, paving the way for him to lead the country into the indefinite future. It also means that he will have new power to expand his crackdown on dissent at home, pursue aggressive military moves in the South China Sea, and ensure that much of the Chinese economy remains under de facto state control.
Xi’s elevation happened on Tuesday, during the last day of the party’s congress, a weeklong event that occurs once every five years as a way for the party to fill key leadership slots and set national policy priorities.
More than 2,300 delegates voted unanimously to enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” into the party’s constitution. The addition of that phrase — which some analysts joke is as unwieldy in Chinese as it is in English — effectively means that Xi’s vision for China is officially part of state doctrine.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of China at the University of California Irvine, says it’s premature to say whether Xi’s level of power should be compared directly to Mao, the founder of modern China, or Deng, the iconic reformer who opened up China’s economy to the world in the 1980s and helped pave the path to its meteoric rise today.
“It’s better to focus on the fact that he’s in the same league as those two,” Wasserstrom told me.
Xi is poised to become very, very powerful
The Chinese Communist Party has only added only one leader, Mao, to the constitution while he was alive. The party added Deng’s name and vision for China to the constitution after he died in 1997. No other Chinese leaders have had their name added to the constitution.
Experts say that Xi’s addition to the constitution gives him a vast political mandate and means he could be in power longer than most Chinese presidents. The recent norm in China is for the president to take on two five-year terms. Xi is currently beginning his second five-year term, but now it’s more likely that he could potentially end up taking on a third or fourth term.
Alternatively, Xi could step down after his second term but still hold sway over the direction of the country. Damien Ma, a fellow at the Paulson Institute, a nonpartisan Chicago think tank, told me, “Xi could certainly adopt the Deng model where he may not hold formal posts but clearly has huge influence over all major party decisions.”
And Xi’s prospects of holding power for an extended period of time grew even stronger on Wednesday, when the Communist Party revealed the five new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the most senior decision-making body in the party. As the Washington Post notes, in a break from recent tradition, none of those new members appear young enough to be a successor to Xi when he completes his term in 2022. That absence of an obvious heir could be yet another sign that Xi will hold the reins for longer than 10 years.
Xi wants to make China great again. That’s going to be easier now.
So what is Xi’s vision? We got a taste of it during his whopping 3.5-hour-long opening speech at the beginning of the Congress last week, during which he heralded a “new era” in Chinese political life and repeatedly boasted of China’s reemergence as a “great power” in the world.
Xi spoke about reforming state-owned companies, but didn't suggest that he intended to privatize them as part of a bid to make China into a more conventional free market economy.
As the New York Times noted, Xi said the word “market” only 19 times, compared to 24 times by his predecessor Hu Jintao at the previous congress in 2012, and 51 times by then-President Jiang Zemin at the 1997 congress.
Julian Gewirtz, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School studying Chinese history and politics, told me after the speech that Xi emphasized “that he is strongly committed to the distinctive Chinese hybrid system in economics and party-led system in politics.”
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 described China as a country that wasn’t looking to pick fights but would unapologetically defend its national interests.
As he spoke of his country’s growing stature, Xi made it clear that China wasn’t trying to mimic or replace Western powers. He said that China is “blazing a new trail” for developing nations to follow.
“Under his reign, there is no more hope of convergence,” François Godement, director of the China-Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told the Washington Post. In other words: Under Xi, China is not simply going to morph into a Western-style liberal democracy as it grows wealthier.
And Xi signaled that he would continue to crack down on any signs of dissent. Under his rule, Chinese authorities have restricted the ability of citizens to criticize the government online and hit NGOs with suffocating government regulations. During his speech, Xi suggested there was more to come — pledging enhanced internet censorship to “clearly oppose and resist the whole range of erroneous viewpoints.”
“The trend line is away from opening up — it’s increasingly tough to be a human rights lawyer, a feminist activist, an NGO worker,” Wasserstrom said.
While it’s impossible to predict exactly how long Xi will end up staying in power, one thing has become clear: China’s president has just been given quite a bit more power to lead the world’s biggest country.