Wednesday 12 December 2018

'Emperor' Xi's power goes on parade at China's big think-in

Communist leaders meet to set agenda for next five years, writes Neil Connor in Beijing

Above: People walk past a poster featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping with a slogan reading ‘Chinese Dream, People’s Dream’ on a roadside in Beijing. Picture: AFP
Above: People walk past a poster featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping with a slogan reading ‘Chinese Dream, People’s Dream’ on a roadside in Beijing. Picture: AFP

Neil Connor

Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, is set to cement his position as Beijing’s strongest leader since Mao Tse-tung at the ruling Communist Party’s congress which begins today.

After five years defeating political rivals, silencing critics and developing public support built on rejuvenation and fighting corruption, Mr Xi is on firm ground to oversee a major reshuffle of China’s leadership stacked with those loyal to him.

The Chinese president will also outline his plans for an expected second term, building on his broad aims of ensuring political stability and economic prosperity at home, and achieving great power status for China on the world stage.

The 19th party congress will almost certainly see Mr Xi being backed to continue a second five-year term, but it is less clear if a potential successor will emerge to take over at the end of his 10-year presidential limit.

“That would surprise me,” said Andrew Nathan, a China expert at the University of Columbia.

“Because it would indicate Xi does not intend to serve a third term, which today everyone believes he does intend to do.”

A major indicator of whether Mr Xi has set his sights on breaking with precedent and ruling beyond the two terms is whether key ally Wang Qishan (69) will be asked to remain on the politburo standing committee past an unofficial retirement age limit.

There could be other indicators at the congress to suggest growing influence in the hands of the 64-year-old strongman.

Some believe Mr Xi may have his ideology enshrined into the constitution – which would put him on the same political level as Mao and Deng Xiaoping.

Others say he may assume the title of ‘party chairman’, which would see his influence rise above his standing committee colleagues.

China expert Kerry Brown said party members could fall behind a stronger Mr Xi to help the party maintain its rule over China.

“The congress this year will be dominated by Mr Xi, his message, and the role of his leadership in the overall plot of the Communist Party as it seeks to make one-party rule sustainable,” said Prof Brown, a former British diplomat in Beijing and author of ‘CEO China: The Rise of Xi Jinping’.

Outside of the party, Mr Xi draws broad support from ordinary Chinese for pushing a nationalist agenda abroad and an anti-corruption campaign at home.

Yu Xiaoming, a Beijing-based trader, said he admired Mr Xi for “enhancing China’s influence on the world stage” and concentrating power on himself.

“China needs a powerful leader, and it is impossible to have comprehensive democracy in China because we have too many people,” he said.

Mr Xi emerged as a strong leader after targeting low-level ‘flies’ and high-level ‘tigers’ as part of a war on corruption which some say is aimed at removing political opponents.

Across wider Chinese society, Mr Xi has also cracked down on free speech on the internet and in the media, and waged a war on civil society.

Hu Jia, a leading rights campaigner, said such moves sent a chill through China’s activist community.

“China may appear to no longer have an emperor, but I can tell you that Xi is really our emperor,” said Mr Hu, who is also a family friend of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, a long-term dissident who died of cancer in a Chinese prison earlier this year.

“Xi is even more powerful than Putin, so it is no surprise to me that he will be taking the office for more than 10 years,” he said.

The 19th party congress is communist China’s equivalent of democratic elections in the West. More than 2,000 carefully hand-picked delegates will select members of a central committee, which appoints a 25-member politburo, before an all-powerful standing committee is unveiled.

Despite being portrayed as an exercise in democracy, decisions on appointments are in reality made by horse-trading among party elders and current leaders who jockey on behalf of rival factions.

But while Mr Xi may be emboldened to seize his chance for reinforced power at the congress, in the long term he will need to fulfil his key pledges – economic growth, the continuation of China’s global rise and the lifting of millions of Chinese out of poverty.

The Chinese leader will address how he will achieve these aims at a keynote speech on the opening day of the congress today. He is also likely to make a broad appeal for support by reminding China’s 1.3 billion people what he has achieved in his first term – rooting out corruption and boosting China’s image abroad.

“He is widely approved, first of all, as someone who has made China great again,” said Prof Nathan. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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