Monday 23 September 2019

President wants to be around to ensure vision of China taking 'centre stage' becomes reality

A souvenir plate with the image of chairman Mao Zedong on sale in Beijing yesterday. Photo: Reuters
A souvenir plate with the image of chairman Mao Zedong on sale in Beijing yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Neil Connor in Beijing

The reality is quickly dawning for many that Xi Jinping sees his rule of China in terms of decades, rather than two five-year presidential terms.

The Chinese president opened the 19th party congress saying China had entered a "new era" where it will take "centre stage" at the middle of the century.

He ended it by imposing his will on the party and top tier of government, suggesting that he is seeking to continue his rule up until that vision comes into view.

Firstly, on the final day of the event on Tuesday, he enshrined his ideology into the constitution, elevating him to the same political level as China's founding father Mao Zedong.

Any attack on Mr Xi is now an attack on the party itself, and the party is considered irreproachable in the Chinese political system. With Mr Xi's name included in its constitution, potential opposition has been dealt a crushing blow.

And then, yesterday, the 64-year-old leader unveiled a new Politburo Standing Committee - the top rung of government - that included a mixture of trusted allies and ageing, but capable, officials. However, there was no successor.

Mr Xi's six colleagues on the standing committee will all be too old to take over when he is expected to step down at the next party congress in 2022. China has an unwritten rule that senior officials must retire when they reach 68, and all of the PSC members are aged 60 or over, meaning they cannot serve two five-year terms as president.

If Mr Xi is to continue as leader of China beyond the end of his second term in five years' time, this will be a significant break with precedent in China, where recent leaders have served for two five-year terms.

Steven Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London, said Mr Xi was driven by his view China's path was intrinsically linked to his own. With that in mind, no one should be surprised that the president sees himself as ruler of China until his health permits.

"The reality is that Xi outlined a vision for China for the next three decades and fulfilling this vision will require the leader imposing tight discipline on the Communist Party so that it will be effective in leading the people of China to the promised land that he outlined," Prof Tsang said.

"Who can provide such strong vision? Obviously, there is no one but President Xi."

Prof Tsang said in 2022 Mr Xi will seek to convince the Chinese people that he has to "forsake the prospect of retirement and soldier on…for the greater good".

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said there were three reasons why Mr Xi did not appoint a successor. Firstly, because it was clear that "Xi wants to cling to power".

He also said a president-in-waiting would be perceived as "inconvenient". "He or she needs to toe the line and stay quiet, and the official number one has someone blowing in their neck," he said. Lastly, Prof Cabestan said Mr Xi wanted to "test potential successors and make them compete".

There is always the possibility that Mr Xi could appoint a fresh face at the 20th party congress that has been groomed by him for immediate power, and Chongqing chief Chen Min'er (56) and Hu Chunhua (54), the Guangdong party chief, are potential candidates.

But if that happens, then speculation will swirl once again around Mr Xi in 2022 on whether he will relinquish his authoritarian grip or continue to rule behind the throne to ensure his vision becomes a reality.

Irish Independent

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