President Donald Trump said he congratulated Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday for his “extraordinary elevation” this week, a consolidating of power in China that has many experts concerned.
In a move that has China watchers talking, Xi unveiled his new Standing Committee lineup at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Wednesday, when he also started his second five-year term. What was striking about Wednesday’s revelations is that according to experts, none of the Committee members — all men over the age of 60 — were a clear successor for Xi, making him what Reuters described as “arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong,” the founder of the People’s Republic of China.
Additionally, during the 19th Party Congress, Xi’s name and ideology — aka, “Xi Jinping Thought” — were enshrined in the Communist Party constitution. This is something that had only been done for Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping (who was enshrined posthumously). This, experts and analysts agree, is a big deal, because it’s so rare. The constitution, updated every five years, often makes reference to the thoughts of the leader, but seldom names him. The Party has also called Xi, 64, an “important Marxist thinker.”
Orville Schell, the head of the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, called it a “huge deal” while Simon Denyer, The Washington Post’s China bureau chief, figures the move could help Xi “tighten party control over society and make his country a superpower on the world stage, with a political philosophy directly opposed to that of the West.”
But what does any of this mean in terms of domestic politics and how China will operate regionally, in face of fresh threats from North Korea and ongoing tensions with the Philippines in the South China Sea, or beyond?
“In general the Chinese Communist Party has full control over not only state affairs and domestic affairs, but also foreign policy, the military, and the pace of military modernization,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, assistant professor of Security Studies at the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. So paying attention to who is on top “gives us definitive information about what time of people are going to be making these policies.”
But why should anyone outside China care that “Xi Jinping Thoughts” are now enshrined?
“Because he has elevated himself as a core leader, we are moving away from previous iterations in which multiple individuals at high levels of the party echelons would discuss, debate, and reach consensus on the issues,” said Mastro, adding that while it’s not a “perfect system” that it did “add more caution, more moderate or center-line kind of policies…it now seems like a lot of power and decision-making resides in one man.”
This, she said, can make a system “more volatile, more dangerous.” And Xi, said Mastro, is “not as cautious as his predecessors” and is generally more accepting of risk. The fact that he doesn’t have an obvious successor — there’s no one in his leadership lineup young enough to be groomed for leadership — signals that Xi could stay on, as he is allowed to do, though doing so would go against the norms.
“His focus is more on consolidating his power,” said Mastro. This leaves a lot of questions unanswered because in an autocracy, things “could go either way.”
Having Xi named in the Party constitution, said Jeffrey Wassterstrom, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine specializing in modern Chinese history, “just confirms” what has been going on for a few years now — which is a bit like a giant iceberg: far larger beneath the surface than what the party pomp visible to casual observer.
“You see his picture everywhere in China in a way that you didn’t see the last two leaders. You hear him quoted in a way that’s like quoting sacred scripture rather than just saying, ‘This is what the leader had to say’ — and that’s not a complete novelty in China, but it seems like a throwback to when Deng Xiaoping and Mao were in power,” said Wassterstrom.
“Inside China, it means criticizing him is raised to be something more dangerous…it sends ripple effects that way internally,” he said. “I’m distressed by all of this is because what’s actually going on is China in some ways is becoming more restrictive of the flow of foreign ideas, it’s censoring more international content even than it did before. At the same time, Xi Jinping is paying lip service to this idea of being open to the world.”
Indeed, Xi, said Mastro, has “reversed some of the more liberalizing policies that his predecessors have put into place. So, it’s not a given, what kind of autocratic system China is going to have. Right now, the party cares about responding to the needs of the people. But there’s nothing that forces them to do that.”
When it comes to human rights and the survival of civil society in China, Wasserstrom said the “stakes are very high,” and not just on the mainland — China has been using its muscle to influence how Hong Kong and Thailand deal with activists. At the same time, Xi is treated like a celebrity when he visits the United States and United Kingdom, which ultimately “hurts people within China who have been trying to work within the system, trying to push things in more of what we’d see of as a liberalizing direction,” especially when they see Xi as having such international support.
Internationally, he said it’s hard to tell how this will change anything. But, Wassterstrom said, the fact that Trump has “created a vacuum” in so many ways has left China — and Xi — in a good position to step in, without having to really compete with the United States for relevancy “in certain global arrangements.”
“In some cases, all Xi Jinping has to do these days is show up,” he said, citing the example of the Paris Climate Change Accord, where all Xi had to do was simply say that China had not changed its position.
In fact, Wassterstrom told ThinkProgress that Xi is saying things that “sound weirdly similar to Trump at times.”
“He’s claiming there will be win-win situations…Xi Jinping has promoted this idea for ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ to the kind of global centrality it had before it was laid low by the opium wars…it’s a version of Make China Great Again.”
In looking at Chinese foreign policy, Mastro added, “there’s always been a debate about the power of moderates versus hawks — and that it seems to me that that debate has come to an end.”
She added: “It’s no longer a popular view that maybe they’re better off to just let the United States lead. This debate is over, and with it Xi Jinping and his view of what China’s role should be in the world has dominated.”