Xi Jinping Blazes Into Reverence and Indefinite Rule

  • President Xi Jinping of China has been anointed one of the country’s revered leaders in a historical resolution
  • The resolution outlines his version of Chinese history and his vision for its future
  • The document brings the president into a new phase of greater influence domestically and internationally
Xi Jinping
Source: Africa-China Press Centre

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell, 1984.

Why is Xi Jinping blazing?

Answer: All signs point to Xi securing a historic third term in power during the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in Beijing this Autumn.

On the 16th of November 2021 President Xi Jinping of China was anointed one of the country’s revered leaders, securing his rise to formidable power for the years to come. The resolution was approved by senior officials of the Chinese Communist Party in the third summation of history in the party’s 100-year existence. The implications of the resolution extend beyond that of pride and admiration of an accomplished leader: Xi’s worldview and intentions will have a profound impact both in China and on the shifting world order over the coming years.

The resolution aims to cement Xi’s status as a transformational leader essential to the rise of China alongside two of his most significant predecessors, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. It is largely devoted to the current president’s nine years in power and the changes he has brought to the economy, politics, foreign policy, and other areas. It further establishes his ideas as China’s bedrock official doctrine. Indeed, “Xi Jinping Thought” was enshrined into the Chinese Constitution by Politburo in 2018 and has since been incorporated into the curricula of universities and political youth organisations. As such, understanding China’s domestic and international policies requires understanding Xi’s vision for the state.

Xi was already a powerful man before the resolution, but the document will propel him into a new phase of influence before the Party congress this year. The congress is likely to give the president a third five-year term as party leader, breaking with the two-term pattern that emerged under his predecessors. It will also add political urgency to his policy priorities, including his timely, merciless anti-corruption drive which could pave the Party for a major reshuffle come Autumn.

Who is changing Xi’s temperature?

Answer: The elevation of his status to core leader by the CCP, adding significant protection to his position.

The elevation of Xi’s status to core leader adds a significant level of protection to his position by demanding absolute loyalty from his fellow party officials. Should the alleged crisis of faith among party members from the last two years persist, it will be significantly more difficult to take action against Xi. The resolution further defines his role relative to the history of China’s rise. As goes the three-state description: Mao led China to stand up against oppression, Deng led it to prosperity, and now Xi is leading it to strength. 

Throughout his years in power, the president has overseen a highly centralised and authoritarian approach to politics in China, a sharp shift away from the more liberal approach of his predecessor Deng and his handpicked successors who governed prior to him. The resolution could not criticise these former leaders, instead, it highlights the corruption brought by the influence of external economic forces, justifying increased control over external influences and the population domestically. The resolution further defines the fight against corruption as “ongoing”, allowing Xi to use it as a lever against anyone who threatens his power.

Similarly, Xi has taken care in his handling of Mao’s legacy, a more sensitive issue for China. Under him, authorities have curtailed teaching and research and increased censorship on the disasters that occurred under Mao, while refraining from overtly defending him. This is relevant to Xi’s hard-line campaigns against political disloyalty, criticised by some for reviving fears of a Maoist persecution system.

The president has therefore recognised the excesses of Mao’s rule in the resolution, namely the Great Leap Forward (the attempt to drive China toward Communism that ended in mass famine) and the Cultural Revolution, while shortly thereafter acknowledging the achievements brought by Mao’s policies. The President has thus protected himself from the critics without negating neither Deng nor Mao’s status as a revered, untouchable leader.

What is driving Xi?

Answer: The need for a third term in office to successfully implement his foreign policy goals and grand strategy, as well as his fear of historical nihilism taking hold in China. 

If he breaks with tradition and takes a third term in power, Xi guarantees that he will oversee his plans for China. Since the 1990s, China has embraced a grand strategy that aims to realise a national rejuvenation, with leaders in Beijing implementing different approaches to this strategy. Xi’s approach to foreign policy, to reassure other actors about the benign rise of China, moves China from rhetoric to action in promoting reform of the international order, resists challenges to the country’s core interests, and is credited with further clarifying China’s long-standing international aspirations and triggering reactions abroad. 

Also central to the purpose of the resolution is preventing criticism of the leaders responsible for China’s rise. This stems from Xi’s interest in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the avoidance of that failure in China. He attributes this failure to “historical nihilism”: the confused thinking and ideological struggles that, in the case of the USSR, led to the negation of Stalin, Lenin, and the Party itself. He further highlights the loss of control of the military under Party leadership. Xi’s actions aim to prevent historical nihilism from taking hold in China.

Xi’s censorship and crackdown on information regarding China’s past show the President is unwilling to let history repeat itself. The president has also taken lessons from his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Unlike Putin, Xi does not rely on a personality cult and an ambiguous placement in the country’s history; rather, the Party rules supreme and his status derives from his continuity in a sequence that includes Chinese political titans Mao and Deng. However powerful he is, his legitimacy is tied to his position in the Party, hence his keenness to ensure that its reputation goes untarnished.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Under Xi, absolute control and censorship in China will likely remain indefinitely, while China will meet international conflicts from a point of strength.

China is undergoing its third significant transitional period since the country’s communist revolution. Through a prolonged-term in power and increased control over the population, Xi’s aim to lead the country to strength is more reachable. Censorship in China, already long-installed and far-reaching, will likely increasingly correspond to Xi’s thought and historical narrative of China and the Party.

For Xi, the pruning of China’s recent history will largely serve to justify his authoritarian rule and claims to sovereignty over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and other regions, including his crackdown on Hong Kong. These claims are at the height of tensions in the Sino-American rivalry.

To understand China’s foreign policy now is to understand Xi’s own vision. While he has generated certain success with his approach thus far, he remains far from many of his goals: countries in the Indo-Pacific still view the USA as having more diplomatic and military influence in the region than China, while South Asian countries hold the most negative views toward Chinese foreign policy, especially concerning the Belt and Road Initiative. 

We can expect a more aggressive implementation of Xi’s strategy whereby China’s economic power may be used as leverage to coerce countries into adopting particular stances that complement China’s goals, including fragmenting US influence. On this point the president’s policy has enjoyed significant success in Africa and Latin America, where Chinese influence appears to generate less anxiety than in Asia and threatens to dethrone that of the USA. Xi’s strategy for China closer to home will incur heightened competition for economic and geopolitical influence in neighbouring countries, particularly large developing economies such as Indonesia.

Xi’s use of history projects a message of coherence around his pursuit of strength, dignity, and obedience in the strengthening of the country internationally. Potential hindrances aside, he is expected to make waves with a Chinese foreign policy based on strength, founded in his new history.

Claudia Bond

R&A Alumna