China’s President Xi Jinping emerged out of last week’s Communist Party congress in even firmer grip on Chinese politics. With four Xi allies chosen to join the two others who continue on the Politburo Standing Committee — the seven-member Xi-headed body that rules China — he has engineered a clean sweep and complete domination that is unprecedented in Chinese politics.
Even at the height of Mao Zedong’s power, he had to contend with rival power centres. Mr. Xi faces no such challenges, having sent past rivals, such as Bo Xilai, as well as potential challengers, such as Sun Zhengcai, to prison on corruption charges. Past factional arrangements have also been decimated. Mr. Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, no longer wield influence. Mr. Jiang did not attend the congress, while Mr. Hu was, on the final day, escorted out before he could vote on the resolutions passed unanimously. While his forced removal was attributed to health reasons, the extraordinary sight only underlined Mr. Xi’s dominance.
So did the early retirements of Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Wang Yang, which paved the way for Xi allies to occupy the top positions. Mr. Li has been replaced by a close Xi associate, Li Qiang, who was criticised for this year’s draconian COVID-19 lockdown of Shanghai. He is now the country’s second-ranked leader. A constitutional amendment declares it is now an “obligation” of every party member to follow Mr. Xi, while the official Xinhua news agency noted the key factor in promotions was “loyalty” to Mr. Xi.
The Communist Party has framed the concentration of power in Mr. Xi’s hands — and China’s return to one-man rule — as a necessity. Mr. Xi has frequently criticised “weak leadership” that preceded him, and did so again at the congress. “Strong leadership”, in the party’s view, is the only guarantee for a “strong country” — a Xi catchphrase — to stand up to the U.S. and deal with domestic challenges such as a slowing economy. Markets, however, reacted with a crash, with Chinese stocks in Hong Kong falling by the most since 2008 and a record dumping of shares in Chinese firms by foreign investors.
Chinese leaders have in the past described the current world order as offering a “period of strategic opportunity” for China. Mr. Xi changed that formulation, painting a picture of a darker world that also required “struggle” and a “fighting spirit”, a phrase added to the constitution. Mr. Xi, in full command of the party and the military, is now likely to pursue that mission in his third five-year