Opinion: At China’s party congress, there is no doubt Xi Jinping will cement his power. Source: DW

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Opinion: At China’s party congress, there is no doubt Xi Jinping will cement his power

China’s Communist Party will elect new leadership at its 20th congress. But it is already clear current leader Xi Jinping will remain on top. Despite all challenges, Xi is more in charge than ever, DW’s Dang Yuan says.

Xi Jinping is heading toward becoming China’s most powerful leader ever

Never before has a congress of the Communist Party of China had so many unanswered questions about its personnel and path forward. Though it’s clear that current leader Xi Jinping will remain in place, no one knows yet who will be among the new helmsmen in the Communist Party leadership collective after the twice-a-decade event that begins this Sunday.

Generational change at the top of the party has been reliable and predictable over the past 40 years, as there were always two younger cadres around the age of 55 on the Politburo Standing Committee, the innermost circle of power of the Communist Party, or CP.

  • Xi himself made it onto the Standing Committee in this way in 2007 at the age of 54. But at the last party congress five years ago, he had not yet admitted any such “newcomer” politicians to the committee.

The 69-year-old is now expected to run for his third five-year term, although according to unwritten party law he should actually retire from politics after reaching the age of 68. During his last two terms, he had the party statutes and constitution amended to suit him, making a third term possible for his other office as president.

Such maneuvers leave no doubt that Xi wants to continue ruling China as the leader of the party, state and armed forces. To secure absolute leadership, loyal party members have been promoted and potential challengers cleared out of the way. Within the party and among the public, Xi has long been considered the most powerful politician in the history of the People’s Republic of China. Command has never been so concentrated in just one person there, not even during state founder Mao Zedong’s time.

Old course, new challenges

The CP has an important change of course ahead as the country itself faces challenges on many fronts. Chief among the problems in the one-party state is the pandemic, which has repeatedly paralyzed public life in major cities and slowed economic growth. The strict zero-COVID policy in the world’s most populous country certainly has its pitfalls. While the country isolates itself by imposing massive restrictions on entry, herd immunity has failed to develop as a result. This will make China’s return to the international community a major long-term challenge, even years after the outbreak of the pandemic.

Human rights activists also fear that repression will intensify under Xi. He has legitimized his power through a draconian leadership style and highly ideological propaganda. When it comes to issues such as the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority, what Beijing sees as the breakaway province of Taiwan, and the self-governing metropolis of Hong Kong, Xi has cultivated his image as a strong man with merciless crackdowns. Civil rights are restricted and critics of the regime have been imprisoned.

Silence in the ranks

Observers believe that this leadership style is seen as controversial within the party’s diverse factions, but none dare to publicly challenge Xi under the current conditions.

The most promising candidates for the Standing Committee are quiet as mice these days. Anyone who makes the slightest mistake now will lose the race for power just before the finish line. Now is the time for everyone to pledge eternal loyalty to the party leader before the important personnel decisions are made.

While foreign and economic policy will not be the focus at the upcoming congress, there will still be clues as to how China will be led in the coming years, based on the future composition of its leadership. The Standing Committee will be constituted and introduced to the public on the last day of the congress, which usually lasts between five and seven days.

But no matter which individuals stand on the red carpet that day, one thing will remain the same: Xi and his friends will still be in charge.

This article was originally published in German. 

The author is writing under a pseudonym to protect their identity.

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