Xi Jinping strode to the front of the stage with his ballot paper in hand. The result was not in doubt, but the assembled delegates inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing went through the ritual of voting anyway. It was March 2018 and the Chinese parliament had been asked to approve a proposal to remove the term limits on the presidency, the only constitutional barrier to Xi staying in power for life. He went first. The senior officials seated behind him clapped their hands along to a jaunty melody as Xi cast his vote. Then they all lined up to do the same.
It took just minutes to erase four decades of progress towards collective leadership in China. The proposal was approved, with 2,958 votes in favour, two against, and three abstained. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) likes to maintain a simulacrum of dissent, if not the real thing; the parliament has yet to reject a single bill. The presidency is the least important of the three titles Xi holds as the leader of China – along with general secretary of the CCP and chairman of the Central Military Commission – but it was the only one that came with formal term limits. Removing these limits was the clearest signal yet that Xi had no intention of stepping down, as his two predecessors had done, after two five-year terms. Instead, he was dismantling the safeguards put in place after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, which had been meant to prevent the rise of another dictator in China and a return to the dark days of one-man rule.
Xi has steadily consolidated political control during his first decade in charge, purging his rivals and concentrating power in his own hands. His political philosophy – “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” – has been enshrined in the constitution and obsequious officials have begun referring to him as the “Helmsman”, invoking the paeans to Mao, who was known as the “Great Helmsman”. The party’s propaganda outlets compete to outdo each other with praise, hailing Xi as the “Pilot of the Great Revival” (another reference to Mao), or, combining the two, the “core pilot at the helm”. He has acquired so many titles and taken to personally chairing so many working groups that he has been called the “Chairman of Everything”.
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“There are many party veterans who are horrified by the end of collective leadership and the return to one-man, strongman rule,” said Susan Shirk, the chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California San Diego, and author of Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise. “They are very critical of the return to arbitrary decision-making and of his misjudgements,” she told me, warning that it was difficult to gauge how widespread such sentiments were because public criticism of Xi had become so perilous in China. “There are some survey results that suggest that even at the mass level, people are uncomfortable with the scrapping of the peaceful turnover of power at the top after two terms. Yet they feel powerless to do anything about it.”
The CCP leader was born into the Communist Party’s equivalent of royalty. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of the original revolutionaries who had fought alongside Mao during the Chinese Civil War, and he became a senior official in the new People’s Republic of China after the Communist victory in 1949. The younger Xi went to an elite boarding school in Beijing with the children of the other top leaders and enjoyed a childhood of comparative luxury. But his father was demoted after falling out of favour with Mao, and sent to run a tractor factory in central China in 1965.
When Mao launched his Cultural Revolution the following year, plunging the country into a decade of violence and chaos as he urged his young supporters to reinvigorate the revolution and rid China of supposed class enemies, the Xi family was considered suspect. The older Xi was detained and repeatedly beaten. His son, then 13, was dragged before a crowd and denounced by his own mother, before being “sent down” to the countryside to labour in the fields and learn from the peasants. The future leader’s half-sister killed herself.
Yet despite all this, the young Xi still joined the party in 1974, even with his father then in prison. He studied chemical engineering at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University from 1975 to 1979 as a “worker-peasant-soldier student”, meaning that he was selected for his perceived political virtues, rather than his academic record. Then he embarked on a career as a party official, working his way steadily through the ranks. According to one friend who was quoted in a US diplomatic cable, Xi chose to survive by becoming “redder than red”.
After Mao died in 1976, many of the officials he had purged, including Xi’s father, were formally rehabilitated and welcomed back into the party hierarchy. In the years that followed, the late dictator’s successors grappled with his legacy. They wanted to preserve his memory and the party’s legitimacy, but they also wanted to make sure that so much power would never again be placed in one man’s hands.
“From 1966 to 1976 there had essentially been an internal civil war within China, an ideological civil war that turned the place upside down,” explained the University of Oxford historian Rana Mitter. “One of the things that united almost all of the top leaders who made it through to 1976-77 was that the cult of personality, the idea that Chairman Mao could essentially arrogate all power to himself and launch something like the Cultural Revolution, that wasn’t going to happen again.”
The CCP Central Committee issued a lengthy document in 1981 – the “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China” – which praised Mao as a great revolutionary leader but acknowledged that the Cultural Revolution had been a mistake. They also introduced new rules that were meant to ensure a system of collective leadership, the most important of which was the idea that no leader should serve more than two five-year terms in power.
“By implementing that particular system, it institutionalised the idea that, although China was a Marxist-Leninist state, and still is a Marxist-Leninist state, it would have some regularised system of changing leadership,” Mitter told me. “So no one leader could become immensely powerful.”
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That system was not perfect. Deng Xiaoping, often credited as the architect of these reforms, still dominated Chinese politics from the late 1970s until his death in 1997, despite handing off his formal titles (during his later years, his only official role was as chairman of the China Bridge Association). Jiang Zemin, who was general secretary from 1989 to 2002, held on to the leadership of the Central Military Commission for another two and a half years before finally relinquishing the title to his successor, Hu Jintao. In fact, somewhat ironically with hindsight, the only time the CCP has managed a smooth handover of power since the 1949 foundation of the People’s Republic was the transition from Hu to Xi in 2012.
When Xi became general secretary on 15 November 2012, he felt “weak and illegitimate” according to a former associate who knew him at the time, writes Shirk. He had lost previous contests within the party because other officials accused him of clinging to his father’s revolutionary reputation, and he was said to have worried that he had only been selected for the top job because he was a “red princeling”, as the children of the first generation of Communist revolutionaries were known, of a “suitable age”.
He was also fixated on what he saw as the gathering threats to the Communist Party’s hold on power. As China had become richer over the past four decades, it had become more unequal, and more corrupt. In Xi’s first public speech after taking charge, delivered in a cavernous room of the Great Hall of the People, he warned that the party faced “many severe challenges” in the years ahead. “The problems among our party members and cadres of corruption, taking bribes, being out of touch with the people, undue emphasis on formalities, and bureaucratism, must be addressed with great efforts,” Xi urged. “To forge iron, one must be strong.”
Xi launched a nationwide anti-corruption campaign to target the “tigers” and “flies” – high- and low-ranking officials – which ensnared more than 1.3 million people within its first five years. But this campaign was not just about tackling corruption. As Diana Fu, an associate professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, told me, it also enabled the new leader to get rid of his political opponents. “Xi managed to remove Wang Yang, his greatest political rival at the time, as well as Zhou Yongkang, China’s former security minister,” Fu said. Zhou had previously been one of the most powerful officials in China. He had served alongside Xi on the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top leadership body, where he controlled the formidable internal security forces until just two years before his arrest in 2014. By targeting someone as senior as Zhou, Xi was sending a message that nobody was safe. “And this anti-corruption campaign is ongoing,” Fu added. “Most recently we saw China’s ex-justice minister Fu Zhenghua purged under corruption charges as part of a clique of elites that were disloyal to Xi.” The former minister was convicted of corruption and handed a suspended death sentence on 22 September.
Xi has also enforced strict ideological control. As a middle-ranking official, he had witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and he viewed the Soviet Communist Party’s failure to keep a firm hold on what he called the “ideological sphere” as a key factor in the former superpower’s demise. “Their ideals and convictions wavered,” he told party officials in a private speech in December 2012, less than a month after coming to power. “In the end, nobody was a real man, nobody came out to resist.” He was determined not to make the same mistake.
In April 2013, a secret document that came to be known as Document No 9 circulated among senior party officials, urging them to wage a “perpetual, complex and excruciating” struggle in the ideological sphere and to make ideological work a top priority. Xi also reasserted the party’s role across society, including the private sector, as he made it clear that the CCP’s interests came first, no matter what the economic cost. He has summed up this approach: “Party, government, army, society and education – east and west, south and north, the party leads on everything.”
“Xi Jinping is an ideological fundamentalist,” Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former prime minister, who has just completed a doctorate of philosophy at Oxford on Xi’s world-view, told me. “Ideology is no longer a theoretical fig leaf as it was for 35 years – a Marxist-Leninist piece of camouflage around an essentially state capitalist operation,” Rudd said. “Xi has rebirthed Marxism-Leninism, and he believes as a matter of faith that in the absence of the Chinese Communist Party, not only would the country fall apart, but it would certainly fail to realise his overwhelming nationalist ambition of making China the pre-eminent regional and global power by mid-century.”
Rudd, who is now president of the Asia Society and author, most recently, of The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping’s China, believes that Xi has come to see his own leadership as critical to both the party’s grip on power and China’s continuing rise. “Therefore, he is dispensing with the normalities of collective leadership and returning to centralised leadership through a cult of personality and a single person, namely Xi himself, and what he describes as the new era, the post-Deng era,” Rudd explained. The result, he said, would be “more intense Leninism, more intense Marxism, and more intense nationalism”.
The consequences of Xi’s ideological fundamentalism have been felt within China and across the wider region over the past ten years. At home, he has presided over a relentless series of crackdowns that have ravaged Chinese civil society and grass-roots organisations, as well as private entrepreneurs and the country’s burgeoning tech sector. China’s economic growth has slowed, with the prospects for recovery hampered by Xi’s rigid adherence to the “zero Covid” policy, which has led to tens of millions of people across dozens of cities enduring rolling lockdowns. Meanwhile, China’s huge property sector – long one of the most critical engines of its economic ascent – is dangerously over-leveraged and on the brink of catastrophe.
At the same time, he has moved to crush the remaining political freedoms in Hong Kong, and urged officials to “strike hard” in Xinjiang, where a suffocating system of surveillance has been imposed and more than one million Uyghur Muslims are estimated to have been detained in internment camps. The US, along with the UK and Canadian parliaments, accuses Beijing of committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
Xi has also doubled down on his predecessors’ increasingly assertive approach to foreign policy – showing off China’s growing military strength and pressing the country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, on the border with India, over islands controlled by Japan and, most ominously, over Taiwan, the self-governing island which Beijing claims as its own. After the US House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan with a congressional delegation in August 2022, China staged military drills encircling the island and fired missiles over the capital, Taipei.
“My judgement is that we’ve entered into the most destabilising period in US-China relations in half a century,” Rudd told me. “When people glibly talk about the possibility of war between China and the US, I often think that in the back of their mind they have a view that because it’s in and around an island called Taiwan, it’ll be a bit like a replay of the Falklands [the conflict between the UK and Argentina in 1982],” he warned. “No. The escalation dimensions to any Taiwan scenario are massive, and you would soon find yourself in a general war, which would collapse the global economy within a matter of weeks and draw in powers in one form or another from around the world.”
There has been no sign that Xi plans to hand over power to a new leader who might put China on a different course any time soon. At the last party congress in 2017, Xi didn’t indicate a successor, as his two predecessors had done. He removed the term limits on the presidency the following year.
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“There is no indication that Xi is going to serve just three terms,” said Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and editor of the China Leadership Monitor. “Because once you start going down that path, there is no end. If nobody can stop him from serving a third term, nobody would be able to stop him from serving a fourth term. I think the real problem is what happens in his fifth term, or his sixth term.” Assuming Xi was still alive, a sixth term in power would take him to the year 2042.
Forty years ago, as the CCP sought to ensure that another strongman ruler could not take power, Deng Xiaoping said that it was the party’s “solemn duty” to “solve the problem of succession”. Instead, as Xi prepares to begin his third term as party leader, power in China is being concentrated in the hands of one man. Mao and Xi are very different leaders. Where Mao revelled in chaos, Xi is obsessed with stability. Yet Minxin Pei, who grew up in China under Mao, sees similarities in their approach to relinquishing power. “If you pick a successor, you have to worry about a successor acquiring power that will be a threat to you,” he explained. “And the longer you stay in power, the bigger legacy you create and the more need to defend your legacy, and then the only person you trust is actually yourself.”
It is safer to stay in power.
“The record of succession in dictatorships does not inspire us,” Pei told me, “because they all screw up. Very capable, dominating dictators always pick the wrong person or leave behind no successors at all, and the regime they left behind inevitably gets engulfed in some sort of crisis.”
Perhaps Xi Jinping will surprise his detractors and step down at the end of his next term in 2027, but it looks more likely that he is preparing to rule China for many years to come. The man who came to power a decade ago, determined to preserve the party’s control and to ensure China’s continuing rise, may yet turn out to be his country’s greatest threat.
This article was originally published on 12 October. It has been republished in light of recent events in China. Katie Stallard’s special NS podcast mini-series “China Under Xi” is out now.
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?