China's 19th Party Congress: Xi Jinping displays firm grip on power

China's President Xi Jinping arrives for the closing session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 15, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - When Mr Xi Jinping strode out in the Great Hall of the People five years ago as China's new leader, his tight smile barely hid the atmosphere of smouldering crisis.

The Communist Party elite had been battered by infighting and scandals involving power grabs, bribery and even murder. Military commanders and state security chieftains - the guardians of one-party rule - had grown grossly corrupt. Critics openly accused Mr Xi's predecessor, Mr Hu Jintao, of dithering as popular ire spread.

On Wednesday (Oct 18), Mr Xi will open another Communist Party congress, but this time as the nation's most powerful leader in decades, all but certain to receive a second five-year term. And after spending his first term tightening control on society, he is expected to enshrine his authoritarian vision for revitalising the party - and perhaps position himself as indispensable to its survival.

"Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party is headed in the direction of strongman rule," said Mr David Lampton, the director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a longtime analyst of Chinese leaders.

"The 19th Party Congress is more likely to look like a coronation than an institutionalised transition to a leader's second term."

Since taking power in 1949, the party has reinvented itself at critical moments to survive - after Mao Zedong's death and following the Tiananmen massacre, for example.

Mr Xi, 64, contends that it faces one of those moments now, even as it is poised to surpass its Soviet brethren as the longest-ruling Communist Party in history.

"Party leaders always feel peril close at hand, especially Xi, and that has not gone away," said former editor with a Communist Party journal Deng Yuwen. "For him, this hard-line, centralised style of rule is the solution and must be consolidated."

As the "princeling" son of a revolutionary, Mr Xi exudes a sense of inherited responsibility for preserving the party. Since he took office, Mr Xi has removed officials for corruption and disloyalty more senior than previous leaders dared take on, and overseen investigations of more than 200 officials at the vice-minister level or higher.

"The intense interest in this congress is how far Xi can and will go in reshaping the norms of Chinese politics to get his way," said Professor Joseph Fewsmith at Boston University who studies Chinese elite politics. "Everyone has been on pins and needles because they sense that something is changing."

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