China and the Communist Party need strong leader in Xi Jinping to hold things together: Analysts

People walk outside a shop below a screen showing news coverage about Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Beijing.
People walk outside a shop below a screen showing news coverage about Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Beijing.PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI (AFP) - Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping joined the pantheon of China's Communist immortals on the strength of their contributions to the nation. Xi Jinping is getting in on what political watchers say amounts to an "IOU".

The Communist Party this week amended its Constitution to canonise President Xi's political "thought", the highest honour a Chinese leader can achieve and somewhat akin to retroactively carving his name in granite as a founding father.

But Xi's achievements remain modest and incomplete compared to his illustrious forebears, and his exaltation says more about a party groping for a reassuring strongman to face the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

"When you look at someone like Deng, he really brought tremendous change to the country through his economic reforms," said Sam Crane, a Chinese history expert at Williams College in the US.

"Xi Jinping talks a big game but how much has he really done yet? There's little indication yet that he's been able to execute much."

Mao earned his stripes leading the Communist takeover and founding modern China. Deng instituted the reforms that made China an economic juggernaut and rising power.

Aside from a corruption crackdown, Xi has done comparatively little since taking over in 2012 other than promise to steer China's rise to superpower status, a trajectory that was already in motion, political analysts said.

But during their party congress this week in Beijing, Communist leaders worried about the future appear to have been both convinced - and cajoled - into at least outwardly moving away from a consensus-driven governing style that was put in place to avoid a repeat of Mao's political excesses.

The party even broke with tradition by apparently not designating a potential successor to Xi when it selected the five new men joining him and Premier Li Keqiang on the top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, on Wednesday (Oct 25).

"The consensus style was a recipe for fragmentation, political disputes and doubts about the system, and right now China needs certainty," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, China politics specialist at Hong Kong Baptist University.

China flourished under Xi's predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. But so did corruption, environmental damage, a widening wealth gap, and economic imbalances, all of which stoked public anger.

Meanwhile, Communist doctrine has become increasingly divorced from the reality of modern Chinese consumers, and a divisive 2012 scandal that spectacularly felled once-prominent party leader Bo Xilai - rocking the party just months before Xi took over - tainted the veneer of consensus.

A slowing economy, "colour" revolutions abroad, and rising populism worldwide are also seen as keeping Communist leaders up at night.

"China, the party, feels like it needs a strong leader, some kind of glue to hold everyone around the party," said Cabestan.

"It's a way of legitimising party rule in a rapidly changing social and political environment. The public is not interested in politics. They just want good, clean, competent government. Maybe a stronger leader will help." The party has struggled to explain itself ever since Deng pivoted from state planning to an often-chaotic capitalism that raised an uncomfortable question: so why are the communists still in charge?

The party has tried "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and nationalist appeals to maintain political traction, and apparently now the image of a strong father-leader.

"It's a combination of things, but Xi also has been somewhat lucky in that he's the right person at the right time as all these things played out," said Crane.

But Xi is also given credit for shrewdly playing a Machiavellian political game.

Writing "Xi Jinping thought" into the Constitution brings an aura that makes him China's most powerful leader in decades, fuelling speculation he may stay on past the usual 10-year reign instituted after Deng.

"Xi Jinping thought" is "just a screen, a rhetorical promise of future greatness," said Willy Lam, politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

But party leaders are playing ball partly out of fear that Xi's high-profile graft crackdown could target them, he adds.

"Xi has very skilfully exploited the situation, using fear and a big dose of nationalism," Lam said.

"He has convinced party members they need a strongman for China to become a superpower, but many don't think that way and feel he is turning back the clock."

Chen Daoyin, a Shanghai politics researcher, said "Xi Jinping thought" as written into the constitution amounts merely to an updated interpretation of Mao and Deng's more foundational ideas.

It's a seemingly arcane point, but an important indication that party buy-in has not been 100 percent and remains conditional.

"It shows that the breadth of his 'thought' is limited compared to Mao and Deng," Chen told AFP.

"There are many problems Xi promises to solve but you need the real authority for that, and I just don't think we're there yet. He still faces many uncertainties."