China's 19th Party Congress

China's 19th Party Congress: Xi Jinping looks to cement authority

A five-yearly leadership transition gets under way when China's ruling Chinese Communist Party convenes its national congress from Oct 18. This is expected to strengthen President Xi Jinping's already firm grip on power over party and state. The Straits Times China Bureau's Goh Sui Noi, Lim Yan Liang and Chong Koh Ping look at how he has ascended to the apex of power in five years, how he could further consolidate his power and how he has and will deal with key issues.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the 86th Interpol General Assembly at Beijing National Convention Center in China, on Sept 26, 2017.

BEIJING • President Xi Jinping is expected to emerge even more powerful by the time the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) 19th national congress ends later this month.

This is as some already see Mr Xi, who amassed power quickly after taking over the party reins in 2012, to be the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping.

By October last year, he had already been designated the "core" of the party leadership, a status his predecessor Hu Jintao did not enjoy. Only Mao Zedong, Deng and Mr Jiang Zemin, Mr Hu's predecessor, had this status, with Mr Jiang's conferred by Deng.

Mr Xi's power consolidation by no means came easy.

When he became general secretary of the party, the new members of his teams - the seven-member apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and the 25-member Politburo - were not chosen by him but by Mr Jiang and Mr Hu.

He also did not have the backing of any faction. He was a compromise choice of Mr Jiang's Shanghai faction and Mr Hu's Communist Youth League faction, or tuanpai.

However, certain circumstances favoured him. The fall of then Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai months before the 18th congress eliminated a strong potential rival, Professor Yang Dali of Chicago University noted. If Bo had been in the PSC, it would have made it difficult for Mr Xi to build up power.

Mr Hu's decision to retire fully also helped. When Mr Hu took power in 2002, Mr Jiang stayed on as chairman of the Central Military Commission for several months, curtailing his successor's power.

"Once Hu had a reasonably clean break, it also made it much harder for Jiang, who is much older now, to intervene. This allowed Xi to take over in a more comprehensive manner," said Prof Yang.

For his part, Mr Xi - who has shown himself to be a strong and decisive leader - wasted no time making moves to consolidate power.

To overcome the power-sharing arrangement within the PSC's collective leadership, and resistance to his policies from colleagues not necessarily aligned with him politically, he set up new small leading groups headed by him, or put himself in charge of existing ones. These groups are high-level steering committees that guide policies.

For example, he took charge of the leading group for financial and economic affairs which is normally headed by the premier, shunting aside Premier Li Keqiang.

He launched a far-reaching anti-graft campaign to stamp out endemic corruption in the party and boost its image; he also used it to get rid of rivals and those resistant to his policies.

He implemented military reforms that not only modernised the People's Liberation Army but also put him in direct command of it.

Mr Xi is also helped by the fact that the CCP leadership recognises the need for a strong centre to tackle myriad issues and problems, both internal and external, faced by China, noted Dr Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an American China-watcher.

These issues - socio-economic imbalances and inequalities, industrial overcapacity and risk of the middle-income trap, a rapidly ageing society and an incomplete social safety net, pollution, anti-globalisation, territorial disputes and the Korean peninsula nuclear crisis - taken together could cause serious disruption to China, he said.

All this power consolidation, said Prof Yang, is a power play. But Mr Xi also wants to do things "to prolong the rule of the CCP and to make China stronger with a larger economy", he added. In a speech soon after taking office, Mr Xi spoke about the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation".

At the 19th congress, Mr Xi is set to entrench his power further with the writing of his political thoughts into the party Charter. This would smoothen implementation of his policies by raising substantially the political stakes of opposing him, wrote Mr Christopher Johnson of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

He is also likely to ensure that a majority of his proteges and those who have shown loyalty to him be promoted to positions in the PSC and the Politburo.

A third move, which analysts like Professor Zheng Yongnian of the East Asian Institute have suggested, is changing the post of general secretary to that of chairman. The general secretary is just first among equals, like a "class monitor", Prof Zheng said at a recent talk in Singapore. A chairman with one or two vice-chairmen reporting to him has greater authority. Analysts believe this might happen at this congress or the one in 2022.

If the congress does end with Mr Xi's hand strengthened, then indeed, as an editorial in Hong Kong's Ming Pao Daily News said, "the Xi Jinping era has arrived".

It remains to be seen if he would push the envelope further and stay for a third term, bucking an unwritten norm of a limit of two five-year terms for the party's top leader.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline China's 19th Party Congress: Xi Jinping looks to cement authority. Subscribe