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China’s leader elevated to the level of Mao in Communist pantheon

What we learned from the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress (Video: The Washington Post)

China's Communist Party formally elevated President Xi Jinping to the same status as party legends Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping on Tuesday, writing his name into its constitution and setting up the nation's leader for an extended stay in power.

The move will make Xi the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, with ambitions to tighten party control over society and make his country a superpower on the world stage, with a political philosophy directly opposed to that of the West.

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The unanimous vote to enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era” in the constitution came on the final day of a week-long party congress, a gathering of the party elite held every five years in the imposing and cavernous Great Hall of the People on the western side of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

There is no "Little Red Book" of pithy quotations as there was under Mao but instead a ­mightier, drier tome of Xi's speeches on "The Governance of China." Nevertheless, his ideas will now become compulsory learning for Chinese ­students from primary school through university.

Xi’s is an explicit rejection of Western ideas about democracy and free speech in favor of Communist Party leadership in every aspect of life, and a desire to challenge the United States’ preeminent role in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

On Wednesday, more evidence of Xi’s power will emerge when he introduces to the media the other members of the Communist Party’s top leadership, the Politburo Standing Committee. Experts say it is unlikely that a clear successor will emerge or be anointed, leaving Xi’s preeminent position free of an obvious challenge.

The 19th Party Congress effectively marks the start of Xi’s second five-year term as party general secretary. But the chances are now higher that this will not be his last — or at least that he will remain the most powerful person in China beyond 2022.

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“The amendment of the party constitution effectively confirms Xi Jinping’s aspiration to be the Mao Zedong of the 21st century — that means a top leader with no constraints on tenure or retirement age,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a political expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The inclusion of Xi’s name in the party document makes him only the third Chinese leader to be so honored, with his ideology joining Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng ­Xiaoping Theory as a “guide to action.”

China’s Communist Party imposed a system of collective leadership after the death of Mao. It was a party scarred by the madness, cruelty and famine that one man had prompted through disastrous policies, notably the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

As a result, Xi’s two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, ruled through consensus — as the “first among equals” at the top of the ladder — and were limited to two terms in power.

Now the party is moving in the other direction.

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‘Assertion of authority’

Xi’s power is not unlimited, and many of his key policy measures reflect ideas adopted by the party before he took power. Yet the past week has seen an explosion of sycophancy toward China’s leader, after his mammoth 3 ½ -hour speech kicked off proceedings last Wednesday. This is a personal style of rule, much like President Vladi­mir Putin’s in Russia.

Throughout the week, senior officials lined up, one after the other, to laud what they described as Xi’s profound, courageous, thrilling, insightful masterpiece of a speech, which shone “the light of Marxist Truth” and moved some of them from the bottom of their hearts, some said.

“In retrospect, it was an overwhelming assertion of authority to a degree unseen since Mao,” said François Godement, director of the China-Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Xi still would have to overcome significant obstacles if he wants to remain in power beyond the next party congress, in 2022 — including a convention that officials retire if they are 68 or older, said Yanmei Xie, a China policy expert at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing. By that time, Xi will be 69.

There had been speculation that Xi would break from previous practice by asking Wang ­Qishan, his right-hand man and powerful head of the anti-corruption authority, to stay on another five years. Yet the 69-year-old Wang’s name does not appear on a new list of Central Committee members, implying that the retirement convention remains in place, at least for now.

Xi also would have to amend the constitution if he wanted a third term as president — or appoint a loyal follower to the top job while retaining power behind the scenes, as Putin did in Russia in 2008.

Nevertheless, the fact that Xi’s name figures in the constitution puts him on a par with the party’s “immortals,” Mao and Deng, who had no term limits and did not retire, said Xie.

And the drumbeat of propaganda about loyalty to his leadership — combined with the constant threat of an unforgiving anti-corruption campaign that has taken down several powerful rivals — makes it more difficult for anyone who dares challenge him.

"The introduction of Xi Thought makes the question of succession while Xi is alive a moot issue," said Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism newsletter. "He is the man with an eponymous theory in the party constitution, so no one will have more authority than him" — no matter what title Xi holds, Bishop said.

Xi Jinping Thought embodies several important principles, experts said: primarily that the party is in control of every aspect of life in China, including the economy, the Internet, politics, culture and religion. The party must be more disciplined and more responsive to people’s needs, but its leadership must not be questioned.

Xi highlighted what he called the “principal contradiction” in modern China, between unbalanced and unequal development and “people’s needs for a better life.”

There should be no more blind pursuit of economic growth at all costs, he implied, but a focus on the issues that concern people the most, including the need to curb pollution and provide better education and health care. 

Meanwhile, the market will continue to play an important role in the economy, but the party and key state-owned enterprises will remain supreme.

No ‘convergence’

But the other big message is that China is on a path to become a true global superpower — very much on its own terms.

“Under his reign, there is no more hope of convergence,” said Godement, at the European Council on Foreign Relations. That would have seen China becoming more open, more ruled by law and more democratic as it became wealthier, and its interests and political system ultimately converging with those of the West.

The idea of political reform in a Western sense is now firmly out the window: Indeed, Chinese state media no longer hides its contempt for the political and economic systems of the West.

Xi’s message promotes a nationalist, assertive China with a much stronger military — a country that he says will not threaten the world but will resolutely defend its interests.

“By the middle of this century or before, China aims to close the gap economically and militarily with the United States and become the ultimate arbiter in the Asia-Pacific region,” said the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Lam.

If Mao’s era was one of revolution and nation-building, and Deng’s was one of reform and opening that set China on the path to becoming a global economic power, Xi’s era perhaps is one of control and nationalism, of realizing what he calls “the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.”

Deng’s influence on the course of Chinese history was weighty, but his power was wielded less explicitly, often behind the scenes. As a result, his “Theory on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” was not formally incorporated into the party constitution until after his death.

Former leader Jiang’s ideological contribution is recognized in the document as the “Theory of Three Represents,” and Hu’s as “Scientific Outlook on Development,” but neither man is mentioned by name.

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