All eyes will be on the five-yearly Communist Party congress at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People starting this Sunday (Oct 16), where President Xi Jinping is likely to secure a historic third term as China’s top leader.
In 2018, the national legislature made a constitutional amendment to scrap the presidential term limit, enabling Mr Xi to stay in power beyond 2023.
His political theories dubbed “Xi Jinping Thought” were also enshrined in the party constitution, cementing his name in the pantheon of party legends Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
“Xi is a leader with a sense of mission, a historic mission in fact,” said Dr Ngeow Chow Bing, director of the Institute of China Studies at Universiti Malaya (UM).
The Communist Party’s resolution on the major achievements and historical experience in the past century, issued in November last year, clearly spelled out Mr Xi’s place in the historiography, he said.
“Xi is presiding over the ‘fourth’ era of the CCP and the ‘third’ era of the PRC. In this way, both Hu and Jiang are relegated to ‘secondary’ leaders during Deng’s era while Xi is on par with Mao and Deng as ‘era beginners’.
“He probably - or definitely - felt that he needed more than 10 years as an ‘era beginner.’”
Since inheriting the leadership of the world’s second-largest economy from Mr Hu Jintao, Mr Xi has positioned Beijing as a dominant leader on the global stage.
He proposed the Belt and Road Initiative, pushed for China’s rapid expansion in the South China Sea and hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics. Beijing’s aggressiveness in pushing for influence even earned it the tag of “wolf-warrior diplomacy”, an assertive style adopted by Chinese diplomats.
Domestically, Mr Xi popularised the inspirational slogan of the China Dream, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party, cracked down on dissent in Hong Kong and vowed to pursue reunification with Taiwan.
WHAT EXACTLY IS THE CHINA DREAM?
The concept of China Dream is vague and open-ended yet comprehensive, despite the propaganda blitz.
At “The Road Toward Renewal” exhibition in Beijing on Nov 29, 2012, Mr Xi, as the newly minted Communist Party’s general secretary, said that “realising the great renewal of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream for the Chinese nation in modern history”.
In his keynote address at the congress of the country’s top legislature on Mar 17, 2013 - three days after he was coronated Chinese president - Mr Xi said: “The Chinese dream, after all, is the dream of the people. We must realise it by closely depending on the people. We must incessantly bring benefits to the people.”
His “Two Centenary Goals” offered some quantitative clues to what his China Dream is.
First, China should build a moderately well-off society by 2021, and next, become a modern socialist country in all respects by 2049.
With titles such as “chairman of everything”, “helmsman”, “core leader” and “people’s leader” bestowed upon him, what can the world expect from the 69-year-old as he begins his extended rule?
Mr Xi has consolidated power and gained multiple civil and military designations since his ascension to power.
In addition to being the chairman of the Central Military Commission, he also leads the National Security Commission, the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatisation and the Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development, just to name a few.
The removal of the two-consecutive-term limit for a Chinese president reinforced his stature as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
The limit was, in fact, written into the constitution by Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to institutionalise succession and to prevent the rise of another dictatorship like that of Mao.
“Xi Jinping clearly is more ambitious than Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and also believes he needs to stay in power long enough in order to achieve great accomplishments - both for himself and China,” said Dr James Char, associate research fellow with the China Programme at Nanyang Technological University’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
According to Dr Char, one of Mr Xi’s greatest achievements is how he has managed to resolve the supposed contradictions between returning the country to left-leaning Maoist policies or shifting more towards the Dengist right. The dispute over which direction to take the country was simmering within China towards the end of Mr Hu’s era.
“Rather, he has pragmatically exploited whichever orientation he finds utility in,” Dr Char told CNA.
An example of the shift to the left is the Communist Party regime’s promotion of neo-leftist policies since 2012, including an increasingly party-led statist approach to managing Chinese society and economy, he explained.
There has also been a renewed focus on ideological control and curtailment of freedom of speech and academic freedom, he added.
“But the CCP in the Xi-era has also continued to push for economic reforms first begun under Deng Xiaoping, including market-oriented decision making - albeit the CCP, of late, has been exerting greater control over private and state-owned enterprises,” Dr Char said.
MODERATELY PROSPEROUS SOCIETY
One of the two centenary goals propounded by Mr Xi in 2012 was to build a “moderately prosperous society” before the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party in 2021.
A key performance indicator was doubling China’s 2010 gross domestic product and per capita disposable income by 2020.
At a ceremony marking the centenary at Tian’anmen Square on Jul 1, 2021, Mr Xi declared that this goal had been achieved. “This means that we have brought about a historic solution to the problem of absolute poverty in China,” he said.
Indeed, the official statistics backed his claim. The GDP grew from 40.12 trillion yuan (US$5.79 trillion) in 2010 to more than 100 trillion yuan in 2020, while the per capita disposable income hit 32,189 yuan in 2020, more than double the 10,046 yuan a decade ago.
But RSIS’ Dr Char said the claim is debatable.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang acknowledged in 2020 that 600 million Chinese nationals were still living from hand to mouth on a monthly income of barely 1,000 yuan, he pointed out.
Meanwhile, an anti-graft crusader, Mr Xi also took to the task of rooting out corruption with fierce fervour. He famously vowed to crack down on both “tigers” and “flies”, referring to corrupt high-level and low-ranking officers alike.
The fall of Bo Xilai, the former party chief in Chongqing, was a notable example. He was jailed for life for his bribery, corruption and power abuse conviction.
“The anti-corruption campaign has many undesirable effects but it has cleaned up Chinese officialdom and society significantly,” said UM’s Dr Ngeow.
Last year alone, China punished 627,000 officials, from provincial cadres to workers in villages and companies, according to the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission.
While his tough stance on corruption had stoked a backlash from critics, arguing that he was using the campaign to remove political enemies, Mr Xi looks set to carry on.
He said the corruption situation in China was still “tough and complex” although there has been “overwhelming victory” in the battle against graft.
“We should never underestimate the stubbornness and harm of corruption. We must carry the anti-corruption campaign through to the end,” he was quoted as saying in June this year by Xinhua news agency.
Mr Xi was also much more serious than his predecessors in tackling environmental issues, according to Dr Ngeow.
“He can be said to be the most ‘ecological’ Chinese leader since the founding of the PRC. This is not to suggest that his environmental record is always impeccable, but relative to all previous Chinese leaders, he has done more in reducing pollution,” he said.
There were also many other major achievements, the China watcher added, such as deleveraging its economy, military reforms, poverty reduction and taking care of the vulnerable population, Dr Ngeow added.
“Few in the west have paid attention to this, but Xi has done more to help people with disabilities in China than any of his predecessors,” he said.
An example of Mr Xi’s policies was the 14th five-year plan for the protection and development of disabled people, he said, which is a comprehensive document with the goal of achieving sustainable, employable, supported and dignified living for the disabled community.
XI’S THIRD TERM IN POST-COVID ERA
With COVID-19 bringing the economy to a screeching halt, China’s strict and prolonged controls have been blamed for causing the country’s stagnating growth.
Economic growth plunged to a mere 0.4 per cent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2022, a contraction of 2.6 per cent from the previous quarter.
RSIS’ Dr Char said the iron-fisted zero-COVID strategy associated with Mr Xi is causing a lot of grief to ordinary Chinese from Wuhan to Xi’an, Shanghai and Chengdu - cities that have been thrown into extended lockdowns.
The president will continue to “face challenges to resolve the tensions between his zero-COVID policy and its effects on China’s economy”, he said.
On one hand, controls will avert mass infections and potentially high death rates given the lower efficacy of Chinese vaccines and poor vaccination uptake, but intermittent lockdowns of entire cities and shutdown of economic activities are choking the country’s economy, Dr Char said.
In his third term, Mr Xi has to see to the continuous development of China in order to achieve his second centenary goal - for the nation to become a modern socialist country that is “prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful” by the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in 2049.
The leadership transition will stretch into the National People’s Congress next year, Dr Ngeow pointed out. Coupled with the external environment faced by China, it is not easy to predict Mr Xi’s focus in the next term.
“Apart from consolidating the domestic achievements and gains from his first two terms, he may want to embark significantly on the hukou (household registration system) reform.
“Another possibility is higher education sector reform, not in terms of intellectual freedom, etc, but a more rational distribution of resources and managerial systems. As of now, China's elite universities are too concentrated in a few cities,” Dr Ngeow said.
Externally, Dr Char was of the view that China’s foreign policy is in flux at the moment as a result of the global reopening from the COVID-induced hiatus.
“But we can expect Beijing to put substantial energy into jumpstarting the Belt and Road Initiative - especially with the Global South countries - to grow its international clout,” he said.