A decade ago when the powerful covert factions of China’s ruling Communist Party chose Xi Jinping as a compromise candidate to lead the party, few had an inkling that the suave and sedate “princeling” will cast himself on the mould of party founder Mao Zedong and bulldoze his way to become the leader for life.
On Friday, the 69-year-old ”core leader” was endorsed by China’s rubber-stamp Parliament for an unprecedented third five-year term, a privilege accorded only to Mao by the Communist Party of China (CPC), as all his predecessors retired after two five-year terms.
But Xi will continue, perhaps for life, as a new powerful leader of the world’s second largest economy, heading the party, the military and the Presidency, which observers say will have wider implications for China internally and externally, especially for the immediate neighbour India, considering the aggressive postures struck by the Chinese military in eastern Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
At the 18th Congress of the CPC in November 2012 to choose a successor to then-President Hu Jintao, it was a toss between Xi, the then Vice President and urbane and intellectual Vice Premier Li Keqiang.
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Xi won the race following which Hu, who pitched for Li, made a quiet exit complying with the steadfastly adhered rule followed by all his predecessors handing over the reins to Xi, known as the “princeling” for being the son of the former influential Vice Premier of Mao era Xi Zhongxun.
Though Hu had the option to retain the post of Chairman of the Military Commission (CMC), the overall high command of the Chinese military, he relinquished that too to ensure a “smooth transition”, giving a head start to Xi to emerge as a powerful leader.
Li, once Xi’s rival, who became the number two ranked leader with the post of Premier in 2013 fell in line and endorsed Xi as the core leader, which made him the sole leader in terms of governing the party and the country. The CPC Congress held last October affixed its stamp of approval for Xi to continue in power for the third term, paving the way for his lifelong tenure in power and authority, citing internal and external challenges faced by China.
Xi’s ascent to power and the quick consolidation of his leadership of the party with his shock and awe anti-graft campaign, securing the title of the “core leader” of the party bequeathed only to Mao, has indeed forced his rivals in the party to submission and caught the attention of the world.
From day one after assuming power, Xi launched a ruthless campaign against corruption, which besides striking a chord with people helped him systematically weed out political opponents, especially top Army Generals who posed a challenge to him. As Xi settles for this third term, Wang Xiangwei, a columnist for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, warned that his new tenure, especially his Chinese dream, is in danger of being hijacked by ultra-left nationalism.
“In the first 30 years of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong’s erroneous emphasis on ideology and class struggle, fanned by ultra-leftist nationalism produced catastrophic consequences,” said Wang. “Over the past decade, however, ultra-leftist national sentiment has made a comeback with a vengeance threatening to derail China’s economic development,” Wang, who till recently was based in Beijing, said.
Xi consolidated his control over the party and the society, “but China is at crossroads. The government faces an uphill battle to revive an economy battered by zero covid policies, increasing unemployment and falling consumer confidence,” he wrote.
“To make it worse, ultra-leftists have taken advantage of China’s confrontation with the US and the crackdown on the private sector to push their agenda under the guise of patriotism and allegiance to Communist ideals,” he wrote.
The US under the Presidencies of Donald Trump and the incumbent Joe Biden stepped up measures to rein in China’s increasingly belligerent postures in the disputed South China Sea, the self-governing island of Taiwan which Beijing claims as part of it and firming up its controls over Hong Kong.
Beijing has expressed concern over America’s Asia-Pacific strategy, saying it is out to contain China’s rise.
In his interactions with the NPC legislators this week, Xi said “western countries, led by the United States, have implemented all-round containment and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to the country’s development.” “To put it bluntly, if the ultra-leftist sentiment remains unchecked, China’s development risks being derailed, and China’s goal of national rejuvenation- Xi’s ambition to turn the country into a dominant world power by the middle of the century – will remain just a dream,” Wang said.
Unlike many Communist leaders, Xi, who was born in 1953, saw the power in close quarters as his father Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary hero, was appointed as minister of propaganda and education by Mao.
At a very early age, Xi and their family went through a painful period of suffering when his father was persecuted by Mao for his liberal views. Xi spent his childhood close to Mao in Zhongnanhai, the official residential complex of the party leadership in Beijing, according to one account.
But at the same time, Xi has seen his father lose all privileges after he fell foul with Mao and was exiled. At the age of 13, Xi had to leave school to go to the countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution period, enduring hardships.
After repeated attempts, Xi finally succeeded in joining the CPC in 1974.
Years later Xi was quoted as saying attempts to prevent him from admitting to the CPC citing his father’s alleged wrongful acts. He was just 15 when he arrived in Liangjiahe in Shaanxi in 1969 as an ”educated youth,”, a recent write-up in the state-run Xinhua news agency said, highlighting his early life.
”It would take 38 years and multiple postings across various levels of the party’s hierarchy until he would be elevated to the top job,” the Xinhua write-up said.
From 1975 to 1979, Xi studied chemical engineering at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.
Xi is married to celebrated Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan. They have a daughter named Xi Mingze who studied Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology at Harvard and later returned to Beijing after Xi emerged as the top leader of the country.
Observers say an analysis of Xi’s ten years in power, his systematic accumulation of power and contemptuous treatment of some of the top officials including military generals was born out of the suffering he and his family, especially his father, had to endure. During his decade in power, Xi’s critics within the CPC have grown. One such critic was Cai Xia, who was a Professor at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party from 1998 to 2012.
Xi was the principal of the prestigious ideological school of the party when he was the Vice President.
”But that success will bring more turbulence down the road,” Cai, who later turned bitter critic of Xi and managed to migrate to the US, wrote in her recent article in the Foreign Affairs magazine on Xi’s continuation in power beyond his 10-year tenure.
“Emboldened by the unprecedented additional term, Xi will likely tighten his grip even further domestically and raise his ambitions internationally,” she wrote.
Last December, China witnessed rare public protests against the zero-COVID policy pursued by China to contain coronavirus in which slogans against Xi were raised, criticising his continuation in power.
Days after Xi scrapped the stringent policy which also resulted in a massive spike in the Omicron variant of COVID.
Xi’s supporters for their part argue that the party and the country need him in view of the growing challenges faced by China internally and externally.
Without a strong leadership core, the CPC would find it hard to unify the entire party’s will or build solidarity and unity among people of all ethnic groups, Wang Junwei, a research fellow at the Institute of Party History and Literature of the CPC Central Committee, said.
”It would not be able to achieve anything or carry out any of its ”great struggles with many new historical features,” he said. For China and Chinese people, Xi’s continuation in power heralds a new age with the trappings of the Mao era.
But for the world, Xi by now is a familiar figure, said a senior diplomat who preferred to be anonymous.
“Xi is China’s new normal. Continuity in a way is good as the world has seen his ten-year rule. We know each other,” he said.