China is in transition, and not in a good way. The partially institutionalised political norms of China’s reform era are buckling. Beijing is steadily sliding away from collective authoritarian rule by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elite towards a more personalised variant wielded by President Xi Jinping alone.
Some shifts are relatively minor. Xi’s 2016 designation as the party’s ‘leadership core’ granted him a title denied to his relatively weak predecessor, Hu Jintao. But it merely elevated Xi to the status that reform-era CCP authorities employed to refer to three prior leaders – Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.
Others are more radical. Since 2012, Xi has broken with tacit reform-era party rules against targeting former top leaders (and their families) after leaving office. Long-standing official aversion to anything resembling a cult of personality is steadily being abandoned, as state media increasingly focuses on Xi alone, to the exclusion of other leaders. Both of those norms developed during the reform era in reaction to the Maoist radicalism of the Cultural Revolution.
Now, it appears that the upcoming 19th Party Congress may see two other major reform-era party norms crumble as well.
First, informal rules regarding retirement and succession of top leaders may be broken. Speculation has mounted that age limits could be bent to allow China’s anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan to continue serving on the Politburo Standing Committee.
Further, Xi himself might depart from established practice and avoid elevating a clear political successor to the Politburo Standing Committee as he begins his second (and theoretically final) term as general party secretary. The dramatic 22 July, 2017 removal of Chongqing CCP secretary Sun Zhengcai – one such contender for this role – has heightened such suspicions.
Either development would raise the possibility of a yet more dramatic shift later on, such as Xi continuing on – Putin-like – as general party secretary after 2022.
Second, and more importantly, it appears increasingly likely that CCP ideology will be altered to dramatically raise Xi’s role.
Each of China’s prior leaders has been commemorated by having his name or banner phrase inscribed in the CCP’s charter. Since the reform era, this has followed a clear progression. Each subsequent addition is a downward step in terms of grandiosity. Thus, Marxism-Leninism is a full-blown ‘-ism’ (zhuyi), Mao’s views are classified as a lesser but still comprehensive ‘thought’ (sixiang), while Deng’s ideas are but a ‘theory’ (lilun).
The subsequent (and weaker) leaders, Jiang and Hu, do not even receive the honour of having their names appear alongside their banner phrases.
Repeated ad nauseum in official meetings and documents, such language is stilted and formulaic. But it holds deep meaning. For party cadres, it signals the relative importance of top leaders.
So what of Xi? The 17th Party Congress in 2007 saw Hu Jintao’s banner term inscribed into the party charter at the midpoint of his 10-year administration. Logically, the same should occur for Xi at the 19th Party Congress this year.
But what phrasing to use? Speculation has emerged that Xi might be ‘name-crowned’ by having a banner phrase bearing his name inserted into the party charter. Such a move would already represent a significant break with precedent, elevating Xi well beyond Hu and Jiang in a very visible manner, accurately reflecting Xi’s iron grip over China’s political landscape.
But now even that appears too conservative. Recent events suggest Xi may go yet further.
The major military parade held on 30 June to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army featured a sweeping focus on Xi alone, with no appearances by any other top party leaders. Related state media commentary drew explicit parallels between Mao, Deng and Xi.
Simultaneously, top party officials have begun to issue articles framing Xi’s views in sweeping terms, like ‘Xi Jinping Diplomatic Thought‘.
How far will this go?
The relevant question is no longer whether the 19th Party Congress will see Xi elevated above Jiang and Hu. Rather, it is: how far will this go?
There are several possibilities. Most likely is the dethroning of Jiang and Hu entirely from China’s political pantheon. Removing their banner terms from the party charter would unmistakably signal Xi’s dominance.
Next likely is a situation in which Xi is elevated to terrain currently occupied by Deng and Mao. Raising Xi to the level of ‘thought’ (sixiang) would clearly situate him among the most important of all post-1949 Chinese leaders.
The 19th Party Congress could also see language associated with Xi’s signature propaganda project – the China Dream, emphasising traditional Chinese culture and history as the ideological basis for continued authoritarian rule – introduced into the CCP’s charter. However, it is currently difficult to envision such language being taken too far. As the current political climate chills, party leaders are doubling down ideologically on the imported Western doctrine of Marxism, notwithstanding its now-politically inconvenient language of class and revolution.
But what if China’s top leader seeks not merely to rise to the level of Mao and Deng, but actually surpass them? Could language be introduced into the party charter that subsequent generations might look back on and identify as the early precursors for something grander, say the eventual adoption of a new ‘–ism’ (say, ‘Xi-ism’ with Confucian characteristics) at a future Party Congress?
By Carl Minznerl