President Xi Sets Out Road Map, Boosts Personal Power at Party Congress

2017-10-18
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China's President Xi Jinping gives a speech at the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 18, 2017.
China's President Xi Jinping gives a speech at the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Oct. 18, 2017.
AFP

Flanked by party elders and on track to consolidate his political power as a "core leader" of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping on Wednesday opened a five-yearly party congress with a marathon speech setting out his ideological road map to make China a superpower.

In a speech lasting more than three hours, Xi called his ideas a "guide to action" for all citizens and party members, who must follow and develop them in a long-term bid for "national rejuvenation," state media reported.

Titled "Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era," Xi's ideas are based on those of all his predecessors, including late supreme leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Chongqing-based political analyst Zhang Qi said Xi's conception of "socialism with Chinese characteristics for the new era" isn't that far off Mao's ideological approach to communism.

"The difference between the rule of the Chinese Communist Party and that of the feudal emperors before it is only that they have replaced Confucian thought with Marxism, grafting it onto the thinking of Emperor Qin Shihuang," Zhang said, referring to the authoritarian ruler who first unified China in 256 B.C.

"Regardless of [whose ideology it is], they all have the same aim, which is to stay in control of the country, and set up an authoritarian core elite, much like the feudal emperors of old," he said.

The inclusion of Xi's "thought" in the Party's constitution, albeit with a title that doesn't bear his name, is a sign that the president has succeeded in further consolidating his power since being named as a "core" party leader last year, political commentator Wei Pu said.

"This will mean that power is even more concentrated in Xi's hands for the duration of the 19th party congress," Wei said. The title "core" has only been extended to Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Xi since communist rule began in 1949.

"Five years ago, Chinese scholars were saying that China had missed the chance to choose the best possible outcome," he wrote. "After the 19th party congress, will it be able to avoid the worst possible outcome?"

Commentators pointed to the presence of former president Jiang Zemin sitting next to Xi as a sending a strong message about the latter's legitimacy, while social media comments focused on the former's longevity.

Personal power and prestige

A Beijing academic who asked to remain anonymous said Xi's orchestration of the first day of the party congress was aimed at projecting huge personal power and prestige.

"His ideology is all about dictatorship and the concentration of power," the academic said. "But he can't quite get away with a total break with former leaders, so he gets all those who are still alive to come on the podium with him to consolidate his power."

"He is still plowing the same furrow as them," he said. "There will be no reform whatsoever."

As photos surfaced on social media of Chinese schoolchildren lined up in neat rows to absorb all three-and-a-half hours of the president's address, political commentator Lam Kei highlighted an absurd number of restrictions faced by ordinary citizens as part of the security effort ahead of the congress.

Residents of the Metro Pearl Park compound in Shanghai were told by management not to call the police while the congress is in progress, while guests in hotels near the venue were forbidden to open windows in their rooms, Lam reported in a commentary for RFA's Cantonese Service on Wednesday.

"Since Oct. 17, Beijing has banned balloons, drones or any aircraft over the city, while all nightclubs have been shut down in the city since Oct. 15, ostensibly to undergo a nine-day refit to prepare for Halloween," Lam said.

"Gas stations are banned from selling bulk gasoline during the party congress, with sales limited to no more than 10 liters each, and only twice in a month," he said. "The most ridiculous is that there is a total ban on all express courier deliveries to Beijing."

"What is it that this regime is so afraid of?" Lam asked, answering: "China's so-called stability is a fantasy that even [they] don't believe in, but they know better than anyone that they must prevent internal strife, and even civil war, so they use nationalism to boast of the possibility of war with other nations."

Journalists said the real questions won't be answered until the first plenary session a newly elected 200-strong Central Committee, however.

"We won't really know the new line-up until the new [standing committee] come out," a Beijing journalist identified only by his surname Li told RFA. "Right now, it's just for show."

"There wasn't much of substance in Xi's work report ... he's just looking to make sure he gets his ideology in the constitution, and the new Central Committee, as well as hanging onto his core status."

Thin on substance

The theme of the 19th Party Congress is "The Four Greats," a theme that Chinese constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan said echoes a similar slogan propounded by late supreme leader Mao Zedong.

But Xi Jinping's political "thought" is still fairly thin on substance, Zhang added.

"If there is anything new or innovative in this party constitution, I have yet to find it," he said. "On what basis do they expect me to believe that our country will become great until the leadership of the Communist Party?"

"There should be some sort of theoretical explanation backing this up, but it doesn't seem to be there."

According to the ousted former editor of Baixing magazine, Huang Liangtian, the "Four Greats" is just a piece of party sloganeering.

"We are looking at the distribution of factional interests and the division of power," Huang told RFA. "From the point of view of ordinary Chinese people, it's all the same."

"They have seen all of this many times before, and they are pretty numb," he said. "Now we are more concerned with the fact that the traffic has been disrupted [owing to security measures], and the metro is so crowded you can't get onto it."

One of the few concrete steps enumerated by Xi was the abolition of the "shuanggui" internal party disciplinary system that has gained a reputation for human rights abuses during the president's continuing anti-corruption campaign.

Instead, Xi's administration will set up a new “super agency” to begin work in March 2018, which bears a surface resemblance to Hong Kong's highly effective Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The agency will operate at all levels of government, and in all geographical areas, and be given new powers of detention to replace those under the old system.

The system will target anyone in public office, not just members of the Communist Party, Xinhua reported.

"The anti-corruption campaign is a sign that he his willing to take a hard line with party discipline, and to straighten out society as a whole," Beijing Institute of Technology economist Hu Xingdou told RFA. "It is aimed at improving the party's image."

"[It is also saying that] the anti-corruption campaign isn't a one-off thing, that it will continue after the 19th party congress," Hu said. "This will be a huge boost to his personal power."

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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