The elite Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has recently convened for the Sixth Plenum of the Nineteenth Central Committee. This ordinary-sounding meeting of bureaucrats could hardly be more extraordinary. In this plenum, Xi Jinping has established his authority as a perpetual leader of China.
Well before this meeting, Xi Jinping had already entrenched himself as ‘paramount leader’ of China. Xi became the General Secretary of the CCP in November 2012 (and thus the head of the party); Charmain of the Central Military Commission for the Party in November 2012, and the State in March 2013 (and thus the head of China’s Armed Forces); and finally, became President in March 2013 (thus the head of China’s state apparatus). This trifecta of control has allowed Xi to establish power all across Chinese issues. This power has enabled him to launch extremely successful and popular campaigns. Such campaigns include the early (and ongoing) anti-corruption drive, launching the nationalistic Chinese Dream, initiating Made in China 2025, and so on. This in turn, gained Xi the privilege of having ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ ingrained into the constitution in 2018: a privilege only given to China’s original and other perpetual leader, Mao Zedong (with Deng Xiaoping only achieving the lesser label of ‘Theory’).
With this power Xi has sought to transform China: ‘rejuvenate a great nation’ (Economy, 2018, p.3), as it were. Recently, he has penetrated deep into Chinese society: overhauling education, pulling tech billionaires back in line in pursuit of ‘common prosperity’, and cracking down on ‘celebrity culture’. In terms of foreign policy, Xi is drowning in political clout. He has brought China to the forefront of global politics. He has too stood firm on sensitive Chinese issues. This notably includes asserting China’s perceived right to conduct its internal affairs, especially in areas of great international contention such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang. This was boldly evidenced with merchandise labelled ‘stop interfering in China’s internal affairs’ becoming extremely popular on Chinese retail sites in response to the tense US-China Alaska Summit back in March 2021.
With Xi’s consolidation of power, control and authority, added to by the recent fervent celebrations of the CCP’s centenary, the Sixth Plenum is conveniently timed (for Xi). In this plenum, the Central Committee has adopted a ‘historical resolution’. This is the third of such resolutions: the first was issued by Mao in 1945 to consolidate his power prior to the official establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the second by Deng in 1981 to acknowledge the ‘errors’ of Mao and set the stage for China’s path to prosperity. These resolutions allow the paramount leader to rewrite the history of the CCP, and set the path of its future – and thus China’s too. Whilst doing this, it essentially enshrines them and their direction into the perpetual story of the Party and China.
This has now placed Xi in a historic position. He has become Paramount leader through establishing control over the three pillars of Chinese governance: Party, state and military. He has enshrined ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ into the constitution, and in turn, entrenched it throughout Chinese society. Following this, Xi now has authority over the past, present and future of the Party, the state and everyone within.
This kind of authority, power and control is extraordinary in Chinese history, but not exceptional. It is true there have been multiple ‘paramount leaders’, and there has too been other leaders to establish ‘historical resolutions’ (Deng and Mao). But, Xi’s hold on control (i.e. through the leadership of state and party institutions) and authority (i.e. through his ideology, Xi Jinping Thought; and the history and future of the CCP and China established in the recent ‘historical resolution’), is almost unprecedented. This potent mix of control and authority brings power rivalled only by China’s first perpetual leader: Mao Zedong. Mao too had almost complete control over the party and state, and has too remained a permanent influence on the CCP and China.
This article has framed Xi Jinping as joining the founding leader of the People’s Republic of China in the ranks of perpetual leadership. However, dare one say, Xi may soon surpass even Mao’s perpetuity. This is because Xi and the CCP’s political discourse has narrated China (and indeed the world) as entering a ‘New Era’. The basis of this ‘new era’ messaging stretches from Chinese defence and grand strategy, to the ideological upheaval of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics (tied into Xi Jinping Thought). Notwithstanding CCP public relations and grandstanding, there is certainly truth of an emerging new era for the world.
The world is undergoing seismic changes. The effects of human-induced climate change are threatening humanity’s way of life, and potentially even its survival; the global US hegemony has unravelled, with Chinese leadership gaining traction in certain areas; developments in technology are changing the very fabric of societies; and globalisation has brought the world (including China) closer together than ever before. If China, and Xi specifically, can successfully navigate the issues of this new world; Xi will come closer to realising the so-called ‘Chinese Dream’, will ‘rejuvenate’ China as a ‘great nation’, and, as a result, gain untold power within China. With this, Xi Jinping will no longer be simply a perpetual leader of China, but will indeed become the perpetual leader.
Economy, E. (2018) The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. New York, NY: Oxford University Press