Chinese leader Xi Jinping urged the Communist Party on Wednesday to “resolutely oppose” any actions that undermine its leadership as he opened a congress expected to enhance his already formidable power.
Xi told some 2,300 delegates at the imposing Great Hall of the People that the country was entering a “new era” as the party pursues “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
“The prospects are bright, but the challenges are also severe,” said Xi, who is expected to secure a second five-year term as general secretary and stack leadership positions with loyalists during the twice-a-decade congress.
Speaking in front of a massive hammer and sickle, Xi extolled China’s rising clout abroad and its fight against poverty and inequality at home, as well as his “zero tolerance” campaign against corruption within the party.
“Every one of us in the party must do more to uphold party leadership and the Chinese socialist system and resolutely oppose all statements and actions that undermine, distort or negate them,” Xi said.
Considered China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping or even Mao Zedong, Xi could use the congress to lay the foundation to stay atop the 89-million-strong party even longer than the normal 10 years, according to analysts.
This would break the unwritten two-term limit accepted by his immediate predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — who were by Xi’s side at the congress — and end the era of “collective leadership” aimed at preventing the emergence of another Mao.
Another signal of Xi’s rise to the pantheon of Chinese leadership would be if his name is added to the constitution, an honour has only been bestowed upon modern China’s founder, Mao, and the father of economic reforms, Deng.
A congress spokesman said the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will amend its constitution to add Xi’s “new vision and thinking” on governance, but he did not indicate whether Xi’s name would also be added.
‘Tigers and flies’
Potential rivals have been swept aside under Xi’s vast anti-corruption campaign, which punished 1.3 million Communist Party officials over five years.
Xi said the anti-graft campaign has been “unswervingly fighting against ‘tigers’, ‘beating flies’, ‘hunting foxes’” — terms used for lower and higher ranking officials.
Xi’s rise has also been marked by a relentless crackdown on dissent, with authorities even refusing to free Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo as he lay dying of cancer in July.
On the global stage, he has restructured the military, asserted China’s claims to disputed seas and used the country’s economic prowess to increase its influence in Asia and beyond.
He has taken up the mantle of globalisation in the face of US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.
But foreign companies will look for signs at the congress that Xi will live up to his promises to further open up China’s economy in the next five years.
Legitimacy at risk
Authorities stepped up policing for the week-long congress, with red armband-wearing “security volunteers” fanning out across the capital, karaoke bars closing and online kitchenware firms even suspending knife sales.
The conclave, which ends next Tuesday, will select new top party members, including in the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s all-powerful ruling body.
Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are expected to remain on the committee while the five other current members are supposed to step down under an informal retirement age set at 68.
But Xi may lobby to retain his 69-year-old right-hand man Wang Qishan, who heads the leader’s signature anti-graft campaign. This would create a precedent for Xi himself to remain in charge beyond retirement age in 2022.
“If Xi expresses intent to lead beyond his 10-year limit, this would be reminiscent of the Mao era, which would be damaging to Xi’s legacy and call his legitimacy into question,” said Simone van Nieuwenhuizen, a Sydney-based researcher and co-author of “China and the New Maoists”.
But a Xi heir apparent could emerge from the congress.
One former potential successor who was outside Xi’s circle, Sun Zhengcai, was ousted from the party last month due to graft allegations.
Chen Miner, a former Xi aide who succeeded Sun as political chief in the city of Chongqing, is now well positioned for promotion.
“The question is what is Xi going to do after he secures absolute power after the 19th party congress,” said Hu Xingdou, a Chinese governance expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology.
“If he can lead China’s modernisation, establish a modern state system, avoid the cycle of peace and upheaval of China’s 2,000-year history, then we can say his influence may be bigger than Mao’s.”