As the Chinese Communist Party gathers for its most defining congress in decades, a new catchphrase is echoing through Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People: Xi Jinping’s “new era thought”.
The catechism is being reverentially uttered by almost every one of the more than 2,300 delegates to the five-yearly congress — from the country’s premier right down to village secretaries.
It is more than mere lip service. Next week, the CCP’s general secretary may have his name — and signature ideology — inscribed in the party’s constitution — symbolising his elevation to the pinnacle of Chinese power.
Currently, the document names only two Chinese luminaries: modern China founder Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the country’s economic reforms.
Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, both had their own ideas written into the constitution, but without their names attached and only at the end of their respective 10-year terms.
Xi, who is expected to earn a second term as the party’s chief by the end of the congress, is set to get the same honour after only five years.
The new concept’s full name, as reported by the official Xinhua news service, is a mouthful: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.
Xi’s six comrades in China’s all-powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee extolled the concept during the congress, according to Xinhua reports Thursday and Friday.
The new thought is “an important component” of Chinese socialism, Premier Li Keqiang told a panel Thursday, according to Xinhua.
Zhang Dejiang, the head of China’s rubber-stamp congress, called it “the biggest highlight” of the congress “and a historic contribution to the Party’s development”.
‘Concentration of power’
Xi’s new “thought” places a heavy emphasis on the party’s role in governing every aspect of the country from the economy to what people are writing on social media.
He is saying “we want to improve the quality of life, but we can only do it if we have a greater concentration of power, especially in the core leadership of the Communist Party”, said Kristin Shi-Kupfer from Germany’s Mercator Institute.
Its rollout is a clear signal that Xi is the most powerful leader in a generation, said Hu Xingdou, professor of economics at Beijing Institute of Technology.
The leader’s rapid ascension into the party’s hall of fame is because “he won the people’s support through his anti-corruption campaign and at the same time consolidated power”, Hu said.
Xi is already expected to use the congress to stack the top echelons of party leadership with loyalists.
But adding his name to the party’s commandments would show that “he has turned the page” on Chinese history, said David Kelly, director of research at Beijing-based consultancy China Policy.
“It’s his assertion that ‘on my watch, we became a major power,’ which is something Mao could not claim,” he said.
‘Feeling of warmth’
While “Xi thought” may not end up in the constitution, it has certainly entered the party’s vocabulary.
When the concept was mentioned, eastern Zhejiang province party chief Che Jun said he was immediately filled with “a feeling of strong familiarity, warmth, and a sense of approval”.
At the meeting of the Tibet delegation, regional governor Qi Zhala raved about Xi’s “long-term guiding ideology for our party”.
Not everyone, however, appears so enamoured with Xi’s new thought.
Hu Chunhua, party chief of the Guangdong delegation, did not mention Xi’s name even once during his region’s meeting.
Hu, who oversees a southern economic powerhouse that includes the prosperous port of Shenzhen, has been considered a rising star within the party, with many analysts tipping him for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee.
“In the context of so much genuflection,” Kelly said, Hu’s silence shows that Xi still has a long way to go before he reaches the level of adulation enjoyed by Mao.
During the Cultural Revolution, “nothing could be said without invoking the Chairman. He was the Caesar and the Pope.”