Xi Jinping is now President of China for the third time. But to truly understand the epochal change we are witnessing we must delve into Chinese politics. Don’t worry, it is easier than you think.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) twice-in-a-decade congress officially ended on Sunday. It represents an immense political shift that will change World politics for at least the next generation. Xi Jinping, China’s President and General Secretary of the CCP, retained an historical third term in power. This makes him officially the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
That Xi would be elected for the third time was already clear at the beginning of the congress. However, the extent to which he would centralize power in his hands became obvious only after its end. Xi nominated the 24 members of the Politburo (the executive branch of the Party) surrounding himself with yes men and proteges.
During the congress, former President Hu Jintao was escorted outside by guarded individuals and no news has been heard from him. Hu was President before Xi and represented the most moderate branch of the Communist party. Without him, Xi doesn’t have any remaining opponent. One billion and four hundred million individuals and the second biggest economy in the World are effectively ruled by one man.
President, General Secretary, Ruler
China’s politics is complicated, and yet incredibly simple. To understand how Xi became the sole center of power we have to understand the three main political figures of the country.
First, there is the President of China. This office is the official Head of State of the People’s Republic of China. The same office as the President of the United States or the President of France. In China, however, the only balance for this power is the Communist Party.
While France and the USA have many parties and two separate houses of Parliament, China has only one party. The party leader is called the General Secretary, but this doesn’t mean he necessarily yields power. In France or in the USA, again, the party leader is usually a less important political figure compared to the President. On the other hand, in the UK the office of party leader is always associated with the Prime Minister.
In China, before Xi Jinping took power, those two offices were often separated. Not only that, but very often in Chinese history neither the President nor the General Secretary actually yield any power. The important reformer Deng Xiaoping, for example, who effectively ruled China between 1978 and 1992, was neither President nor General Secretary. However, his personal power was so strong that even after he retired he could sway policy-makers with his ideas. His word was more important than any official title.
Now, it is impossible for outsiders to understand how someone manages to centralize so much power. It is a result of internal party dynamics and personal relations that nobody except the Ruler actually knows.
So, here is how Xi Jinping became the most powerful Chinese ruler since Mao. Sure, he is the President and also the General Secretary, but the real reason is that nobody inside the party dares to oppose him.
One way to judge Xi’s power isn’t to look at his titles, rather at the fact that analysts cannot predict who his successor will be. Since Mao, it was easy for Western observers to predict who the following Ruler of China would be. Now, nobody knows.
This is a double-edge sword for Xi, who is approaching his 70th birthday. Being the only ruler gives power but also accountability. And nobody can control the slow and natural demise of the human body.