Resounding victory cements Xi’s dominance
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Resounding victory cements Xi’s dominance

This congress was a triumph for one man and those loyal to him were rewarded. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.


Ordinarily, it makes for unmatched political theatre in an otherwise grey and opaque system, the moment when China’s ruling communist party unveils its new leadership at the close of its congress.

The appearance of the seven men – and, yes, they are all men – marks the climax of months of intense bargaining, factional balancing and brutal purges that take place behind the scenes beforehand.

This time around, however, the ceremony at the Great Hall of the People on Sunday had only one star performer, Xi Jinping.

It was no surprise that Xi emerged out front, confirming what has been an open secret since the last congress five years ago, that he would break with recent convention and take a third term as leader.

This congress has drawn a line in the sand in profound ways, both for Chinese domestic politics and the manner in which its influence spills out into the rest of the world.

The drama unfolding over the weekend lay in who would follow him out on stage and in what order, as they walk out according to their new ranking in the leadership’s inner-sanctum.

The result was a resounding victory for Xi, more decisive than many experienced observers had forecast. His rivals, potential and real, were forced out of the Politburo Standing Committee. Xi loyalists took their place.

No fewer than three of his personal secretaries from Xi’s previous positions in Beijing and the provinces were elevated into the top leadership.

Much of the dominance Xi cemented at the party congress has been coming down the line for his entire decade in office. With the cut-throat ruthlessness of an old-style political boss, he has now successfully removed all obstacles to his policy vision.

This congress has drawn a line in the sand in profound ways, both for Chinese domestic politics and the manner in which its influence spills out into the rest of the world.

Xi has dispensed with the old factional system, such as it was. He has crushed expectations that he would nurture a successor. He has ignored the informal age caps on officials serving in top positions.

As a result, in the words of Neil Thomas, a China specialist at the Eurasia Group, we are entering an era of “maximum Xi”, a world in which the old rules are all but irrelevant.

In place of rules in domestic politics, Xi has substituted what he calls “political standards”, which essentially means absolute loyalty to him and his policy program.

Starry-eyed foreigners can no longer interact with Beijing on the pretence that there is a nascent group of influential friends at court, so-called “reformers” whom they can nurture and rely on.

Beijing hasn’t given up on reform. The Chinese are simply reforming on their, or Xi’s, own terms. It just so happens that this looks nothing like the kinds of changes that the West hoped for.

In the lead-up to the congress, analysts speculated that Xi would balance the Politburo with officials from outside his own circle, for example, a kind of “saviour premier” who could dilute one-man rule and provide an alternative voice.

But Xi has cast himself in the role of the saviour of the country, to prevent it from sliding, in his own words, towards a “weak, hollow and watered down party leadership”.

Xi’s political persona is a mix of fire and brimstone preacher, a tender pastor administering to his flock and unrepentant autocrat willing to expunge anyone should they stray from the correct line.

The latest revision of the party constitution says all party members are “obliged … to uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position” as the head of the party.

Xi has been skilled in exploiting the enormous powers of his office to do what a communist party does best – mobilise the state, the workforce, capital and technology in a singular effort to get his way in the world.

Put another way, the Chinese system, as such, is effectively on war footing, which, of course, is not the same thing as saying they are about to go to war.

Rather, Xi wants to lock in absolute control at home to ensure he can project maximum strength abroad, and gain whatever leverage he can into any showdown with the US, whenever it comes and whatever form it takes.

In truth, China is already locked into a permanent struggle with the US on many fronts – over geopolitics, trade, the region, militarily, and technology.

Perhaps most importantly of all, China sees the confrontation with the US, and by extension, with its allies, as a contest of political systems, which Beijing has long thought it is winning.

The economy remains Xi’s Achilles heel, and it is also the arena in which his statist policy prescriptions are most contested, and in which his critics have the most room to move.

His absolute insistence, thus far, in sticking with a COVID-zero policy, is crushing the economy, with no visible way of reopening.

There is nothing, however, in the longer term, that will change the party’s objectives, to take Taiwan and push the US as the dominant force out of the Indo-Pacific.

It might take a decade or more, but for the foreseeable future, Xi has made clear he will remain in power to execute the plan.

As he said at the close of the conference: “The road map has been drawn and the bugle sounded.”


Areas of expertise: China’s political system and the workings and structure of the communist party; China’s foreign relations, with an emphasis on ties with Japan, the two Koreas, and Southeast Asia; Australia’s relations with Asia.