The Chinese Communist Party held its Sixth Plenum from 8-11 November, and Chairman Xi Jinping used this choreographed political theater to further cement his status in the pantheon of Chinese communist leaders.
There are no indications that he wishes to relinquish a single joule of power over the nation, but there are occasional signs that this authoritarian leader does face opposition.
One of the main tasks of this Sixth Plenum of the 19th CCP Central Committee was to pass the "Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century".
This is just the third historical resolution in CCP history, the preceding two tabled in 1945 and 1981 under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping respectively.
This essentially placed Xi among the big three. Allied to the resolution was whether Xi will remain in power indefinitely.
Certainly, the communique made no mention of Xi being leader for life, but the Central Committee's approval certainly permits Xi to remain in office for one, if not two or more, additional terms lasting five years each.
Support from the committee gives Xi an indefinite extension on the reins of power, which will surely result in hawkish and insular policies.
It does not bode well for relations with the United States, or with anyone else who does not bow the knee to Beijing, for that matter.
The plenum comprised 197 full Central Committee members and 151 alternates.
This year was especially significant as it marked the centennial anniversary of the CCP's founding.
That 100-year history was divided into three historical periods: Mao Zedong laying the socialist foundations from 1949-76; Deng Xiaoping ushered in an era of reform and opening up; while Xi introduced Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era to pave the way for the "great renaissance of the Chinese nation".
According to a China Neican newsletter, the resolution had three aims: first, to provide an overarching narrative about the past and a deterministic trajectory for China's future ("China has gone from weak to strong, and under the leadership of Xi will finally achieve its rightful place in the sun and, in doing so, end Chinese history"); second, to cement Xi's role in the CCP and enable him to retain his paramount position in next year's Party Congress; and third, to spell out a vision for the future, including common prosperity at home and strength on the international stage.
In fact, more than half the communique about this resolution is devoted to praising Xi. Thus, "The party has established Comrade Xi Jinping's core position on the Party Central Committee and in the party as a whole."This kind of sycophancy by the Central Committee is frightening. Essentially, Xi has been elevated to a position of absolute dominance over China. Xi may well be enshrouded in a cocoon that ignores conflicting facts and could easily lead to miscalculations and conflict.
As Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation in the USA, noted, "The Sixth Plenum has apparently achieved what it set out to do, which is establishing Xi's role as the sole guiding force for the party, the government and the army in the 21st century."
Xi's list of glowing achievements included his anti-graft campaign, the abolition of extreme poverty, the attainment of a "moderately prosperous society", development of Deng's open-door policy, "the modernization of China's system and capacity for governance", and improvements in China's global status.Such accomplishments are debatable. Has Xi really improved governance systems and institutions, or has he simply personally assumed all authority? Xi is at the top of the pile and makes all decisions. Xi has already been nicknamed "the Chairman of Everything", for he has a finger in every pie.
Some impetuous decisions involving little or no consultation with others are already visible, including preventing Jack Ma from listing Ant Corporation on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange late last year, and in July forcing all private tutorial schools to become non-profit organizations.
Instead of "consistently promoting broader and deeper reform across the board," as claimed in the resolution, Xi has cracked down on quasi-private conglomerates such as Alibaba, Tencent, Bytedance and several real estate corporations. He repeatedly calls for "top-level design" for the economy, and forces foreign companies to share intellectual property with local subsidiaries. Furthermore, Xi's injection of state funds in infrastructure and real estate projects has accumulated unprecedented debt for the government, local enterprises and citizens.
State-controlled media incessantly laud Xi as compassionate, just, wise and an internationalist. His aura is godlike, capable of no wrong, with media and propaganda force-feeding the populace this staple diet. Tight control of information and a vast secret police system prevents any counter-narrative. Historical nihilism (i.e. publicly challenging any aspect of the CCP's version of history) is a criminal offence, and in February the Supreme Court made perceived insults against heroes and martyrs prosecutable.
Many do not give a hoot about history, but in Chinese politics, controlling the historical narrative is critical for it grants the power to decide and dominate the future. Xi is rewriting history in his favor, believing that China and he are indispensable to the world.
Regarding Xi's indefinite leadership, Lam assessed, "Backed by the resolution, it is very probable that Xi will serve for ten more years as CCP General Secretary, Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and State President until the 22nd Party Congress in 2032, when he will be 79 years old. After the 22nd Party Congress, Xi might emulate Deng by remaining CMC Chairman - the post with the most power in China - while relinquishing the titles of party General Secretary and/or State President. This scenario, however, willupend the party convention of orderly generational succession as stipulated by Deng."
Party colleagues born in the 1960s, the so-called sixth generation, will have minimal chance to succeed Xi, because in 2032 those born before 1964 will have reached the retirement age of 68, and few would be young enough to serve two five-year terms on the Politburo Standing Committee.
Lam considered that a seventh-generation cadre had the highest chance of succeeding Xi. Are there any possible candidates there? Lam offered: "At present, only a few-dozen-odd seventh-generation officials, who were born in the 1970s, have attained vice minister rank. Due to their relatively junior positions, none of those neophyte 'rising stars' have yet demonstrated that they have what it takes to reach the Politburo or higher.
Leading seventh-generation cadres include the secretary-generals of the Shanghai, Jiangxi and Shandong provincial or municipal party committees, respectively Zhuge Yujie (aged 50), Wu Hao (49) and Liu Qiang (50), as well as the Head of the Jiangsu and Yunnan provincial Political and Legal Affairs Committees, respectively Fei Gaoyun (50) and Liu Hongjian (48)."
Notably, the resolution made no reference to Deng's dictum of "taking a low profile and never taking the lead" in world affairs. Xi has traveled far beyond that, though China is becoming increasingly isolated globally because of its bullying and impenitent treatment of others. China's use of wealth to boost relationships with client states in the developing world makes a mockery of Xi's slogan of "human community with a shared future".
It must be noted that there is opposition to Xi within the CCP, despite his omnipotent position. This is perhaps reflected in the inclusion of a paragraph in the resolution that discussed the policies of former leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who are rivals of Xi.
Many of Jiang's and Hu's adherents now hold offices at the ministerial level or above, so this inclusion was a concession to them. Lam concluded, "Xi has continued to use the anti-corruption campaign as a weapon to eradicate real and potential enemies, particularly in the sensitive political-legal apparatus. This lack of party unity below the surface indicates that, despite the hagiographic language used to lionize Xi's exploits in the resolution, the future of his leadership may well depend on whether he can solve the multi-faceted problems that bedevil China."
Professor Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientist at Canterbury University in New Zealand, commented, "Incredible to see Xi elevating himself on par with Mao/Deng, and elevating Xi Jinping Thought on a par with Mao Zedong Thought. In domestic and foreign policy, the PRC has gone backwards since 2012. Xi's primary achievement? Increasing repression."
Such repression is clearly seen in Hong Kong, where draconian national security laws have snuffed out all political and popular expressions of discontent. Many have, or are seeking, to leave the territory rather than live under a suffocating climate of fear and suppression.
For example, the Hong Kong Police set up a hotline so citizens can report acts of resistance. So far the hotline has received 200,000 tipoffs, averaging 550 per day. People are now afraid to express political opinions for fear of being dobbed in to a biased legal system where the government selects judges and is all but assured of convictions.
The plummeting political and social environment in Hong Kong shows the true nature of the CCP, seeking to control society and the way people think. No opposition is brooked in Xi's horrifying vision for China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the rest of the world.
Xi has been majoring on "common prosperity" since midyear, its tenets summed up in Xi's article, entitled "To Firmly Drive Common Prosperity", published on 15 October. He wrote, for example, "Our country must resolutely guard against polarization, drive common prosperity and maintain social harmony and stability ... If we want to achieve common prosperity for 1.4 billion people, we must have a firm footing on solid foundations and make unremitting efforts."
Yet, Xi's retrogression to Maoism has sparked divergent views. This has become apparent with giant private companies being forced to share their wealth with the less privileged. Celebrities and star actors/actresses have been among the targets too. Protests erupted in various cities over the looming bankruptcy of the Evergrande Group real estate company after running up debts of nearly USD300 billion.
There are fears of a domino effect if this "too big to fail" company is allowed to crash and destroy the savings of many investors. The anger of Chinese citizens would become palpable, with social unrest rising. Xi claims to have destroyed absolute poverty, but the middle and lower classes continue to see awidening wealth gap between themselves and the elite.
Illustrating his paranoia, Xi has simultaneously been enacting a purge of China's political-legal apparatus that encompasses the police, secret police, procuratorates and courts. He wishes to nail disloyal people who might be taking "illegal and improper" actions against his leadership.
Indeed, Xi relies on the military, police and legal apparatus to maintain strict control. In an ongoing purge of the political-legal system, a rectification drive netted 178,431 personnel for investigation and/or punishment from February-July 2021 alone. This included 1,258 heads of departments, including Deputy Ministers of Public Security Meng Qingfeng, Meng Hongwei and Sun Lijun.
The authorities also revealed in September that they had discovered a "conspiratorial clique" centered on several senior police officers mostly from Jiangsu Province. Such admissions are rare, but show that not all are enamored with Xi's brand of iron-fisted rule.
In Xi's view, China is rising while the West is in decline amidst a turbulent changing of the guard. He believes "time and momentum" is on his side, but Taiwan remains a crucial flashpoint in coming years.China and the USA have vastly differing visions for Taiwan, and certainly the majority of Taiwanese do not wish to fall under the harsh heel of the CCP.
China continues to send bellicose signals towards Taiwan, including relentless military actions. Furthermore, with fewer official contacts between China and the USA - something that a virtual summit between Joe Biden and Xi on 15 November will do little to alleviate - the chances of miscalculation grow.