The recently concluded Chinese Communist Party congress seems like a clean sweep for Chinese leader Xi Jinping: he achieved a precedented third term as head of the party—and thus as ruler of China—and he forced out potential rivals by elevating people presumed to be his allies. All of this is being hailed as Xi running the tables, with many analysts calling him China's strongest leader since Mao Zedong, who ran China from 1949 to 1976.
All of this is accurate on one level. Xi is powerful and he seems to have achieved most of what he wanted at the congress. But the past week's events also reflect what may turn out to be a flawed strategy of Xi putting himself at the center of everything—making him seem strong while actually vulnerable.
First, though, let's look at what he achieved.
His power was on full display Sunday, with the unveiling of the Politburo Standing Committee—the inner sanctum of seven people who make the most important policy decisions. The congress itself had ended Saturday but this moment is the apogee of high drama in China's political system. As supreme leader, Xi strode on stage first. Then came the others, in an order indicating their power: most notable was Li Qiang, the party secretary of Shanghai, who was ushered onto stage after Xi, indicating that he is likely to be named the new premier at a meeting next spring. The 63-year-old obtained the post despite his presiding over a long Covid lockdown in Shanghai, but this might have worked in his favor, showing him to be a loyal follower of Xi's approach.
For outsiders, another notable member is Wang Huning, a 67-year-old who has no administrative experience but who has risen thanks to his ability to shape ideology--something Xi values highly. In a recent piece in The New Yorker, the journalist Chang Che traced Wang's experiences thirty years ago in the United States, where he witnessed divided government and social turmoil—reflecting a feeling among many top leaders, presumably Xi as well, that the United States is highly flawed, potentially declining, and not worth emulating.
The other four leaders appointed to the Standing Committee all have significant personal or professional ties with Xi. This might seem the norm in an authoritarian state but has not been the case in recent Chinese history. For the most part, the past few decades have seen Standing Committees with some figures who represented an alternative vision for China. As best as we can tell, this was indeed a clean sweep for Xi.
He also managed to sideline several officials not thought to be close to him, including the outgoing premier, Li Keqiang, and the former governor of Guangdong Wang Yang. Both were on the Standing Committee, both were considered slightly more reform-minded than Xi, and both were shunted out this past weekend before the party's unofficial retirement age.
Xi's triumph was in some ways symbolized by former leader Hu Jintao being unceremoniously led off the rostrum on Saturday. Some say it was part of a bizarre power play on Xi's part to humiliate Hu, who led China from 2002 to 2012. But it was more likely because the 79-year-old was ill. He appeared disoriented, and before he left, he spoke to Xi, who nodded. Later that day, he was shown attending the conference on the evening news, which likely would not have happened if he were being purged. But Hu's departure, along with the inability of his predecessor, 96-year-old Jiang Zemin, to appear at the congress, neatly symbolized Xi's position alone atop the party.
And that is Xi's problem. As the noted Australian China watcher Geremie Barmé has been saying since 2013, Xi has set himself up as "chairman of everything." He is closely identified with China's "zero Covid" strategy, with rolling back parts of the private sector, cracking down on dissent and religious groups, and with a bellicose foreign policy that brooks no opposition from countries that cross it.
Xi touted many of these as great accomplishments during his work report, which kicked off the congress. Zero Covid saved lives, government policies will bring prosperity, and his administration is fighting hard to unify with Taiwan.
And yet all of these are also potential weaknesses. On Covid, the country's strict strategy has saved many lives--consider the million-plus who died in the United States, and how that would have played out in a country with four times the population. But the party has also backed itself into a corner with Covid. At some point, China will have to reopen and even with the right vaccines, China will see tens of thousands of deaths, something the country now says is unacceptable. How will it explain this sudden change in policy?
As for the economy, the government line is that the current slowdown is due to the Covid lockdowns and a global slowdown. This is partly true, but another reason is a dearth of economic reform over the past decade. With market-oriented reforms now essentially shelved, there is actually little chance of growth picking up.
As for foreign relations, Xi has also boxed himself in, especially on Taiwan. A policy paper issued in August declared that unifying with Taiwan was "indispensable" to China's "rejuvenation," which is Xi's main platform. And yet most military analysts agree that China is years away from possessing the force necessary to launch a complex amphibious assault on Taiwan, an island that lies roughly 100 miles off China's coast. The question now is if Xi can manage expectations that he is creating for some sort of reunification in the near to medium term.
All of this raises questions about the nature and durability of Xi's power. In journalese, Xi is the "most powerful leader since Mao." But this has yet to be proven. Mao founded the People's Republic, destroyed the old society of landowners and capitalists, and radically transformed Chinese society.
Mao's eventual successor was Deng Xiaoping, who gained power in the late 1970s and held it for nearly twenty years, ruling through proxies who he discarded at will. Deng dramatically changed China's trajectory. He gutted many of Mao's policies and set in motion economic reforms that turned China into the economic juggernaut that it is today. His brutal 1989 crackdown on student-led demonstrators in Tiananmen Square also set the boundaries for debate in China since then, taking off the table any sort of political reform. And he began a military modernization that is bearing fruit today in the form of aircraft carriers and other advanced hardware.
By contrast, Xi has not—yet, at least—radically changed China, despite his claims to greatness. He has yet to create the conditions necessary for China to become a high-income country. His foreign policy has created a serious backlash abroad. And his domestic agenda is mired in one unimaginative crackdown after the other.
Deng put in place a rickety system of succession, but one that he regularly flouted and that only survived his two hand-picked successors, Jiang and Hu. It is this system that Xi flouted by taking a third term as general secretary on Saturday. But this is hardly the destruction of an ancient system of checks and balances. Instead, it is more like brushing away a few fig leaves to reveal what everyone knew was always there: strongman rule.
Xi's biggest risk—and his greatest weakness as a strategist—is that he has put himself on the firing line. When things went badly for Mao or Deng, they could jettison underlings who were nominally in charge of various issues. Xi, however, has constructed a system that makes him look strong in the short run but leaves him no place to hide.