Chinese Communist Party Congress set to anoint Xi as president for life

This weekend the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will effectively give Xi Jinping a mandate to continue as president for life. That is likely to mean a more belligerent foreign policy and more tension with the West. But China faces serious long term problems.

Xi Jinping has orchestrated a coronation that will make him the most powerful leader since Mao

Hong Kong's new Chief Executive John Lee (L) walks with China's President Xi Jinping (R) in Hong Kong on July 1, 2022. Xi is poised to become China's most powerful leader since Mao. (Selim Chtayti/AFP/Getty Images)

Having broken almost every rule in the Chinese Communist Party's manual on how to govern, President Xi Jinping now looks set to break the rule of "seven up, eight down."

That's the guideline that says Communist Party officials can only be promoted up to age 67 and should retire at 68. The sixty-nine year-old Xi has no intention of going anywhere. Though he is not the first leader to bend this rule, he is preparing to break another more important rule by seeking a third term as president.

"We can be almost certain that Xi, as the Communist Party's general secretary, will be appointed for another five-year term," says Lynette Ong, professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and author of Outsourcing Repression: Everyday State Power in Contemporary China.

"Technically speaking, since the term limit has been removed, he can stay in power for life, [although] that may require some formal ceremonies after five years."

Ho-fung Hung, who teaches at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said Xi didn't rewrite the party's constitution to eliminate term limits in 2018 for no reason.

"I would think that he's aiming at becoming the leader of China for life," he said.

Experts expect this weekend's Congress to consolidate trends that have been apparent since 2013, when Xi first began to concentrate his power in a norm-breaking fashion. The China that will emerge from those trends is fundamentally different from the China that began the long rapprochement with the West in the 1980s and 1990s.

Goodbye to 'collective leadership'

Following the disastrous Cultural Revolution, which saw Xi's own father denounced and imprisoned alongside millions of others, the Communist Party underwent a series of reforms intended to prevent another Mao from ever concentrating all power in his hands again.

Deng Xiaoping began the CCP's tradition of collective leadership by seeking to empower a seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, where members would debate issues and strive for consensus. 

The three top jobs in that system — general secretary of the party, president of China and commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army — would sometimes be held by different people.

Even when Jiang Zemin concentrated all three roles in his hands in 1993, he ruled as "first among equals" in a system where other prominent figures had their own weight. He also gradually stepped down from his roles between 2002 and 2005 and is today retired in his late 90s.

A growing personality cult

Today, Xi has also assumed all three roles as well as the title of supreme leader, but he is no longer merely first among equals, said Hung.

"Insofar as he's achieved the consolidation he's been seeking these last ten years, it really doesn't matter who else is on the Politburo or whether there's other factions," he said.

"People used to put hopes on some of the relative liberals and technocrats to provide checks and balances on the impulse of Xi Jinping to centralize powers and expand state at the expense of the private sector. But so far we don't see any of these checks and balances working.

"Even if relatively liberal and democratic figures were selected to the Standing Committee, I don't see that they have a lot of leverage to put a hold on Xi Jinping. Collective leadership is gone. Now you have Xi Jinping calling the shots."

Ong said Xi has not yet completely eliminated other voices in the party.

FILE PHOTO: A screen displays a CCTV state media news broadcast showing Chinese President Xi Jinping addressing world leaders at the G20 meeting in Rome via video link at a shopping mall in Beijing, China, October 31, 2021.
A screen displays a CCTV state media news broadcast showing Chinese President Xi Jinping addressing world leaders at the G20 meeting in Rome via video link at a shopping mall in Beijing, China, October 31, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

"However, relatively speaking, (collective leadership) has declined since Deng's era or the reform and opening in 1979," she said. "It's not yet like in the Mao era, or North Korea. But it's edging closer."

One hallmark of the North Koreanization of China is the growing personality cult around Xi. The claims of his miraculous exploits are not yet as extravagant as those about Kim Jong-Il — whose official biography claimed he had a perfect body that did not need to urinate or defecate — or Kim Jong-Un, who supposedly learned to drive a car at age three.

Xi is instead portrayed as a father figure dispensing homely advice — such as when he supposedly transformed the fortunes of a village by advising them to plant a different kind of potato — or as a sort of peasant superman who once carried a hundred kilos of wheat for five kilometres without having to switch shoulders.

Prince of the little pinks

The rise of Xi has been marked by the growing social influence of young ultra-nationalist keyboard warriors sometimes referred to by a more skeptical older generation as xiao fenhong, or "little pinks". 

While little pinks patrol the internet for signs of dissent or western decadence, the ranks of the foreign service have seen the promotion of aggressive "wolf warrior" diplomats and spokespeople to represent China on the world stage — people like Zhao Lijian and Hua Chunying, who frequently commented on the dispute with Canada involving Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

"After Xi has consolidated his power," said Ong, "we might see a doubling down of East vs. West diplomacy, portraying the West as ganging up against China and Russia, for instance."

Ong said she also expects "more coercive diplomacy, tit-for-tat trade boycotts and [a] tougher stance on Taiwan that might have implications for Canada via the Indo-Pacific Strategy."

Then Canadian ambassador to China John McCallum listens to a question following participation at the federal cabinet meeting in Sherbrooke, Que., on Jan. 16, 2019. (The Canadian Press)

Canada has had to recalibrate its approach to China since the days when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed admiration for the Chinese system and sought to draw closer to Beijing.

Early on, Trudeau replaced professional diplomat Guy St-Jacques with an ambassador drawn from the ranks of the Liberal Party, John McCallum. His term ended with his dismissal and an major embarrassment for the party.

Then came Dominic Barton, who was also seen by some as too close to Beijing and who was criticized by two former ambassadors for wrongly describing long-imprisoned Uyghur-Canadian Huseyin Celil as "not a Canadian citizen."

Professionals at Global Affairs Canada have warned the Trudeau government that its conciliatory approach to China was failing.

It was therefore refreshing to many in the diplomatic community to see the appointment of a professional career diplomat to the sensitive posting in Beijing.

Truculence ahead

But while the Trudeau government has been rudely disabused of its once-sunny views on China, its new ambassador is unlikely to be able to change the direction of China's foreign policy — which Hung said will now likely become increasingly antagonistic.

"The trend of China becoming more and more aggressive will likely continue, or even accelerate, because in the 1990s and 2000s the legitimacy of the Communist Party was grounded in the delivery of economic progress, rapid growth, expansion of employment, and people's living standards improving incessantly," he said.

"But starting with the economic slowdown of the 2010s, worsening over the years, people have started to experience a deterioration of living standards and unemployment in the big cities among young people.

In this Nov. 3, 2017, photo, residents chat near a TV screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hotan in western China's Xinjiang region. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

"So the CCP needs to find a new source of legitimacy, and nationalism is a convenient alternative source of legitimacy. The CCP or People's Liberation Army might not feel ready to wage a war like Russia did over Ukraine, but at least in terms of rhetoric and policy, it will be eager to show to people that China can defy the will of Western countries and is now the centre of the world, or at least of Asia, and the U.S. is no longer calling the shots."

"The Chinese economy is undergoing structural challenges," said Ong, "and Xi's fixation on social stability and zero COVID have made it worse. But he does not seem to pay so much attention to economic issues. To him, the grip on power and social stability come before other competing priorities."

Zero Covid, zero population growth

China will announce on Monday its latest GDP numbers. They are now expected to report year-on-year growth of only about 3.5 per cent — well below Beijing's forecasts announced in March and far behind the 13.7 per cent growth recorded in neighbouring Vietnam.

"China's economic recovery missed expectations and shows a weak recovery trend overall," said a note by Bank of China analysts on September 28. China continues to experience problems with the property market, corporate indebtedness, exports and domestic consumer demand.

The technocrats who helped to create China's export-driven economy appear dismayed that the days of 6-per-cent-plus growth are over. "It is still unimaginable from a strategic perspective for us not to have this pace," Jia King, former director of research at the finance ministry, told a conference last month.

But China's structural problems go even deeper than that. The fertility rate in China is now a mere 1.15 births per woman, despite the end of the one-child rule.

Both the UN and the Shanghai Academy of Social Science have drastically revised their forecasts of China's population growth, making it clear that there is a demographic crisis in the making. (Gavekal Dragonomics - Independent Macro Research)

The population, previously expected to peak in 2031 at 1.46 billion, is probably already in decline, according to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. The working-age population peaked in 2014 and the country's overall population is predicted to drop by more than half by the end of the century, when a majority of the 15+ population will be over 65.

Aging presidents-for-life have a poor track record when it comes to facing complicated challenges like those confronting China.

Xi Jinping's grip on power may be stronger than ever after this weekend, but his long-term plans to make China the world's leading power look considerably shakier.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.