China's Xi Jinping grows in power and influence, prepares to 'act big'

Xi Jinping may have opened China's Communist Party Congress as 'first among equals,' but he walks away as much more than that. He's now likely the most powerful leader this country's known since Mao Zedong.

Congress affirms his leadership status equal to Mao in 2nd 5-year term as president

President Xi Jinping claps as he introduces new members of his 'dream team' Politburo Standing Committee at Beijing's Great Hall of the People in Beijing Wednesday. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

Xi Jinping may have opened China's Communist Party Congress as "first among equals," but he walks away as much more than that. He's now likely the most powerful leader this country's known since Mao Zedong.

By far, he is first among 1.4 billion.

And in declaring the start of a "new era," he's more determined than ever to leave his mark on China in this second five-year term as president. He may even buck convention to stay in charge long beyond that, to continue leading what he calls the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

"If one is big," Xi said today, "one must act big."

Xi's manoeuvring at the congress made him bigger.

As he stepped out to unveil his seven-member leadership team — the party's politburo standing committee, which the official party voice People's Daily called a "dream team" — it was clear he had manoeuvred well.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, top left, and members of the Politburo Standing Committee: from top, left to right, Xi, Premier Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, director of the General Office of the Communist Party, Vice Premier Wang Yang, Wang Huning, director of the party's Central Policy Research Office, Zhao Leji, head of the Central Organization Department, and Shanghai party leader Han Zheng. (Associated Press)

He is among allies, without a challenger. He made sure that none of the new members is young enough to be considered for the top job once this term is over. Everyone is in his 60s. No one has near enough political clout to challenge Xi, 64.

Xi also chose not to name a successor, the normal act of a Chinese leader once he reaches the halfway point of his expected decade in power. No potential challenger there, either.

He even led the delegates in enshrining what's become known as "Xi Thought" in the party's constitution, the first living Chinese leader since Mao to embed himself so firmly in a document that will outlive Xi himself.

"The congress unanimously agrees that Xi Jinping Thought shall constitute a guide to the action of the party," it was announced at the closing ceremony. The official title of the concept is "Xi's Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era."

Xi and other Chinese politicians and delegates listen to the national anthem during the closing of the 19th Communist Party Congress. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Some worry all of this might have gone a bit too far, raising the risk of a future crisis.

Opposing or criticizing Xi has now become tantamount to attacking the party, says Zhang Lifan, an economist and political observer at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

"It's clear the leader has tightened his grip on power," he said. "But that also means the risk of making mistakes has also gone up, since there is no adequate mechanism to correct mistakes" in the party.

"Also, the leader has to stay healthy," he adds, "since we are without an heir."

In terms of Xi's policies, China's direction isn't expected to change, though the rules may become better defined — and tougher.

Party members will still face discipline. More than a million have already been punished for corruption, including generals, top officials and low-level bureaucrats. The hunt for these "tigers and flies," as Xi calls them, will continue. And targets may well include his political rivals.

Xi, front row centre, stands with his cadres during the Communist song at the closing ceremony for the 19th Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Oct. 24, 2017. There are 89 million members in the organization. (Andy Wong/Associated Press)

The party's will — including arbitrary rules on morality — will continue to be imposed on the country. Xi has cracked down hard on human rights activists, NGOs and dissidents. These groups expect things to get even worse.

This regime "can do anything with impunity," says Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. With the Communist Party's pronouncements, "there's not a lot of space for independent voices," she says.

Under Xi, journalists and artists are expected to support the government, and all citizens are expected to toe the line.

Every citizen's face

To make sure they do, China is developing an unprecedented arsenal of tools to follow people's movements and purchases, listen to their calls and censor their words, even in private communications.

In Xi's next term China plans to build an enormous database of every citizen's face, to be recognized and monitored electronically.

Through this congress, Xi has also sharpened his rhetoric on China's international intentions.

His tenure has already seen a new Beijing assertiveness on issues such as sovereignty over land and sea, and an insistence on total control over what he sees as Chinese territory — including Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Here, his emphatic insistence on that drew loud applause. "We will never allow anyone, any group, or any political party," Xi told the party delegates, "to separate any part of Chinese territory from China."

Combat capability

He also reaffirmed plans to strengthen the country's military forces, repeatedly insisting that China is a "great power," and that its "military is built to fight."

"Our military must regard combat capability as the measure to meet in all its work, and focus on winning when called upon," he said.

And he made clear China has no interest in taking a cue from the West or to "copy the foreign political model" of liberal democracies. It will go its own way, he said, "different from that of traditional great powers."

Xi even talked about exporting China's ideas through friendship and through financial help along the lines of his massive "Belt and Road" infrastructure project that is spreading across Asia and into Africa and Europe, though countries like India have viewed China's motives with suspicion.

China's desire to take centre stage globally is expected to grow, now that Xi is more firmly in control and ready to "act big."


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.