HONG KONG – Xi Jinping on Sunday secured a historic third term as leader of China, confirming his status as the country’s most powerful figure in decades and extending his authoritarian rule over the world’s second largest economy.
Xi’s third five-year term became official when he took the stage first at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where a twice-decade conference of the ruling Chinese Communist Party concluded Saturday. He was followed in descending order by the six other members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest leadership body.
Xi breaks with tradition by remaining in office after amending China’s constitution in 2018 to remove the two-term limit for the presidency. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the limit in 1982 to prevent a return to a Mao-esque personality cult.
Here are some takeaways from the week-long party convention:
The Chinese political system is structured around Xi, 69, who heads the state, the military and – most importantly – the Chinese Communist Party. Since taking power in 2012, Xi has tightened the party’s grip on the state and society, sidelined political rivals and quelled dissent.
Over the years, Xi — who called the party a “core” leader in 2016, putting him on an equal footing with Mao and Deng — has increasingly surrounded himself with people who were unlikely to challenge him or his policies.
“What we’re starting to see is sort of a subversion of many of the rules, both formal and informal, that were put in place by his predecessors to get his allies into the top jobs,” said James Gethyn Evans. , communications officer at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard.
The trend continued on Sunday, when the composition of the new Politburo Standing Committee was unveiled. Xi allies Li Qiang, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi joined current members Wang Huning and Zhao Leji to form Xi’s inner circle.
Li Qiang, who as party secretary of Shanghai oversaw the city’s devastating two-month Covid lockdown last spring, immediately came after Xi, indicating he will succeed Prime Minister Li Keqiang as China’s No. 2 official.
There is no obvious successor among the Standing Committee members, all of whom are men in their 60s, a sign that Xi may also be aiming for a fourth term in office.
Xi’s tightened scrutiny was already evident as the highly choreographed congress drew to a close on Saturday, with about 2,300 delegates unanimously approving the work reports, as well as changes to the party charter that could further increase Xi’s authority.
They also elected a 205-member Central Committee that is crammed with Xi loyalists and no longer includes moderate leaders like Li Keqiang, the outgoing Prime Minister, and former Deputy Prime Minister Wang Yang. Both men had been members of the previous Politburo Standing Committee, which, along with the wider Politburo, is nominally elected from among the members of the Central Committee.
In a moment of unexpected drama, former President Hu Jintao, who had sat next to Xi, was escorted out of the room without explanation on Saturday morning shortly after foreign journalists entered. On the way out, Hu, 79, put his hand on Li’s shoulder.
Taiwan remains a flashpoint
Xi’s speech at the Congress opening on Oct. 16 did not contain any escalation of rhetoric around Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that claims Beijing as its territory. The Chinese leader reiterated the goal of peaceful “reunification”, without renouncing the possible use of force.
“Xi has essentially promised more of the same for Taiwan,” Wen-Ti Sung, a Taipei-based expert on US-China-Taiwan relations at the Australian National University, said by email. “Xi still doesn’t promise a specific timeline on unification.”
But the Chinese leader did put more emphasis on warning “external forces” to stay out of the Taiwanese issue.
The controversial visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the island in August has changed Washington’s relationship with both China and Taiwan, said Lev Nachman, an assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
“There’s been sort of a reset of the tone,” he said, “and I think that will not only keep Taiwan in the conversation, but keep it central.”
While there is always the risk of a Taiwan conflict being accidentally sparked, Nachman said China is unlikely to make an informed decision to invade anytime soon as it deals with pressing domestic issues such as an economic slowdown and growing public frustration with Xi’s strict “zero”. -Covid” policy.
Nevertheless, Taiwan is very much on the minds of the Chinese leadership, Evans said.
“Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that Taiwan’s future lies with China,” he said, “and the hardliners within the regime will push for a firmer stance on Taiwan over time.”
Rising tensions between China and the US are based in part on the belief of many officials that, as America’s power is seen internationally as waning, it is trying to undermine China’s rise on the global stage.
So as China has become more powerful under Xi, it has also become more assertive in defending its interests and promoting its values abroad. That was underlined last week when a scuffle broke out during a protest outside the Chinese consulate in Manchester, England, in which a protester was dragged into the consulate premises and ‘assaulted’, according to local police. (Chinese officials dispute the account.)
At a press conference in Beijing on Thursday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu said his country’s diplomacy “will continue to show a fighting spirit”.
At the United Nations and other global organizations, countries often sit in the middle as China and the US-led West clash over the erosion of civil liberties in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang region and the Russian war in China. Ukraine, as well as economic issues. A US ban imposed this month on the sale of advanced computer chips to China could curb countries around the world.
Developing countries in particular will find it increasingly difficult not to take sides, Evans said.
“It will be a matter of ‘you’re for us or you’re against us’ either because of pressure from the US or from China,” he said.
Where are the women?
In his speech at the opening party conference on Oct. 16, Xi said he remained “committed to the fundamental national policy of gender equality.” But only 11 of the 205 members of the new Central Committee are women, and there is not a single woman in the new 24-member Politburo. (The only female member of the previous Politburo, Sun Chunlan, retired at age 72.)
Gender inequality cuts through multiple levels of Chinese politics. Only about a third of the 96 million members of the Chinese Communist Party are women, according to a report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and only a handful of women have ever served in the Politburo. No woman has ever sat on the Politburo Standing Committee.
“Politics has traditionally been considered a male-dominated profession,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank. “And if you look at 5,000 years of Chinese history, there was only one female empress or female emperor, and she was considered an anomaly.”
The lack of female representation in China means that women are not high enough on the political ladder to qualify for top positions, said Rui Zhong, a program officer at the Wilson Center in Washington. Women who move up to the Deputy Prime Minister’s level are usually given “softer” responsibilities such as health, education and sports.
But having more women in leadership wouldn’t necessarily change the situation for women in China, where the government has cracked down on feminist activism and encouraged women to take on more traditional roles.
“In the end, it all goes through Xi Jinping,” Zhong said.