How Xi Jinping plans to secure his legacy in China’s Communist Party

Xi Jinping could lead his country into uncharted territory when he emerges as China’s top leader for another five years this month.

The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) begins on October 16. The conclusion of the week-long event is expected to pave the way for him to become the longest-reigning party leader since Mao Zedong.

From the outside, Xi’s decision to stay in power may seem unprecedented. But for him, cementing an enduring legacy in China’s ruling party may be the next natural step in his journey.

Xi was elected general secretary of the CCP in late 2012, when he also became chairman of the Central Military Commission before assuming the title of president the following March.

The certainty that forms the basis of widespread belief in his continued leadership comes from the way he has consolidated power over the decade and dismantled the party’s earlier move to institutionalize collective leadership — to ensure that no single man can ever exercise too much authority.

It gradually began with him meddling in the details of policy-making and continued with a years-long anti-graft campaign that purged scores of officials for embezzlement and corruption, including those in senior positions. He installed likable cadres in key posts to realize his vision of a more centralized form of decision-making.

Design at the highest level was also found in the People’s Liberation Army, the party’s military arm, which Xi began reforming in 2015.

In 2017, Xi oversaw an amendment to the party’s constitution to incorporate his ideas, known collectively as the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, and exercised a level of ideological control previously only enjoyed by Deng Xiaoping, a reformist leader , and Mao, the party, enjoyed founders.

A year later, Xi amended China’s constitution to remove term limits for the presidency, the post that gives him the mandate to represent the country internationally as head of state.

The centralized nature of his authority has made it difficult for foreign colleagues to get their point across. Kurt Campbell, President Joe Biden’s top Asia policy adviser, said in 2021 that the top Chinese diplomats present at high-level meetings were “not anywhere near, within a hundred miles” of Xi’s inner circle.

China's Xi Jinping takes aim at Communist Party legacy
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for a session of the National People’s Congress to vote on a constitutional amendment at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 11, 2018. In a historic vote, Chinese lawmakers lifted presidential term limits, paving the way for Xi to rule indefinitely.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

But how the former governor of Fujian province rose through the ranks of the party to attain supreme authority tells only half the story.

China’s president has cultivated a personality cult around himself not seen since the days of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The party may now view this decade as a mistake, but Xi drew lessons about the powerful potential for creating an idol image.

Favorable strategic narratives are set up by the party leadership, of which the propaganda bureau instructs the state media how to articulate them properly and the Chinese public how to interpret them properly.

In 2016 he demanded absolute loyalty to the official line and thus to him as the “core” of the party from the Chinese press. He told state media officials: “Party and state media represent the propaganda position of the party and the government; they must bear the surname of the party.”

Xi is rarely absent from discussions of domestic achievements or the party’s ability to govern, and he is often described as elevating China’s status on the world stage or presenting solutions to external challenges.

According to Shu-ting Liu, a policy analyst at the Institute of National Defense and Security Research, Taiwan’s top military think tank, the Chinese state media’s construction of Xi’s image was “a long-term and progressive process that is becoming increasingly thorough.”

This is done through Xi’s policy of “media convergence,” integrating traditional and new media resources with technological tools to transform, create, and enhance a positive public perception of the CCP, Liu said Newsweek.

“The CCP is facing numerous internal and external challenges such as the Russia-Ukraine War, COVID and US-China strategic competition. In all these cases, the CCP shapes Xi Jinping’s image with convergence media,” she said. “On the one hand, it emphasizes ties to the ‘party’; on the other hand, it focuses on the ‘state’ to gain public support.”

On October 8, Chinese broadcaster CCTV aired a new series entitled navigator (领航), which details Xi’s achievements over the past decade, including his management of the trade war with the United States, the quelling of Hong Kong unrest and the fight against the pandemic.

“This method of treating ‘crises’ as ‘political achievements’ is under constant scrutiny, as is the case with China’s difficult economic and social issues,” Liu said. “And of course it is Xi Jinping and only Xi Jinping who must take responsibility.”

CCP propaganda materials also describe Xi as the party’s “helmsman,” a nod to the “Great Helmsman” honor Mao wears. As such, the Chinese president directs both domestic and foreign policies with a firm grip and deep ideological control.

In recent years, Xi has tied the country’s response to the pandemic to the CCP’s political legitimacy and his personal legacy, making it increasingly difficult to justify a policy shift.

China's Xi Jinping takes aim at Communist Party legacy
Photo taken on Sept. 19, 2017 shows painted portraits of Chinese leader Xi Jinping (left) and late Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong at a market in Beijing. Researchers say Xi wants to surpass Mao’s status in China’s ruling party.
GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former prime minister, once described Xi as having Mao-like status. But Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, argued Xi wanted more than that.

“Xi is not striving to attain a status comparable to Mao’s, he is striving to surpass Mao’s,” Tsang said news week.

“For Xi, Mao provided a crucial element of that by founding the [People’s Republic of China]failed to bring China back to its prime,” the professor explained.

“The personality cult theme reflects how Xi views himself, the party and China, as well as the reality that he is a man on a mission, a mission to make China great again.”

“For Xi, the only way to make China great again is for the party to lead everything under his leadership, which means he sees them in three concentric circles, with him at the core, the party at the center, and China at the bottom outer circle,” Tsang said.

“Thus, by building a cult of personality, he intends to make China great as the greatness of the core shines outward. This also implies that Xi may not bother to justify his third term. Instead, he will likely ensure that he will remain as the leader of the party, and therefore of China, through acclimatization,” he said.

Xi’s view of “national rejuvenation,” his “Chinese dream,” includes many circumstantial evidence, including taking over Taiwan and building a world-class military. Ultimately, it is the perception of a Chinese nation that has finally transcended Western, and particularly American, hegemony to take center stage again.

Xi’s impression of a well-loved leader is hard to shake. That’s what made Thursday’s anti-government protests in Beijing so rare.

Social media images showed a man dressed as a craftsman and wearing a hard hat lighting a small fire while standing on Sitong Bridge in Haidian District.

A banner hung over the guardrail reading: “Food, not COVID testing. Reform, not cultural revolution. Freedom, not lockdown. votes, no leader. Dignity, no lies. Citizens, not slaves.”

Another called on schools and factories to go on strike and “overthrow the dictator and traitor Xi Jinping.”

Weibo, China’s main social media service, censored the phrases “Haidian,” “Beijing,” “Sitong,” and “warrior” (勇士) after users used them to describe the man who was later kidnapped by police.

Local authorities did not comment on the incident. How Xi Jinping plans to secure his legacy in China’s Communist Party

Rick Schindler

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