China's new leadership body includes no obvious heir or challenger to Xi Jinping
The Chinese President has shored up control over his party, the economy and the military
When US President Donald Trump visits China next month, he won’t be the most powerful person in the room.
Chinese President Xi Jinping further shored up his grip on power Wednesday, revealing a new leadership without an obvious successor and setting the stage for him to dominate politics in the country for decades to come.
That gives him a level of stability and influence the envy of most world leaders, sitting atop the world’s second-largest economy and one of its strongest militaries without any obvious challenger or check on his power.
Trump, Germany’s Angela Merkel and the UK’s Theresa May all face intense opposition at home, while even Russia’s Vladimir Putin cannot boast the stability and economic security Xi’s administration has.
In a tweet late Wednesday, Trump said he called Xi to congratulate him on his “extraordinary elevation.” Speaking to Fox Business after the call, the US leader added “now some people might call (Xi) the King of China – but he’s called president.”
In a highly choreographed ceremony in Beijing Wednesday, Xi said his leadership will be “steadfast in upholding our country’s sovereignty, security and development interests.”
The move caps a years-long effort by Xi to “make China great again,” said James McGregor, author of “No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers: The Challenges of Chinese Authoritarian Capitalism.”
“He has this narrative of ‘China was great, the foreigners ruined it, and the party has brought it back’.”
During this month’s Communist Party Congress, “Xi Jinping Thought” was enshrined in China’s constitution, an honor only granted to two other leaders: Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
In a speech during the political summit, held every five years, Xi heralded the start of a “new era” for the party and China, building on those overseen by Mao and Deng.
“Mao established the People’s Republic of China, Deng brought the country wealth and now Xi is going to bring power,” said Frank Ching, a Hong Kong-based commentator and expert on Chinese politics.
This has included a new assertiveness on the international stage, as evidenced by Xi’s ambitious economic and trade initiative – the One Belt, One Road plan – and his attempts, rhetorically at least, to take up the mantle of globalization and environmentalism.
McGregor told CNN that “given the chaos in Washington and also the dysfunction in Europe, the world is looking for leadership,” a vacuum Beijing is attempting to fill.
China's Party Congress
“(Xi) has exploited a strategic opportunity in Asia opened by the Obama administration’s caution and now the instability and disorder of the Trump administration,” according to a recent report by Australia’s Lowy Institute.
“Dressed up in the benign slogan of the ‘China Dream’, Xi’s strengthening of the party at home and his determination to press Beijing’s claim abroad has profound implications for China, its neighbors, and the rest of the world.”
Ching said that China is “now present all over the world, and as the US recedes, China is going to move in.”
Two new members of Xi’s cabinet, Li Zhanshu and Wang Huning, have strong foreign policy credentials in line with Xi’s desire for a more muscular overseas policy.
As his chief of staff, Li accompanied Xi on key overseas trips to the US and Russia, while Wang is a key architect of “neo-authoritarian” and “neo-conservative” policies which have shaped a focus on “nationalism and political order” under Xi, according to analyst Jude Blanchette.
A reshuffle of the 25 member Politburo, second only to the standing committee in terms of authority, also saw the promotion of the country’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, who has been a key player in crafting policy with regard to the US, India and other countries.
Nowhere has Xi’s new bullish leadership been more obvious than in China’s foreign and military policy.
In the South China Sea Beijing has continued the building up and militarization of islands, reefs and islets in defiance of an international court ruling.
Despite repeated and vociferous objections from the US, UK, Philippines, Australia and other parties, China has stared them all down and largely won the argument – few claimants in the sea can challenge Beijing militarily, and while Washington has continued freedom of navigation exercises, the issue has not been a major one for the Trump administration.
“More than his predecessors, Xi has tried to leverage China’s diplomatic and military strength to press Beijing’s territorial claims in the East China and South China Seas, and lock in the country’s interests on its western flank,” the Lowy Institute report said.
On the chief point of contention between China and the US – North Korea – Beijing has also largely come out ahead, brushing off intense pressure from Washington to take a firmer hand on Pyongyang, though it has supported tighter sanctions and some limitations on North Korean businesses in China.
Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, said there has been speculation Xi “will have more bandwidth for addressing the North Korea threat after the Party Congress.”
He was skeptical of this however, saying the Trump administration’s policy of an immediate denuclearization of North Korea was “seen as a total illusion, completely unrealistic, and potentially dangerous in China.”
“Beijing’s overwhelming concern of the last few months has been to keep the US and North Korea quiet ahead of the Communist Party’s National Congress,” wrote analyst Adam Mount for CNN this week.
That task proved successful, leaving it less likely than ever China would bend to US pressure to take a firmer hand with its neighbor, potentially harming its own economy or destablizing a country of millions on its border.
As Xi has shored up his political power – overseeing an intense crackdown on dissent and critical voices – he has also ramped up his control of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Speaking on the 90th anniversary of the founding of PLA in August, Xi emphasized the party’s “absolute leadership” over the military, which he has pushed hard to modernize and which has been a major target of anti-corruption efforts.
In his speech, Xi emphasized the importance of the PLA’s combat readiness, saying that ongoing reforms of the army are key to ensuring its “readiness to defend state sovereignty and maritime interests.”
China has also improved military ties with Russia, staging a major joint naval drill near St Petersburg in August.
Russia is also a big player in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, a series of trade and economic deals which stretch Chinese influence across Eurasia and much of Africa.
Both Europe and Africa have been targets of Chinese investments and aid – increasing economic ties with the European Union and funding major infrastructure projects across much of East Africa and other parts of the continent. Beijing is also poised to replace Washington as the major donor for much of the developing world.
However, Beijing’s posture, particularly its aggressive military and economic moves, could backfire, as previous world powers have discovered when they attempted to export their influence overseas.
While China has benefited from political instability in Europe and Trump’s “America First” policy, McGregor said the country “doesn’t have a lot of friends right now because there’s been so much of a strong stance.”
“Their (position) is for China to be strong and on its own, I don’t think they’ve looked at repercussions for the world and the way it’s making the world view China,” he added.