Xi Jinping eliminated key rivals in China’s leadership and consolidated his grip on the country on the final day of a Communist Party meeting at which the former President Hu Jintao was unexpectedly taken off the main stage. Hu’s departure was a rare moment of unscripted drama in what is usually carefully choreographed political theater.
The closing session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) ended a weekend of triumph for Xi that made him China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. He swept away the last norms of a political order built up since Mao’s death to prevent the return to the worst excesses of power by a single autocrat.
On Saturday, it became clear that Xi had retired Premier Li Keqiang and reformer Wang Yang, so he could pack up the Politburo Standing Committee – the heart of the government, which had for decades governed collectively – with loyalists. On Sunday, Xi’s third term as head of the CCP, and therefore as head of China, will be officially announced, after years of speculation. He will get a third term as president early next year.
The week-long meeting was planned with precision and paranoia, and Xi emphasized party unity throughout. But the desire to control the party’s public image made Hu’s sudden and seemingly involuntary departure, in front of the world’s media, particularly surprising.
The 79-year-old seemed confused and reluctant to leave his seat on stage at the Great Hall of the People when he was approached by an aide or official, who whispered in his ear and attempted to lift him from his headquarters. At one point, Hu tried to pick up Xi’s notes, which were on the table between them. Xi reached out to hold the papers. Hu was then escorted off stage, sparking speculation whether the departure was due to health issues or power politics played out for CCP or international audiences.
Whatever the reason, it had symbolic weight. The other living former leader, Jiang Zemin, is now 96 and did not appear at the congress.
Xi used the rally to cement his standing in the CCP and strengthen his cult of personality by making his writings the “core” of the party’s modern ideology. Once Hu had been escorted, Xi was preeminent on the scene, as he is now in Chinese politics. The congress, the most important gathering of China’s five-year political cycle, brings together 2,400 delegates from across the country to endorse decisions made by the party’s elite.
By old standards, Xi would have stepped down as leader this week after 10 years at the helm. Instead, he abolished term limits on the presidency, stuffed the government with allies and could potentially become leader for life.
All of the remaining senior officials who oppose Xi are unlikely to risk speaking out against him now, analysts say. In several of his speeches, the president spoke of China having to navigate an increasingly hostile world. In his closing speech, Xi told delegates, “Dare to fight, dare to win, bury your head and work hard. Be determined to keep moving forward.
His view of China suggests more repression at home, more state interference in the economy – even if it has hindered growth – and aggression abroad.
Changes to the CCP’s constitution approved on Saturday mean that the writings of Xi – the quickly named Xi Jinping Reflection on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era – a foundation of the party’s ideology, with Xi himself at the “heart” of the party.
A list of delegates appointed to the 205-member central committee also revealed that some of Xi’s most prominent rivals – who had ties to other party factions and their own power base – had been forced into retirement.
The 25-member political bureau and its all-powerful standing committee are drawn from the members of the central committee. Civil servants cannot join powerful ruling organizations if they are not part of the central committee. Among the missing were Premier Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, who heads the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Li was due to step down as prime minister next March, but there has been speculation that he will remain as the CCP leader in a less publicized role.
Wang, a pro-reform politician with a relatively liberal image and rich regional experience, was previously seen by analysts as a likely candidate for the next premiership.
“A central committee, political bureau and standing committee all dominated by Xi would mean a significant loss of checks and balances,” said Willy Lam, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “Xi’s policy of putting ideology and national security ahead of economic development will continue for the next five or even ten years as he looks forward to ruling until the 22nd Party Congress in 2032, when he will be 79 years old.”
Other constitutional amendments have considerably hardened China’s position on Taiwan. The CCP’s charter previously listed Taiwan alongside Hong Kong and Macau as a place it hoped to “build solidarity” with. He now swears only to “resolutely oppose the independence of Taiwan and constrain it”. “Beijing is signaling that it is sinking deeper into the ground and there is no room for compromise on the Taiwan issue,” said Sung Wen-ti, a political scientist at the Australian National University.