Xi to tighten clutch on power at Communist conclave

By AFP/Laurent Thomet   October 14, 2017 | 07:03 pm PT
Xi has used China's economic might to bring more countries into the Asian giant's orbit.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to tighten his grip on power at a Communist Party conclave this week, cementing his stature as the country's most dominant ruler in decades.

The five-yearly congress, which opens Wednesday, will give Xi an opportunity to enhance his control over the world's second largest economy by stacking the halls of power with loyalists.

The 64-year-old supremo will undoubtedly be granted the customary second term as general secretary of the Communist Party, but analysts will watch for signs that he may try to hang on beyond 2022.

Xi's clout has drawn parallels with Mao Zedong, modern China's founder, and Deng Xiaoping, who spearheaded economic reforms as paramount leader from the late 1970s to early 1990s.

"We can basically describe there as being three eras: The era when Mao was in power, Deng Xiaoping's era, and now the 19th Party congress is in some sense the complete opening of the Xi Jinping era," Chinese political expert Chen Daoyin told AFP.

During his first term, Xi has already accumulated titles, nurtured a cult of personality and launched crackdowns on activists. Notably, the government let the country's most prominent dissident, Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, die of cancer in custody in July.

Party officials, including potential rivals, have fallen under his sweeping campaign against corruption, and he has reshuffled the military leadership.

On the global stage, Xi has used China's economic might to bring more countries into the Asian giant's orbit. While he has championed globalization, the United States and Europe still complain of huge hurdles to enter the Chinese market.

He has even managed to build a rapport with Donald Trump, who has called Xi a "friend", visiting the U.S. leader at his Florida resort and inviting him to Beijing after the congress in November despite differences over trade and how to handle North Korea.

All of it has been backstopped by a buildup of military muscle, as the leader has revamped the People's Liberation Army, opened the country's first overseas base in the Horn of Africa and aggressively asserted claims to the disputed waters.

Risks to China's success

In addition to general secretary, Xi also has the traditional jobs of president and chairman of the central military commission.

Unusually, he has added a slew of other titles, including "core" leader, earning him the nickname "Chairman of everything".

One clear signal that the age of Xi has begun is if he is able to fill the new Politburo Standing Committee with his allies.

Five members of the seven-person council that rules over China are set to step down in line with an unofficial retirement age of 68, leaving only Xi and 62-year-old Premier Li Keqiang.

But Xi may break with convention and lobby to retain his 69-year-old right-hand man Wang Qishan, the mastermind of the massive anti-graft campaign that has toppled a number of Xi's potential rivals.

If Wang stays on the committee, it would suggest that Xi is above the rules and also create a precedent for him to remain in charge of the CCP even after he himself turns 69 in 2022.

"The results of the party congress will show us just how powerful Xi has become," said Carly Ramsey, an associate director at global consultancy Control Risks.

"Regardless of the motivation," she said, "Xi risks weakening the crucial foundations of China's success and stability by undermining key (Communist Party) norms, namely placing elite cohesion and pragmatism above ideology."

Xi in the 'pantheon'

Xi may also use the occasion of the congress to designate an heir apparent.

One potential successor, former Chongqing city head Sun Zhengcai, was kicked out of the party in September after being ensnared in the anti-corruption drive.

The city's new chief, Chen Miner, is a Xi ally and could be seen as a contender if he ascends to the party's higher echelons.

Another name to watch is Hu Chunhua, 54, the top official of the prosperous southern province of Guangdong.

Pekinologists are also waiting to see if Xi's name is added to the constitution alongside his political "thought" -- an honor bestowed only on Mao and Deng before him.

To Bill Bishop, Washington-based author of the Sinocism China Newsletter, "that would be a sign that he has really joined the pantheon".

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