That Chinas rubber stamp national day submitted Xi Jinping an unprecedented third term should come as little surprise, but it illustrates the extent of his power grab.
The post of president is constitutionally ceremonial, but Xi’s true power derives from the fact that he is the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (having already been granted a historic third term as party chief) and commander-in-chief of the military. The members of the National People’s Congress who voted for Xi are actually appointed by the ruling party.
Xi had already been awarded a third five-year term as party general secretary in October, breaking with a tradition in which Chinese leaders hand over power once a decade. A two-term limit for the flagship presidency was removed from the Chinese constitution even earlier, prompting suggestions that he could remain in power for life.
Xi’s push for power began when he was handed the reins of the Communist Party by his predecessor Hu Jintao. This latest move is the culmination of a steady, and sometimes ruthless, journey to position himself at the center of his party. His rolling anti-corruption campaigns have allowed Xi to force out enemies, while gaining the support of his people.
Xi has also largely abandoned the factional system that had characterized China’s politics for decades; he is now surrounded by loyalists. The parliament also elected Zhao Leji, 66, as parliament speaker and Han Zheng, 68, as vice president. Both men are key Xi allies. There are no challengers to his rule and he has also dashed all expectations of raising a successor.
Another Xi ally, Li Qiang, is poised to be confirmed as prime minister on Saturday, China’s second-highest post. It’s a role that puts Shanghai’s former party chief and Xi ally in charge of the economy. Other Xi-approved officials will be elected or appointed to government posts this weekend, including a vice premier, a central bank governor and many other ministries. The annual parliamentary session ends on Monday, with a speech by Xi.
The former premier, Li Keqiang, was seen as aligned with former leader Hu, who was taken off stage at last year’s party congress on Xi’s orders. Whether it was due to ill health or because Hu caused a disturbance remains unclear, but it certainly gave a clear indication of Xi’s position.
During his years in power, Xi has tightened his party’s grip on civil society in China, cracked down on free speech and tried to suppress the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. China has also waged a campaign of forced assimilation in the Xinjiang region. In 2021, British MPs approved a non-binding Commons motion declaring that Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang are “suffering crimes against humanity and genocide”. China has denied such allegations.
China’s president is now widely regarded as the country’s most powerful person since its founding by leader Mao Zedong. Xi has made no secret of his admiration for Mao and has created his own cult of personality – a process that has accelerated in recent years. Near the end of last year, Xi visited Yan’an in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, revered in the Communist Party as the cradle of revolution. In 2018, China’s highest body enshrined Xi’s political ideology – the “Xi Jinping Thought” – in the country’s constitution. No other leader besides Mao has had his ideology described as “thought”, and only Mao and Deng Xiaoping have had their names attached to their ideologies. In 2021, it was announced that “Xi Jinping Thought” would be introduced into the national curriculum.
There are plenty of challenges ahead for Xi, including a sluggish economy and strained diplomatic relations with the United States. Then there is Beijing’s increasingly close relationship with Russia, against the backdrop of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, where Kiev has been strongly supported by Western allies. Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated his “dear friend” on his new term as president.
While Xi’s drive to shape the Communist Party in his image means he is in total control, he risks ending up in an echo chamber of “yes men” and he will be fully responsible for any future failures.