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Xi Jinping presents himself as the new Mao

Can China's leader live up to his image as the great helmsman for the 21st century?

| China
A security officer stands by a poster of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Oct. 22. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

The just-ended 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress has fulfilled its billing as a confirmation ceremony for Xi Jinping as China's strongest leader since chairman Mao. The 64-year-old "core leader" has successfully filled the country's highest ruling councils -- the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee -- with his loyalists.

The fact that no younger-generation cadres were inducted to the standing committee has confirmed the widely held belief that Xi will remain the unchallenged leader until the 21st party congress in 2027, and possibly the 22nd in 2032. Moreover, the fact that "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" has been enshrined in the party constitution has confirmed Xi's status as a Mao-like "helmsman" for the party and country.

In a startling parallel to French King Louis XIV's famous "l'etat, c'est moi," Xi's near-total command of the levers of power is his way of saying that "The Party? It's me!"

As expected, Xi and Premier Li Keqiang remain in the standing committee, China's top ruling body. All five new inductees to the Politburo standing committee have sworn unquestioned fealty to the "supreme commander."

Li Zhanshu, who is Xi's foremost confidant and strong man, is set to become Chairman of the National People's Congress, the country's parliament. Respected party theorist Wang Huning will take charge of the ideology and propaganda portfolio. Another loyalist, the out-going director of the Organization Department Zhao Leji, will head the party's highest anti-corruption agency, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection. Vice Premier Wang Yang, who has been in charge of economic negotiations with the U.S., will become chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, China's highest advisory council. And the veteran party chief of Shanghai, Han Zheng, is slated to be the next executive vice premier, the principal deputy to Premier Li.

Equally important is the fact that this congress has marked the coming of age of the Xi Jinping faction -- which did not exist five years ago.

The Xi faction consists of his subordinates, allies and proteges when he worked in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces from 1985 to 2007, as well as his classmates at Tsinghua University and fellow natives of Shaanxi Province. Prominent faction members who have won promotions to the Politburo include the party secretaries of Chongqing, Beijing and Tianjin, respectively Chen Min'er, Cai Qi and by Li Hongzhong; the party secretaries of the provinces of Jiangsu and Liaoning, respectively Li Qiang and Li Xi; Xi's chief adviser on economic matters, Liu He; the new director of the General Office of the Central Committee Ding Xuexiang; the just-promoted heads of the Organization and Propaganda Departments, respectively Chen Xi and Huang Kunming.

Loyalists abound

Newly-elevated People's Liberation Army rising stars who belong to the Xi faction include Commander of the Ground Forces Han Weiguo, Commander of the Central Theater Command Yi Xiaoguang, Air Force Commander Ding Laihang, Director of the Political Work Department Miao Hua, and Director of the General Office of the Central Military Commission Zhong Shaojun.

Despite appearances of impregnability, Xi's position is not fully secure. Liu Shiyu, chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, warned at the sidelines of the congress of "conspiratorial cabals and cliques" in the party. He accused a list of current and former Politburo members, who included the two disgraced former Chongqing party secretaries, Bo Xilai and Sun Zhengcai, of having "plotted to usurp the party's leadership and to seize state power." Moreover, one reason why Xi allowed his close ally Wang Qishan to retire is that the anti-corruption campaign masterminded by Wang has created an unusually large number of Xi foes in the party and military. It is likely that the new anti-graft tsar, Zhao Leji, will exercise more caution when tackling corruption cases in the coming five years.

Yet the ultimate test of whether Xi lives up to his preferred image as the "Mao Zedong of the 21st Century" is whether the new helmsman can introduce thorough-going reform in political, economic and social sectors. The much-touted "socialism with Chinese characters for a new era" has consisted of a bevy of slogans -- many of them recycled from earlier speeches by Xi -- regarding China's achievements in the year 2035 and 2050. Xi said in his congress speech that by the year 2020, China will become a "moderately prosperous society." The country will have attained all-rounded socialist modernization by 2035. And by 2050, China would become a "great modern socialist country" that is "prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful."

Meanwhile, China's say in world affairs will by 2050 have taken a significant leap forward. Xi said that his administration was "comprehensively pushing forward major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, so as to usher in a multi-directional, multi-faceted, and three-dimensional diplomatic arrangement." In other words, China will become a superpower capable of challenging the U.S. dominance particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. The fact that State Councillor in charge of foreign affairs, Yang Jiechi, has been promoted to the Politburo is a signal that more weight will be given to China's international relations.

To achieve his domestic and foreign goals, Xi has reiterated Beijing's commitment to a host of "innovative ideas and policies" ranging from buttressing the rule of law with Chinese characteristics to boosting the role of the market in the business sector. It must be remembered, however, that Xi's No. 1 concern, as stated in the congress address, is "the Party's leadership over all sectors" of the country. Party members and ordinary citizens are called upon to "self-consciously safeguard the authority of the Party's central authorities and [its] concentrated, unified leadership." The party's dominance over the law-making process as well as the courts has rendered Xi's pledges about the rule of law meaningless. Moreover, party cells in both state and private enterprises are given more powers to oversee business operations.

Party veterans are unimpressed with Xi's pledges and claims. Independent party historian Zhang Lifan said "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is not a new concept -- and that "merely adding the term 'new era' does not give a sense that there is theoretical innovation involved." Zhang added Xi's congress report is a rehash of old formulas and cliches that he and other party theoreticians have used before.

Xi's numerous followers have claimed that while Mao unified China and Deng Xiaoping made China rich, Xi is the only leader capable of making China strong. Yet despite the Mao-style personality cult that is being feverishly erected around Xi, the Fifth-Generation "core leader" could struggle to measure up to the stature of Mao or Deng.

Despite his disastrous policy failures after 1949, Mao was deemed a demi-god who automatically commanded the loyalty of cadres as well as the people. The market-oriented reforms of Deng made possible the emergence of the country as an economic superpower.

Xi, however, is feared, not loved by party members or the public. And the stunning retreat in liberalizing institutional and political reforms under his watch could further undermine the future legacy of a man who seems to seek comparison with chairman Mao.

Willy Lam is an adjunct professor in the history department and the Centre for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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