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Xi sets new rules and goals to extend reign as China's leader

Communist secretary general tightens grip with eye on 2022 party congress

Chinese President Xi Jinping has cemented his grip on power since successfully quelling the spread of COVID-19. New party rules require party cadres to "safeguard" Xi's status.   © AP

BEIJING -- Xi Jinping, China's president and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, is further consolidating his power as he sets his sights on a third term at the party's twice-a-decade national congress in 2022.

Earlier this year, Xi's plans to extend his reign faced headwinds due to the spread of COVID-19. But by bringing the virus outbreak under control fairly quickly -- in contrast to Western countries' flailing efforts -- Xi has turned those headwinds into tail winds.

The big question for China's interlocutors around the world is how to deal with Xi, who now looks as if he will remain in power for many years to come.

According to a memoir by former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, Xi told President Donald Trump during their summit meeting in December 2018 that he wanted to work with Trump for six more years. Xi was apparently referring to 2024, which would have been the final year of a second Trump term. But the remarks also hinted at his own ambitions for another five-year term as Communist Party chief when the current one expires in 2022.

Xi's moves in recent months appear to confirm Bolton's account. One was the announcement in October by the party of its long-term economic goals for 2035, as well as the new five-year plan, which starts in 2021. The announcement was the first in 25 years to lay out such a long time horizon for policy. The previous such plan was released in 1995 under the leadership of then-party chief Jiang Zemin.

The most recent long-term plan calls for China to build a modern military by 2027, which coincides with an important milestone: the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army. The goal is to be reached by implementing Xi's ideas on strengthening the military.

The year is also noteworthy because a national party congress will be held in 2027. One military source in Beijing who asked not to be named said this indicates that "Xi intends to stay in the top military post of Central Military Commission chairman until at least 2027." The chairman of the commission commands the PLA and is said to be more powerful than the head of the Communist Party.

In October, local media reported on new work rules for the party's approximately 200-member Central Committee. The rules clearly reflect the scope of Xi's ambitions: They require party cadres to firmly safeguard "the status of General Secretary Xi Jinping as the core of the Communist Party Central Committee, and of the party as a whole."

The key point is that the Central Committee enshrined Xi's name in the rules, while also presenting them as universal. The rules will remain until they are revised or abolished. It is possible that under the new provisions, party cadres will no longer be allowed to criticize Xi or object to his leadership.

The Central Committee's work rules also stipulate that the general secretary has the authority to set the agenda for Politburo Standing Committee meetings. The Standing Committee is the party's top decision-making body. It currently has seven members, including Xi.

The post of general secretary was revived by former leader Deng Xiaoping as part of political reforms. Mao Zedong had served as "party chairman" and set himself up as a dictator. After Mao's death the chairman's post was abolished, while that of general secretary was established to prevent a return to dictatorship.

As a result, China shifted to a collective leadership system under which the general secretary is also a member of the Politburo Standing Committee. The Standing Committee has an odd number of members to ensure that on divisive questions, decisions can be made by majority vote. The general secretary has only one vote.

In retrospect, it was in October 2017 that the collective leadership system began to erode. At that time, the leadership under Xi created new rules targeting the 25 members of the Politburo, the most senior officials in the Communist Party's hierarchy. The new rules required Politburo members to report to Xi annually on their job performance.

The rules also apply to Standing Committee members, making them subordinate to Xi.

As he seizes more power for himself at home, Xi is trying to improve China's relations with Japan. But sentiment toward China has worsened in Japan due to the coronavirus outbreak and Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong. It is unclear when Xi's delayed state visit to Japan will happen, partly due to objections to the visit from within Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

But Xi does not appear to going anywhere anytime soon. Japanese leaders will have to get used to the idea of sitting across the table from Xi for long time.

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