That China’s rubber-stamp parliament handed Xi Jinping an unprecedented third term should come little surprise, but it does illustrate the extent of his power grab.
The post of president is constitutionally ceremonial, but Xi’s true power stems from the fact he is leader of the Chinese Communist Party (having already been granted a historic third term as party chief) and commander-in-chief of the military. Indeed, the members of the National People’s Congress who voted for Mr Xi are appointed by the ruling party.
Xi, 69, had already been named to a third five-year term as party general secretary in October, breaking with a tradition under which Chinese leaders handed over power once a decade. A two-term limit on the figurehead presidency was deleted from the Chinese Constitution even earlier, prompting suggestions he might stay in power for life.
Xi’s push for power began when he was handed the reins to the Communist Party by his predecessor Hu Jintao. This latest move is the culmination of a steady, and sometimes ruthless, journey to place himself at the centre of his party. His rolling anti-corruption campaigns have allowed Xi to force out enemies, while also garnering the support of his people.
Xi has also essentially dispensed with the factional system that had marked China’s politics for decades; he is now surrounded by loyalists. The parliament also elected Zhao Leji, 66, as parliament chair and Han Zheng, 68, as vice president. Both men are key Xi allies. There are no challengers to his rule and he has also crushed any expectation of nurturing a successor.
Another Xi ally, Li Qiang, is poised to be confirmed as premier on Saturday, China’s second-highest post. It is a role that puts the former Shanghai party chief and Xi ally in charge of the economy. Other Xi-approved officials are due to be elected or appointed to government posts over this weekend, including vice premiers, a central bank governor and numerous other ministeries. The annual parliamentary session will end on Monday, with a speech from Xi.
The previous premier, Li Keqiang, was seen to be aligned to former leader Hu, who was taken off stage at last year’s Party Congress on Xi’s orders. Whether that was down to ill health or because Hu was causing a disturbance is still unclear, but it certainly offered a clear indication of Xi’s standing.
During his years in power, Xi has tightened his party’s grip over civil society in China, cracked down on free expression and sought to suppress the democracy movement in Hong Kong. China has also waged a campaign of forced assimilation in the Xinjiang. region. In 2021, UK MPs approved a non-binding Commons motion which declared Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang were “suffering crimes against humanity and genocide”. China has denied such allegations.
China’s president is now widely considered to be the country’s most powerful figure since founding leader, Mao Zedong. Xi has made no secret of his admiration for Mao and has crafting his own cult of personality – a process that has accelerated in recent years. Near the end of 2022, Xi visited Yan’an in the north-western province of Shaanxi, revered in the Communist Party as the cradle of revolution. In 2018, China’s top body enshrined Xi’s political ideology – “Xi Jinping Thought” – into the country’s constitution. No other leader besides Mao, have had their 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 post-Covid and difficult diplomatic relations with the US. Then there is Beijing’s increasingly close relations with Russia, against the backdrop of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, with Kyiv having been given staunch support by Western allies. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin congratulated his “dear friend” on his new presidential term.
While Xi’s push to mould the Communist Party in his image means he is in total control, he risks being in an echo chamber of ‘yes men’ – and he will wholly responsible for any future failures.