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All eyes on China: the Communist Party Congress is coming up

The world’s attention will shift to China as the Communist Party is set to hold its five-yearly congress beginning on 16 October. We talk to Senior University Lecturer Florian Schneider about how its leader Xi Jinping is expected to cement his place as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Although a lot of things are bound to happen at the party congress, Schneider points out two suspected events that we should watch out for: Xi Jinping committing to an unprecedented third term and a seemingly small linguistic change in the constitution. 

Power hungry

Up until now, all Chinese leaders have governed for a maximum of two terms. However, ever since the elimination of the two-term limit in 2018, people have suspected Xi Jinping will continue for another five years. Is it because he’s power hungry or is there more going on?

According to Schneider, it’d be naive to conclude that it’s only about Xi Jinping further strengthening his power; the unprecedented third term can be seen as a side effect of his internal party policies. ‘He’s put himself in a leadership position at many major political institutions in China. That means there haven’t been a lot of people who could rise through the ranks and become the next potential leader. So, there’s a legitimate concern within the party that there might not be anyone of the stature of Xi Jinping to replace him right now,’ explains Schneider. 

Risks and threats

‘On top of that, the party leadership seems to think they’re confronted with a number of risks and threats,’ Schneider continues. ‘The problems started before the pandemic with the economy slowing down. It led to a downturn for a lot of Chinese people after decades of unseen continuous growth. Then the pandemic struck, and China adopted a zero-COVID policy, which slowed down its economy even more.’

‘This and other things make the party worried about unrest and discontent. Now more than ever, they feel they need a strong leader at the core to keep them in power. Xi Jinping’s just the means to make that happen. That’s why this is much more a collective decision than it may appear. Although it also benefits Xi Jinping, it’s a mistake to assume it is just about him.’ 

No Mao Zedong

While pursuing a third term can be a strong signal to outsiders, the party has another – more subtle –   trick up its sleeve to cement Xi Jinping’s power and status indefinitely. He’ll soon get to call his own ideological contribution to the party constitution ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, instead of the long title it currently holds. The philosophy includes a wide range of statements on socialist and communist ideals that he has given in speeches over the last decade that are supposed to define his legacy. Schneider: ‘Although the shortening of the title is mostly a symbolic change, it signals that his ideology is of importance. Xi Jinping will be the first leader since Mao Zedong to have his contribution called ‘Thought’.’

And yet again, it’d be a mistake to compare him to the first leader of the Chinese Communist Party. ‘We’re talking about very different times and extremely different motivations as for why they’re at the centre of the party,’ argues Schneider. ‘Mao Zedong’s reign was focused on a continuous revolution. That’s why he sometimes even attacked his own party. Xi Jinping’s control is in many ways the opposite. He must stabilise the party and keep it in power. On top of that, his leadership is a collective decision by the top officials, so it’s not just the one-man party that it once was under Mao Zedong. If we simply compare Xi Jinping to Mao Zedong, we might be overlooking some of the party mechanics and not understand what is actually going on.’

Photo: Palácio do Planalto

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