Editorial The Economist, 24.10.2017
Does this mean no one can challenge him?
The constitution of the Chinese Communist Party defines what it means to be a party member and lists the organisation’s core beliefs. On October 24th a new principle was added to it: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”—quite a mouthful. Xinhua, a government news agency, said the change was approved at the end of a weeklong party congress, an event that takes place every five years. Party leaders had been parroting the cumbersome phrase for several days since Mr Xi, who is the party’s general secretary as well as president, first mentioned it (albeit without his own name attached) on the opening day of the gathering. Bill Bishop, an American China-watcher, says he writes it as XJPTSCCNE “to avoid getting carpal tunnel syndrome”.
Talk of theory and whether someone is named in a document might sound recondite. But this has huge implications because it invests Mr Xi with more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. He is the first living leader to be mentioned in the party’s charter since Mao. Deng Xiaoping’s name is also in the constitution but this was an honour accorded him only after he died in 1997. Mr Xi’s two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, are not named. Moreover, Mr Xi’s thinking uses the same term in Chinese (sixiang) as the one in Mao Zedong Thought. Deng in contrast contributed only a “theory” (lilun), a less elevated term. No one can have more ideological authority than Mr Xi. The person has become the party in a way China has not seen since Mao.
Mr Xi has made influential enemies during his first five years as party chief, notably the allies and clients of the hundreds of influential officials he has had arrested for corruption. He has also complained repeatedly that officials lower down the bureaucracy are stymying his orders. This could change, because to oppose him now would be regarded more than ever as opposition to the party itself. In principle, it could make decision-making in China smoother. But it raises the risk that underlings will tell Mr Xi only what they think he wants to hear, and increase the chances of bad policymaking.
It also makes the question of the succession moot. By precedent, the general secretary should serve two five-year terms. Mr Xi’s run out in 2022. Under the rules that used to govern Chinese politics, he would be expected to signal his choice of successor at a meeting of the Central Committee that is due to be held on October 25th. The candidate would normally be in the new Politburo Standing Committee, or inner sanctum of politics, that will be unveiled after the brief gathering. Rumours are rife that Wang Qishan, the chief graft-buster and close ally of Mr Xi, has been dropped from the Central Committee, and therefore will not be included in the new line-up. There had been speculation that Mr Xi might keep him in place, even though he has passed the normal retirement age of 68.
It is not clear how much it matters now who is chosen to succeed Mr Xi, or whether he has anyone in mind. With his name in the constitution, he must be the ultimate arbiter of authority as long as he is alive, since he—along with Marx, Lenin, Mao and Deng—defines what it is to be a good Chinese Communist.