When the People’s Republic of China celebrates its 73rd National Day on Saturday, the country will take a back seat to the Communist party and the man who has dominated it for the past decade: President Xi Jinping.
The anniversary marks the beginning of what will be almost a full month of patriotic pageantry, culminating with Xi’s unprecedented appointment to a third term as party general secretary and head of the Chinese military at a quinquennial party congress scheduled to open on October 16.
Xi’s reappointment as head of state will not be rubber-stamped until China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, meets for its next annual session in March.
His celebratory tour began on Tuesday as he led the other six members of the party’s most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee, through an exhibition touting China’s “new era achievements” over his first two terms.
It was the president’s first public appearance since he attended a regional security summit and met Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, on September 15 in Uzbekistan. The rare absence roughly coincided with the 10-day quarantine and observation period that Xi’s contentious zero-Covid policy requires of arrivals from overseas.
The exhibition is the latest salvo in a long-running propaganda campaign that has laid out the argument for Xi to rule for life if he chooses.
At the last party congress in October 2017, Xi did not appoint an obvious successor and the constitution was subsequently amended by the NPC to allow him to serve three or more terms as president. Xi’s more important party and military posts have never been subject to term limits.
Wang Huning, the party’s fifth-highest ranking official, set the tone for the next month when opening Tuesday’s exhibition. “The fundamental reason why historic achievements and historic shifts have been made in the cause of the party and the country is the helmsmanship and leadership of Xi Jinping,” Wang was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.
State media broadcasts showed Wang and the other PSC members trailing Xi at a safe social distance through the exhibition hall. After they finished, hundreds of other senior party, military, parliamentary and judicial officials were shown dutifully following in their footsteps.
Two of Xi’s fellow PSC members are expected to step down at the party congress because of an unofficial rule that people aged 68 or older cannot be reappointed to the committee. Xi could further strengthen his grip at the top by lowering that limit to 67 — a move that would force another three members to stand down, including Premier Li Keqiang.
There has also been speculation that Xi might revive and assume the title of party chair, held for 33 years by Mao Zedong, the party’s revolutionary hero and the president’s political idol.
Before Xi’s appointment as head of the party, military and state in late 2012 and early 2013, Li was seen as his main rival for the three jobs. In the run-up to this month’s congress, many of Xi’s critics at home and abroad had hoped that Li might help roll back his boss’s most controversial policies, including zero-Covid, which is expected to drag economic growth down to less than 3 per cent this year.
But Li, who has been comprehensively sidelined by Xi, has not risen to the occasion. “Li is not a fighter,” said Lance Gore, a Sinologist at the National University of Singapore. “He may disagree with a lot of Xi’s policies and would like more economic liberalisation, but he’s also a loyal Communist party member.”
Before the re-centralisation of party power that has defined Xi’s first two terms in office, there was greater tolerance for a more formal separation of government and party functions, as well as a more “collective” party leadership ethos that constrained the power of former general secretaries Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.
However, one senior party official argued that the clearer separation of party and state was “an artificial division” that hindered the party’s ability to rule effectively.
The CCP always reasserted its dominance in times of crisis, as demonstrated most dramatically by the decision of Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, to order the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989.
Apart from removing term limits on the presidency, Xi’s constitutional revisions also strengthened the assertion that the country operates “under the leadership of the Chinese Communist party” — a Catch-22 that the CCP believes entitles it to criminalise “anti-party” speech, protests and other constitutionally enshrined civil rights.
“In theory, everything [the party does] is done in accordance with law,” said Jerry Cohen, a China law expert at New York University.
“In practice, the party acts lawlessly whenever it wishes,” Cohen added, citing the prolonged extrajudicial detentions of dissidents such as Gao Zhisheng, a prominent rights lawyer who disappeared into the Chinese party state’s opaque legal system in 2009.
“Human rights and democracy are enshrined in the Chinese constitution,” said Steve Tsang, head of the China Institute at Soas in London. “But the only correct way to ‘uphold’ them is to follow the interpretation of the party since any attempt to question the party’s interpretation will be deemed as violating ‘the rule of law’.
“It is rule of law with Chinese characteristics. I don’t think Xi sees a contradiction in the way that we do.”