By Jan Servaes*
BRUSSELS, 12 March 2023 (IDN) — As expected, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) clapped hands to confirm Xi Jinping’s third term as president.
In March 2018, Xi Jinping had already shaken up the Chinese political system through a constitutional amendment allowing him to remain in office indefinitely.
Without notice, he abolished the limit of two consecutive terms introduced by Deng Xiaoping. Deng wanted to ensure that China would never again be subject to a dictatorship like the one under Chairman Mao.
Xi Jinping was now called the most powerful man in the world on the Al Jazeera program Inside Story. And most Chinese will not argue with that.
Because in China’s system of governance, the functions of the president are largely ceremonial, Xi’s power comes mainly from his position as secretary general of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission. At the party congress last October, he was already handed over both positions.
Towards a “modern socialist society”
Under the title “A fresh beginning for a bright future,” the China Daily states: “China has resolutely fought against all odds, passed the political, economic, ideological and natural tests, won the battle against poverty and achieved the first centenary goal of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects on schedule, achieved a decisive victory against the COVID-19 pandemic, and made great achievements in socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era, and is on the way to achieving the second centenary goal of developing the country into a great modern socialist society that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful.”
The China Morning Post, published in Hong Kong, is a little more cautious. They say Xi has some major challenges ahead of him in his third term. The economy needs to get back on track as the population ages and birth rates fall, ‘Taiwan’ and rivalry with the US being cited as the main ones.
Western China watchers are adopting a more critical wait-and-see attitude. “The leader of China has overhauled the communist party by putting himself at the core and no one else has even a slight chance to challenge him,” the BBC said.
Xi is also caught between helping China’s strategic partner Russia in its invasion of Ukraine and restoring ties with Europe in order to revive the country’s economy, according to The Guardian.
It is also a question of who Xi will appoint in his ‘cabinet’. They are expected to be Xi Jinping loyalists. It doesn’t mean they aren’t qualified, but will they be willing to offer fearless and candid advice to the man who appointed them?
“On the one hand, this could mean that Xi can really get things done with his new leadership, but on the other hand, there is a danger that he will be trapped in an echo chamber,” a veteran businessman told the BBC.
The number two is known by now: Li Qiang. Li was President Xi’s chief of staff in the early 2000s, when Xi was party chief of Zhejiang province. In 2017, Li Qiang was appointed party secretary of Shanghai. He is thus a staunch ally of Xi, seen as a pragmatist and will be tasked with reviving China’s struggling economy.
Many were surprised when he was promoted to number two in the Communist Party’s pecking order because, as party boss of Shanghai, he is ‘credited’ with the disastrous two-month lockdown of China’s financial capital.
It wasn’t so much that there had been a lockdown, but how badly it was managed. Keeping delivery drivers at home meant that food and medicines could not be efficiently transported to the many millions of people confined to their homes.
There were serious food shortages and when deliveries did come through, residents posted pictures of the rotten vegetables they had to live on. They started to revolt against the zero-Covid approach, tearing down the fences in front of the residential areas and fighting with the guards…
Zero Covid; the hasty halt to zero-Covid based on widespread protests; the real estate crisis; high youth unemployment; and the massive damage to the service industry has tarnished his reputation. That’s why observers have wondered how the person responsible for this massive logistical failure could be tasked with running the entire country.
But other accomplishments from his past paint a different picture. For example, some in the business world saw him as an innovator who was able to circumvent the party’s rigidities. In 2019, Li Qiang succeeded in opening a free trade zone in Shanghai, following the successful Shenzhen, and bringing Tesla to Shanghai.
It was the company’s first factory outside the US and Elon Musk was allowed to set up his own venture, without the requirement to work with a Chinese partner, as other foreign car companies had to do.
Li Qiang is thus seen in some circles as a more liberal figure who is willing to bend the rules. According to the South China Morning Post, its impact will be mainly on economic and less on political policy. After all, the latter is determined by Xi Jinping.
Former vice premier Han Zheng was elected vice president, and Zhao Leji, the former chief of the party’s top anti-corruption committee, as parliamentary chairman. Both are members of China’s highest political decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee.
China as the most powerful country in the world?
Adrian Geiges, co-author of “Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World,” told Le Monde that he didn’t think Xi was motivated by a desire for personal enrichment, despite international media investigations revealing his family’s amassed wealth have revealed. “That’s not his interest,” Geiges said. “He really has a vision about China, he wants to see China as the most powerful country in the world.”
“We will see a China that is more assertive on the global stage and pushes for its narrative to be accepted,” Steve Tsang, director of London’s SOAS China Institute, told the French news agency AFP.
“But it is also one that will focus on making its homeland less dependent on the rest of the world, and making the Communist Party the center of governance, rather than the Chinese government,” he said. “It’s not a return to the Maoist era, but one where Maoists will feel comfortable,” Tsang added. “Not necessarily a direction that’s good for the rest of the world.”
*Jan Servaes is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change (https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-981-10-7035-8) and co-editor of SDG18 Communication for All, Volumes 1&2, 2023 (https://link.springer.com/book/9783031191411) [IDN-InDepthNews]
Image: Xi Jinping is unanimously elected president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the PRC at the third plenary meeting of the first session of the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, March 10, 2023. [Photo/Xinhua/Facebook]
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