In January 2013, months after taking the helm of China’s ruling party, Xi Jinping gathered the country’s top politicians and asked them why the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had collapsed.
Xi, of course, already had the answer.
“It completely denied Soviet history, the history of the Soviet Communist Party, denied Lenin, denied Stalin,” he said. “Party organizations at all levels had almost no effect, and the army was not there.”
Nine years later, none of the above apply to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
As general secretary, Xi has returned the CCP to the center of Chinese life. Citizens celebrate the party’s much-edited history en masse at packed Red tourism sites, its founder Mao Zedong enjoys a new reverence, and once-dormant grassroots party cells have been revitalized. Since 2015, Xi has embarked on a widespread program of military reforms and modernization.
But as Xi moved to consolidated the party’s power, he took great lengths to guarantee his own.
He has axed the two-term limit on the Chinese presidency, introduced in 1982 to prevent the rise of a dictatorship, accumulated more titles than any CCP leader in recent decades, and created his own eponymous ideology, instilled in the party constitution.
Now experts in elite Chinese politics are warning that in trying to revitalize the CCP, Xi conflated himself with the party so totally he created another threat to its existence: himself.
Cai Xia, a former professor at the top training school for CCP officials, who now lives abroad and is a staunch party critic, said by concentrating power Xi had “killed the party as an organization.” Its 95 million members, she said, are “slaves of his will.”
When Xi laid a wreath before a bronze statue of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, in Shenzhen, weeks after assuming office in November 2012, to many the message was obvious.
The southern manufacturing powerhouse was where Deng had famously pioneered China’s era of economic reform up in the late 1970s. Xi, pundits predicted, was offering a sign of things to come.
After all, his late father, Xi Zhongxun, had been a revolutionary veteran and liberal-minded leader. After being persecuted and jailed during the Cultural Revolution, Xi Zhongxun was handpicked by Deng to govern Guangdong province and oversee the creation of Shenzhen as a special economic zone. Many observers expected Xi to follow in his father’s footsteps.
They were all wrong. It soon turned out Xi had a very different kind of reform in mind – one that would put the party and country on a significantly different path from the one set out on by Deng.
When Xi took office, outwardly China seemed stronger than it had been for decades. It had joined the World Trade Organization, held the 2008 Beijing Olympics and overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest economy.
From the inside, Xi saw a party beset by weak leadership, intense infighting, rampant corruption, lax discipline and faltering faith. “Xi came to power in the face of fragmentation of power within the party,” said Cai, a former professor at the Central Party School in Beijing.
Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was widely seen as a weak leader. That, combined with the collective leadership style installed after Mao, had allowed the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee – the party’s innermost circle – to each cultivate their own turf of unrivaled power. The result was difficult decision-making processes and serious infighting, with factions vying for their own interests, Cai said.
Xi’s solution was simple – and radical. He opted for a return to one-man rule. “He used the wrong way to solve the original problem, and made things worse,” Cai said.
Soon after he came into office, Xi unleashed a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, which not only targeted corrupt officials, but also his political enemies. He oversaw the spectacular downfall of powerful figures such as Zhou Yongkang, a former Politiburo Standing Committee member and security czar who was jailed for life, and Xu Caihou, a top army general who died of cancer after being expelled from the party. In less than nine years, 392 senior officials and millions of party cadres have been investigated. Those left knew total loyalty was required for survival.
To further concentrate power into his own hands, Xi set up more than a dozen “central leading groups” to oversee important policy areas, including military reform, cybersecurity, finance and foreign policy. A relic from the Mao era, these informal bodies are secretive, and almost never publicize full lists of their members. From what’s been revealed in state media reports, Xi personally heads at least seven of them, a