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How Xi Jinping made himself unchallengeable

Few foresaw that Xi Jinping would become the most assertive Chinese leader in decades – he is now all but set to secure a historic third term in power.

A decade ago little was known about Mr Xi – apart from the fact that he was a “princeling” because his father was one of the country’s revolutionary leaders.

His lineage helped him win the support of party elders, which was crucial to ascending power within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as these leaders often wielded political influence even after retirement.

“Before his elevation, Xi Jinping was regarded as someone who could compromise with everyone,” said Joseph Fewsmith, an expert in Chinese elite politics at Boston University.

But 10 years on, Mr Xi’s authority appears to be unquestionable, and his power unrivalled. How did that happen?

The barrel of a gun

Mao Zedong, the founding father of Communist China, once famously said: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao ensured it was the party, not the state, which controlled the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Since then, the CCP leader has also been Central Military Commission (CMC) chairman.

Mr Xi was luckier than his predecessor Hu Jintao because he became the CMC chairman instantly – and wasted no time in weeding out opposition within the armed forces.

illustrtion of xi with troops

The most shocking episode came in 2014 and 2015, when former CMC Vice Chairman Xu Caihou and former PLA General Guo Boxiong were accused of corruption.

“They were already retired when the axe fell, but Xi’s ability to target them reduced the former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s lingering influence in the PLA,” said Joel Wuthnow, a senior fellow at the Pentagon-funded National Defense University.

“It also sent a powerful signal to current serving military officers that no one who resists Xi’s control is immune from harm,” he added.

In 2015, Mr Xi also overhauled the structure of the military. He abolished the four military headquarters – staff, politics, logistics and armaments – and replaced them with 15 smaller agencies.

The new structure allows the CMC to issue orders directly to the various branches of the military – extending as far as even financial auditors, who now have to report directly to the CMC, adds Mr Wuthnow.

Above all this is the insistence upon absolute loyalty to Mr Xi – something that is still being reiterated.

Last month the People’s Liberation Army Daily, the country’s official military newspaper, published an article emphasising that the CMC is in overall command.

“The message helps counteract any tendency that might develop in the military to build loyalty towards senior PLA leaders who might someday oppose Xi,” said Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher at US think tank RAND corporation.

“Loyalty to the party means the PLA is expected to carry out any and all orders to keep the party, and Xi in particular, in power.”

Loyalty comes first

After securing the gun barrel, it is essential to bring the knife – the internal security apparatus – under total control.

Two years after Mr Xi came to power, authorities confirmed the arrest of a “tiger”, former domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang, for corruption. He was closely linked with Bo Xilai, another “princeling” who was a rival of Mr Xi’s.

The investigation sent political shockwaves as it shattered the unspoken rule that members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful decision-making body, would not be subject to criminal punishment.

“Xi Jinping turned out to be a ruthlessly brilliant politician who patiently rose through the system before seizing his moment to rule,” said Neil Thomas, a senior China analyst of Eurasia Group.

“The communist party elders who supported Xi’s rise were likely surprised by the speed and scale of his power grab.”

Xi and loyal officials

Observers say Mr Xi’s signature anti-corruption campaign is also used to remove his political rivals and other factions within the party.

In the past decade, more than 4.7 million people have been investigated by anti-corruption authorities.

“In the last two years, Xi further purged career security officials who supported his rise to power in the first place,” said Victor Shih, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego.

“Now the security agencies are run almost exclusively by officials who shared a past history with Xi and who are presumably trusted by him.”

Mr Xi has also stacked his loyalists at important regional posts, such as the party secretaries of key cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing.

These positions are important because they are responsible for “interpreting and implementing central directives in localities with millions of people”, said Mr Thomas.

At least 24 of the 31 provincial-level party secretaries are political associates of Xi, having previously known his family, studied with him, worked under him, or worked for one of his close allies, Mr Thomas says.

Meanwhile nearly all of the 281 standing committee members in provincial standing committees were promoted by Mr Xi, according to data compiled by Wu Guoguang, a politics professor at the University of Victoria in Canada.

Crafting a personal brand

In 2018 “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” was enshrined in China’s constitution.

It may sound like a mouthful, but having an ideology named after him was something that cemented Mr Xi’s legacy.

Before Mr Xi, only Chairman Mao achieved this. Even Deng Xiaoping, known as the architect of China’s modernisation, only had a “theory” under his name, while Mr Xi’s immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, did not have any thought or theories attached to their names.

It’s debatable what exactly Xi Jinping Thought means, but that’s not the point, analysts say – it’s a power move.

“Xi’s thought is aimed primarily at strengthening Xi’s own legitimacy and power above anyone else in the CCP and the country. It is part of a new personality cult that links up Xi not only to Mao but to the most glorious and successful Chinese emperors of yesteryear,” says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an emeritus professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Dozens of universities and institutions, including the prestigious Peking University and Tsinghua University, have set up research centres under Mr Xi’s names, according to Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao.

Illustration of people looking at phone

In August, the Ministry of Education unveiled a plan to promote Xi Jinping Thought in the national curriculum.

In 2019, a mobile app called Xuexi Qiangguo – literally translated into “Learn from Xi, Strengthen the country” – that includes quizzes on Xi Jinping Thought was launched.

Mr Xi believes “he has the correct ideology, and everybody must accept it,” says Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University.

“Whenever Mao took a policy position, everybody else had to fall in line, and that is also true of Xi.”

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