On Wednesday this week, on a capacious stage in the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping unveiled the new Standing Committee of the Politburo: six men in addition to himself, of similar age, wearing almost identical suits. The only distinguishing feature in the line-up was that two of the successful candidates were wearing ties of a different colour to the prevailing red. It was the closing moment of a congress that has entrenched Xi Jinping in a position that more closely resembles the imperial son of heaven than the first-among-equals leader of a communist collective.
The moves completed last week had been widely rumoured. Even the Standing Committee list, normally the big reveal at the end of the quinquennial congress, had been leaked in its entirety to the South China Morning Post, now owned by the Alibaba tycoon, Jack Ma, a sign perhaps that XI’s path to total control had been well prepared.
Of all the changes confirmed at the congress, the incorporation of Xi’s “thought” into the party constitution is the most significant: it makes Xi’s word law, and it will remain the guiding direction of the party, by which all other ideas are judged, until such time as a new set of thoughts supersedes it, or the party no longer rules China. Neither is likely to materialise in the short term.
Xi has proclaimed a new “era” for the party and for the country. It is an era of heightened nationalism, of open assertion of Chinese interests in the world; of increased surveillance and tighter control of the national story at home. He is incorporated as a major historical figure in the story of the evolution of the People’s Republic of China: in the first era, the story now goes, Mao saved the country; in the second, Deng saved the economy; in the third, Xi is saving the party.
Although party chroniclers will struggle to weave this narrative into a single thread, this moment is also a rupture, most immediately with the legacy of Deng Xiaoping. Deng was an authoritarian, but one who advised the party to step back from its attempt to control all aspects of Chinese society and the economy, to allow…