On his first trip as the Chinese Communist party’s newly installed general secretary, Xi Jinping travelled to the southern city of Shenzhen in December 2012 and laid a wreath at a larger-than-life bronze statue of Deng Xiaoping.
Mr Xi’s homage to Deng, who used Shenzhen as a test-bed for his historic economic reforms, appeared to signal continuity with the policies of modern China’s founding father. “The Communist party must stick to the correct path of reform and opening up,” Mr Xi said. “We must be unwavering on the road to a prosperous country and people.”
As Mr Xi prepares to preside over a party congress starting on Wednesdaythat will mark the start of his second term in office, the question is whether China’s leader intends to use his power to continue the Deng legacy of “opening up” or whether he will instead pursue a narrower agenda of defending the position of the ruling party and his own allies.
The president’s supporters argue that his ruthless anti-corruption campaign and more muscular defence of the country’s territorial claims enjoy popular support, which has allowed him to accrue vital political capital. For his first term, Mr Xi was largely surrounded by men and women groomed by his predecessors. But with his “A-team” in place after this party congress, the argument goes, he will finally begin to deliver on difficult economic and financial challenges.
Yet Mr Xi has also signalled that he intends to loom over a new period in China’s modern history distinct from the ones defined by Deng and Mao Zedong, the party’s revolutionary leader. “Mao beat the foreign invaders and Deng ended hunger,” says Li Xiguang, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University and a Xi admirer. “Xi talks about having confidence in our [political and economic] system . . . it’s a total breakthrough.”
Three to watch: The ruling generation
Li Keqiang, 62
Politburo Standing Committee member
China’s premier ranks number 2 in the Chinese Communist party hierarchy, but has been so overshadowed by Xi Jinping in recent years that there have been persistent rumours that he may be sidelined at this week’s party congress.
Wang Qishan, 69
Politburo Standing Committee member
The head of Mr Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is widely recognised as China’s second most powerful figure after the president, but is now older than the unofficial party retirement age. However many hope he will retain his seat on the standing committee regardless, possibly as premier.
Li Zhanshu, 67
The director of the Central Committee’s general office effectively acts as Mr Xi’s chief of staff. The Chinese president once sent Mr Li to Moscow to act on his behalf in meetings with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The two first met as young officials in Hebei province in the early 1980s.
In one big departure from the Deng era, Mr Xi has deliberately blurred the division of labour Deng drew between the Communist party and the Chinese state, while also halting or reversing a range of financial and economic reforms as soon as they encountered turbulence.
This has inspired grumbles in Beijing that Mr Xi has proved himself a master of the party’s internal power dynamics, purging his rivals and cowing others. But when it comes to using his accumulated power to push through difficult reforms, as Deng did, the president’s critics argue that he is a paper tiger.
“Xi knows, like Machiavelli said, that it is better to be feared than loved,” says one person who advises Chinese policymakers but is wary of the authoritarian turn the country has taken. “Yet as a strategist Xi is much smaller than Mao and Deng in every respect. Deng rarely — and Mao never — took charge of everything. They only took charge of the big things. Xi Jinping takes everything, big and small, in his own hands.
“Mao and Deng paid attention to substance first,” the person adds. “Xi worries about appearance. When Mao and Deng made their minds up, they would stick with it because it can take years to see the real effects of your struggle.”
Visitors at an exhibition to celebrate achievements under five years of Xi Jinping’s leadership at the Beijing Exhibition Hall © AP
Mr Xi’s ambitions will be laid bare at this week’s 19th Party Congress, where he will be nominated for a second term as general secretary. Mr Xi’s second term as state president will not formally begin until March, when his government appointment is rubber-stamped at the annual session of parliament.
In a political ritual whose secrecy is rivalled only by that surrounding the selection of a new Pope, after about a week of deliberations Mr Xi and his new leadership team will walk on to a stage and stand before the world’s media.
Even the number of seats on Mr Xi’s new Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s most powerful body, will not be known until the last minute. Moments before the previous standing committee performed this ritual in 2012, the only clue that it had been shrunk from nine seats to seven were the seven small pieces of tape that marked where the new members were supposed to stand.
When they did emerge, six of the seven men, including Mr Xi, were dressed in dark suits and red ties. Only Wang Qishan, the powerful head of Mr Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, broke the identikit uniform by wearing a blue tie.
Mr Xi’s dominance is such that, as Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, says, “guessing who will be on the next standing committee is in a sense irrelevant — everyone will be Xi’s man. No one except Xi is indispensable.”
The one possible exception to the widespread perception that “only Xi matters” is Mr Wang, who is also the party’s most accomplished financial technocrat. Now 69, his reappointment to the Politburo Standing Committee — and possible elevation to premier, replacing Li Keqiang — would be widely welcomed by reformist officials and the private sector as a sign of Mr Xi’s determination to deliver economic reforms.
“Everybody hopes Wang will stay on and it seems like he’s more in than out at the moment,” says one senior Chinese business executive in Beijing. “But only Xi knows.” According to an informal convention enforced since 2002, cadres aged 68 or older are ineligible for reappointment to party positions. If Mr Xi breaks with convention by retaining Mr Wang, the precedent could potentially allow him to serve a third term as party general secretary from 2022 to 2027.
Mr Wang has recently met a number of international dignitaries, including Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong and former US presidential adviser Steve Bannon, stoking speculation that he is not about to step down.
Three to watch: The next generation of leaders?
Chen Min’er, 57
Central Committee member
Many believe the recently appointed party boss of Chongqing is one of the few senior officials regarded by Mr Xi as a possible future president. He is likely to be one of the youngest members of the new politburo.
Wang Yang, 62
Mr Wang was a surprise addition to the politburo in 2007, when he was just 52, but failed to advance to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012. Also a vice premier, he is the Chinese government’s point person for annual strategic and economic negotiations with the US.
Cai Qi, 61
Worked under Mr Xi in Zhejiang province and is known in Chinese politics as a fast-rising “helicopter”. He was recently appointed party boss of Beijing despite not being a member of the central committee. Mr Cai previously ran the general office of Mr Xi’s National Security Commission.
This week’s party congress is expected to enshrine “Xi Jinping Thought” in the party’s constitution, which would be only the third “named” addition alongside Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory. The congress will also fill the party’s central committee (traditionally comprising about 200 members), politburo (25 members) and its standing committee with Xi loyalists.
If Mr Xi’s name is written into the party constitution alongside Mao and Deng’s, it will further strengthen his hand, just a year after he was officially designated China’s “core leader”. Earlier in 2016, he also added the title “commander-in-chief” of China’s armed forces, a position that had not formally existed since 1954.
But such aggrandisement is seen by some as a sign of weakness rather than strength. Deng made just this point in a 1980 speech on the relationship between party and state. “Over-concentration of power is liable to give rise to arbitrary rule by individuals at the expense of the collective leadership.”
More on China’s 19th Party Congress
Deng was secure enough in power that he dominated Chinese politics through the mid and late-1980s while having only one formal position — chairman of the party’s central military commission that oversees the People’s Liberation Army.
Deng’s reign continued into the next decade without even this one formal title. In 1992 he revived his own economic reform programme, which had stalled after he ordered the PLA to crush the Tiananmen Square student protests in 1989. The Deng statue that Mr Xi visited in December 2012 was erected in memory of the late leader’s now-famous “southern tour” of cities including Shenzhen and Shanghai.
Jude Blanchette, an analyst at The Conference Board who is writing a book on modern Chinese politics, argues that Mr Xi’s eagerness to blur clear boundaries between the Communist party and Chinese state is “a direct rebuke to [Deng’s] idea of political reform”.
Mr Xi has, for example, reduced his premier and the State Council’s traditional authority over the economy by taking charge of “party leading groups” that have been micromanaging economic and financial policy since 2015, when Mr Li, the premier, ordered a chaotic rescue of China’s crashing stock markets.
According to two people close to the internal policy debate at the time, officials in Mr Xi’s leading groups believed the State Council’s market intervention would ultimately backfire and allow them to assert more power.
One government official says he now worries that Mr Li is widely regarded as “the weakest premier in the history of the People’s Republic of China”.
The National People’s Congress meets in the Great Hall of the People and is the largest legislative assembly in the world © EPA
In contrast to the risky but ultimately successful reforms unleashed by Deng, since 2013 Mr Xi has reversed a number of hard-won financial liberalisations at the first sign of instability, notably after the 2015 market crash and a run on China’s currency in early 2016. More recently, his administration has cracked down on overseas direct investments by large state-owned enterprises and private-sector groups, which had been encouraged to “go out” by Beijing.
This has disappointed some officials who feel that Mr Xi has not followed through on the pro-reform rhetoric of both a landmark party policy document in November 2013, which declared that the market should play a “decisive role” in the economy, and his defence of an open global trading regime at the Davos World Economic Forum in January.
In its most recent assessment of China, the International Monetary Fund reviewed the Xi administration’s record on 14 challenges related to reducing corporate debt and financial risk, relaxing foreign exchange controls and reforming China’s state-owned enterprises. The IMF concluded that Mr Xi had achieved only “some” or “limited” progress in 12 of these areas.
Mr Xi has focused on merging big SOEs into even bigger ones, further consolidating their grip on the world’s second-largest economy. And rather than truly opening state-dominated sectors, private companies have instead been encouraged to take only minority stakes in a handful of SOEs and state-led infrastructure projects.
“The critical questions are whether Xi will be able or willing to use [his] accumulated power effectively and to what purpose,” Tony Saich, an expert on the Chinese leadership at Harvard University, wrote in a recent paper.
A display of the five “major development concepts” of the current Chinese leadership: ‘Innovation, Co-ordination, Green, Openness and Sharing’ © Reuters
As an indication of Mr Xi’s determination to see through reforms, his defenders point to a series of key appointments at China’s banking and securities regulators as well as the National Development and Reform Commission. Some are men the president previously worked with in provincial postings. Others are well-respected protégés of Zhu Rongji, the former premier who negotiated China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organisation and oversaw an overhaul of SOEs and banks.
“It is not easy to establish yourself as ‘the core’ of the party,” says one senior government official, arguing that Mr Xi had to consolidate power and restore confidence in the strength of China’s party-state system before tackling potentially destabilising reforms.
“We draw lessons from our own reference points,” the official adds. “China does best under strong central government, a strong leader and a unifying ideology. Then the country prospers.”
Reflecting this, Mr Xi has embraced a “confidence doctrine” that takes pride in the Chinese party-state’s unique political economy. US president Donald Trump’s chaotic start in office and the ructions from Britain’s decision to leave the EU have both given Beijing unprecedented faith in its political system and economic development model.
“Xi has problems to deal with but look at the US,” says Prof Shi at Renmin University. “Their president is crazy, Congress divisive and people divided, [while] Europe has a solvency problem. Xi believes China will continue to be vigorous, strong and rising. He has great hope that by the end of his tenure, China’s national resurgence can be fundamentally realised.”