A tourist takes a picture of a souvenir plate bearing an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing © Reuters

The Chinese Communist party confirmed Xi Jinping’s status as its most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong by formally writing his name into the party constitution.

At Tuesday’s close of a party congress in Beijing that formally marks the beginning of Mr Xi’s second five-year term as party general secretary, more than 2,300 delegates voted unanimously to include a reference to “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the document. 

Mr Xi is only the second Chinese Communist ruler after Mao, the party’s revolutionary ruler, to secure an eponymous reference in the constitution while still in power, in a historic break with the “consensus” leadership model that characterised elite party politics for the past quarter-century.

Deng Xiaoping’s “theory on socialism with Chinese characteristics”, an ideological prescription used to justify the embrace of market-oriented economic reforms in the 1980s, was formally entered into the party constitution only after Deng’s death in 1997.

Tuesday’s constitutional amendment elevates Mr Xi, who is also state president, to a status above that of his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, both of whom were picked by Deng as future party and state leaders.

Mr Jiang and Mr Hu each presided over the party’s most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee”, as a “first among equals” figure surrounded by powerful political rivals. 

The constitutional amendment will also take some of the suspense out of the announcement of Mr Xi’s new Politburo Standing Committee on Wednesday. While the president is still expected to stack the committee with his supporters, the amendment ensures that he will be regarded as the country’s paramount leader even after he has stepped down from office. 

Many analysts are also predicting that Mr Xi will not appoint any officials young enough to be considered a guaranteed successor to him as president — something that has not happened in 25 years. That could set the stage for Mr Xi to carry on as party head beyond 2022 when his second term as general secretary expires. 

“The amendment is indirect confirmation that he will stay on until 2027,” said Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 

In a marathon speech at the opening of the 19th party congress last week, Mr Xi declared that China had embarked on a “new era” as distinct as Mao’s three decades in power to 1976 and the subsequent reform-era overseen by Deng. 

Senior party leaders, congress delegates and state media subsequently began to parrot glowing praise of Mr Xi’s “thoughts”, paving the way for his name to be inscribed in the constitution.

Cai Qi, a Xi protégé and party boss of Beijing, said shortly after the president’s speech that Mr Xi enjoyed the “love and respect of the party, the army and the people [and] deserves to be called ‘wise leader’ ”.

With his dominant position now enshrined in the constitution, many people are waiting to see if Mr Xi will use his considerable political capital to carry out difficult economic and financial reforms and reduce the Chinese economy’s traditional reliance on debt-fuelled investment. 

“Xi has been so focused on consolidating his power that he has not really thought through too much on how to press on with economic rebalancing,” said Steve Tsang at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London.

Predecessor’s charter contributions

The charter of the Communist party of China goes to great lengths to demonstrate that the hallowed principles of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin have been built on and improved. Joining the pantheon is a mark of a leader’s prestige and legitimacy.

Mao Zedong, paramount leader 1949-76: Mao Zedong Thought

Mao upended Marxist orthodoxy by organising the peasantry in China’s vast countryside before turning to the urban proletariat. The master strategist also left behind a body of theoretical work.

Deng Xiaoping, 1978 to mid-1990s: Deng Xiaoping Theory

The pragmatic Deng focused on what worked in practice, rather than the destructive orthodoxy of Mao’s time. He ditched Marxist mantras such as price controls and state ownership to restore the Chinese economy — on its knees after 30 years of Mao’s rule — and keep the party in power.

Jiang Zemin, 1992-2002: Important Theory of the Three Represents

Mr Jiang further broke with communist orthodoxy by welcoming back into the party’s embrace business people, academics and public celebrities.

Hu Jintao, 2002-2012: The Scientific Outlook on Development

Mr Hu presided over a revival of the state sector and attempts to rebalance the enormous inequalities that had resulted from China’s breakneck pace of development following Deng’s reforms.

Additional reporting by Sherry Ju Fei, Archie Zhang and Xinning Liu

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