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Xi Jinping secures historic third term as leader of China

HONG KONG — Xi Jinping secured a historic third term as leader of China on Sunday, cementing his status as the country’s most powerful figure in decades and extending his authoritarian rule over the world’s second-largest economy. 

Xi’s third five-year term became official when he was first to walk out on stage at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where a twice-a-decade congress of the ruling Chinese Communist Party wrapped up on Saturday. He was followed in descending order of rank by the six other members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top leadership body.

Xi is breaking with tradition by remaining in office, having amended the Chinese Constitution in 2018 to remove the two-term limit on the presidency. The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the limit in 1982 to prevent a return to a Mao-style cult of personality. 

Here are some takeaways from the weeklong party congress:

Centralized power

The Chinese political system is structured around Xi, 69, who heads the state, the military and — most importantly — the Chinese Communist Party. Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has tightened the party’s grip on the state and society, sidelined political rivals and stamped out dissent.

Over the years, Xi — whom the party named a “core” leader in 2016, putting him on par with Mao and Deng — has increasingly surrounded himself with people unlikely to challenge him or his policies.

“What we’re starting to see is sort of an undermining of a lot of the rules, both formal and informal, that were put in place by his predecessors in favor of him getting his allies into the top jobs,” said James Gethyn Evans, communications officer at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard.

The trend continued Sunday, when the makeup of the new Politburo Standing Committee was revealed. Xi allies Li Qiang, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi joined current members Wang Huning and Zhao Leji to form Xi’s inner circle.

Li Qiang, who as party secretary of Shanghai oversaw the city’s devastating two-month Covid lockdown last spring, came out immediately behind Xi, indicating that he will succeed Premier Li Keqiang as China’s No. 2 official.

There is no obvious successor among the members of the Standing Committee, who are all men in their 60s, in a sign that Xi could be eyeing a fourth term as well.

Xi’s tightened control was already apparent as the highly choreographed congress came to a close on Saturday, with about 2,300 delegates unanimously approving work reports as well as amendments to the party charter that could further increase Xi’s authority.

They also elected a 205-member Central Committee that is stacked with Xi loyalists and no longer includes more moderate leaders like Li Keqiang, the departing premier, and former Vice Premier Wang Yang. Both men had been members of the previous Politburo Standing Committee, which along with the broader Politburo is nominally elected from among the Central Committee membership.

In a moment of unexpected drama Saturday morning, former President Hu Jintao, who had been sitting next to Xi, was escorted out of the hall without explanation shortly after foreign journalists came in. On his way out, Hu, 79, put his hand on Li’s shoulder.

Taiwan remains a flashpoint

Xi’s speech opening the congress on Oct. 16 did not contain any escalation of rhetoric around Taiwan, the self-ruling island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory. The Chinese leader reiterated the goal of peaceful “reunification,” without renouncing the possible use of force.

“Xi has promised essentially more of the same on Taiwan,” Wen-Ti Sung, a Taipei-based expert on U.S.-China-Taiwan relations at the Australian National University, said by email. “Xi still promises no specific timeline on unification.”

But the Chinese leader did put greater emphasis on warning “external forces” to stay out of the Taiwan issue. 

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s contentious visit to the island in August has changed Washington’s relationship with both China and Taiwan, said Lev Nachman, an assistant professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. 

“There has kind of been a reset of tone,” he said, “and I think that’s going to not just keep Taiwan in the conversation, but keep it front and center.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, TaiwanU.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei in August.Chien Chih-Hung / Office of The President via Getty Images file

Though there is always the risk of a Taiwan conflict being set off by accident, Nachman said China is unlikely to make a calculated decision to invade anytime soon as it deals with pressing domestic matters like an economic slowdown and growing public frustration with Xi’s strict “zero-Covid” policy.

Nonetheless, Taiwan is very much on the minds of the Chinese leadership, Evans said.

“Xi Jinping has repeatedly said Taiwan’s future is with China,” he said, “and hard-liners within the regime will be pushing for a firmer stance on Taiwan as time goes on.”

International tensions

Growing China-U.S. tensions are based in part on the conviction among many officials that America, as its power is perceived to be waning internationally, is trying to undermine China’s rise on the world stage.  

So as China has grown more powerful under Xi, it has also become more assertive in defending its interests and promoting its values abroad. That was underlined last week when a scuffle broke out during a protest outside the Chinese Consulate in Manchester, England, with one protester being dragged inside the consulate grounds and “assaulted,” according to local police. (Chinese officials dispute the account.)

At a news conference in Beijing on Thursday, China’s vice foreign minister, Ma Zhaoxu, said that his country’s diplomacy would “continue to display fighting spirit.”

At the United Nations and other global bodies, countries have often been caught in the middle as China and the U.S.-led West clash over the erosion of civil liberties in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region and Russia’s war in Ukraine, as well as economic issues. A U.S. ban imposed this month on the sale of advanced computer chips to China could constrain countries all over the world.

Developing countries, in particular, will find it increasingly tricky to avoid choosing a side, Evans said.

“It’ll be either through pressure from the U.S. or from China very much a case of ‘You’re either with us or you’re against us,’” he said.

A telecast of Chinese President Xi Jinping plays on a screen in a street in Hong KongA telecast of Chinese President Xi Jinping plays on a screen in Hong Kong on Monday.Isaac Lawrence / AFP via Getty Images file

Where are the women?

In his speech opening the party congress on Oct. 16, Xi said he remained “committed to the fundamental national policy of gender equality.” But only 11 of the new Central Committee’s 205 members are women, and there is not a single woman in the new 24-member Politburo. (The previous Politburo’s only female member, Sun Chunlan, retired at 72.)

The gender disparity cuts through multiple levels of Chinese politics. Only about a third of the Chinese Communist Party’s 96 million members are women, and just a handful of women have ever served on the Politburo, according to a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. No woman has ever served on the Politburo Standing Committee.

“Politics is traditionally regarded as a male-dominated profession,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington. “And if you look at 5,000 years of Chinese history, there was only one female empress or female emperor, and she was regarded as an anomaly.”

China’s lack of female representation comes down to women not moving high enough on the political ladder to be considered for top positions, said Rui Zhong, program associate at the Wilson Center in Washington. Women who rise to the vice premier level tend to be given “softer” responsibilities like health, education and sports.

But having more women in leadership wouldn’t necessarily change the situation for women in China, where the government has cracked down on feminist activism and encouraged women to embrace more traditional roles. 

“At the end of the day, it all goes through Xi Jinping,” Zhong said.

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