How President Xi Jinping’s rewriting of China’s past sets him up for indefinite rule

November 12, 2021, 10:11 AM UTC

Chinese President Xi Jinping appears set to rule China for the foreseeable future now that he has cemented his status as a central figure in its past.

On Thursday, a meeting of top leaders in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopted a resolution that rewrote the CCP’s official 100-year history to prominently feature current President Xi alongside former leaders Mao Zedong, the founder of modern-day China, and Deng Xiaoping, who reformed China’s economy and opened it up to the world.

“The Central Committee calls upon the entire Party, the military, and all Chinese people to rally more closely around the Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core,” the CCP Central Committee wrote in a communiqué about the meeting.

Xinhua, China’s official state-run newswire, called the announcement a “landmark resolution” documenting “major achievements” in the CCP’s 100-year history. Leading up to the event, state-run news outlets flooded Chinese newspapers and airwaves with fawning coverage of Xi’s rule, publishing profiles about how he has transformed China into a strong global force since assuming power in 2012.   

The document does not explicitly say that Xi will rule China indefinitely. But the rare resolution, as well as clues in the text that elevated Xi’s role in China’s history, make experts confident that China’s government is paving the way for Xi to assume a rare third five-year term as China’s leader at a critical meeting next year.  

A rewriting of history

The CCP’s Central Committee is composed of nearly 400 of China’s top political officials, and is the country’s third most powerful organization in CCP politics behind the 25-person Politburo and a seven-person Politburo Standing Committee.

The Central Committee has a broad mandate to discuss, vote on, and implement national policy, with each session focusing on different elements of Chinese policy such as appointing ministers, enacting economic reforms, or laying out future plans. The body convenes seven closed-door plenums—the name of the secretive meetings modeled after Soviet Russia’s system—in each five-year presidential term.

At the third plenum of Xi’s second term in 2018, the Central Committee proposed officially abolishing presidential term limits, which previously limited presidents to serving two consecutive terms, and opening the door for Xi to assume control of China beyond 2022. China’s National People’s Congress, the nation’s rubber-stamp legislature, officially struck term limits from China’s constitution weeks later.

In this week’s sixth plenum, the Central Committee made a similarly audacious decision to adopt a resolution aimed at rewriting Chinese history.

Alfred Wu, a professor of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, says that historical resolutions like the one the Central Committee adopted this week have only been proposed twice in China’s history—once by Mao in 1945 to tighten his grip as leader of the party and once by Deng in 1981 to deviate from Mao’s rule and chart a new economic course for the country.

This week’s resolution sought to convey the idea that Mao founded the country, Deng made it rich, and Xi “made it strong,” says Wu. “This document is clearly trying to lay the foundation for Xi Jinping to continue his term.”

The document attached Xi’s name to the era of Chinese politics he presides over, which is referred to as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” Mao’s and Deng’s names were attached to the eras when they led China. Meanwhile, less powerful presidents like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao do not have their names attached to the eras in which they led the country.

Such details matter in China’s notoriously opaque and rigid political system, notes Wu.

“In Chinese political documents, even [the length of] paragraphs are quite important,” says Wu. In the document, Mao, Deng, and Xi were each given lengthy descriptions of how they contributed to the country, while Jiang and Hu had short paragraphs describing their terms. “When the resolution is talking about Xi Jinping it’s very, very long paragraphs…It’s very clear he is being positioned as a landmark in [China’s] history and the CCP’s history.”

What happens now?

In coming days, China is set to release a more comprehensive document outlining a history of China’s CCP, which is likely to include more signs of Xi’s growing power.

Observers will closely read the document to see if Xi’s ideas, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” will be shortened to simply “Xi Jinping Thought.”

Condensing the language will indicate Xi’s consolidated grasp on power. In the annals of CCP history, only “Mao Zedong Thought” and “Deng Xiaoping Theory” were afforded the privilege of concise phrases, which signaled their importance in guiding China. For now, Xi’s era is referred to with a longer phrase.

The Central Committee will also meet for a seventh and final time in Xi’s second term before the party’s scheduled National Congress in 2022. In Xi’s first five-year term, the seventh plenum took place one week before the National Congress met, and Wu says he expects the seventh meeting to be a largely administrative affair leading up to the party anointing Xi with another term. The CCP’s National Congress meeting is expected to be held in October or November of next year.

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories delivered straight to your inbox each morning.

Read More

ChinaIndiaSupply ChainsCybersecurityUkraine Invasion