Powerful Xi opens party congress

Leader to project himself as indispensable

By CHRIS BUCKLEY in Beijing
  • Published 19.10.17
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Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday. (AFP)

Beijing: When Xi Jinping strode out in the Great Hall of the People five years ago as China's new leader, his tight smile barely hid the atmosphere of smouldering crisis.

The Communist Party elite had been battered by infighting and scandals involving power grabs, bribery and even murder. Military commanders and state security chieftains - the guardians of one-party rule - had grown grossly corrupt. Critics openly accused Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, of dithering as popular ire spread.

Today, Xi opened another Communist Party congress, this time as the nation's most powerful leader in decades, all but certain to receive a second five-year term. And after spending his first term tightening control on society, he is expected to enshrine his authoritarian vision for revitalising the party - and perhaps position himself as indispensable to its survival.

"Currently, conditions domestically and abroad are undergoing deep and complicated changes," Xi told some 2,300 party delegates and other dignitaries assembled in the Great Hall. "Our country is in an important period of strategic opportunity in its development," he said in a calm, steady voice. "The outlook is extremely bright; the challenges are also extremely grim."

With his two most recent predecessors as Chinese leader, Hu and 91-year-old Jiang Zemin, in attendance, Xi told his audience that under him Chinese socialism was entering a "new era".

Since taking power in 1949, the party has reinvented itself at critical moments to survive - after Mao Zedong's death and following the Tiananmen massacre, for example. Xi, 64, contends that it faces one of those moments now, even as it moves closer to surpassing its Soviet brethren as the longest-ruling Communist Party in history.

In his speech, Xi referred repeatedly to social tensions unleashed by economic inequality, pollution and inadequate access to health care, schools and housing.

"Party leaders always feel peril close at hand, especially Xi, and that has not gone away," said Deng Yuwen, a former editor with a Communist Party journal who now writes current affairs commentaries. "For him, this hardline, centralised style of rule is the solution and must be consolidated."

While Mao promoted class struggle and Deng Xiaoping embraced pragmatic capitalism, Xi's vision of the party's rule centres on restoring China to greatness - what he calls the "China Dream" - and it draws on both the fervent dedication of Mao's era and the glories of China's traditional culture that Mao tried to destroy.

In practice, that has meant a campaign to impose greater discipline in the party's ranks.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE