China’s New Helmsman

Where Xi Jinping Will Take the Middle Kingdom Next

Chinese President Xi Jinping (front row, center) and fellow delegates stand for the national anthem during the closing session of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, October 24, 2017. Thomas Peter / Reuters

When Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world in the 1980s, the awe-inspiring economic growth he unleashed canonized him both within the Chinese Communist Party and the country’s history. But four decades of remarkable growth eventually slowed, weighted down by rampant corruption, widespread anger toward environmental pollution, and a social fabric torn by the stress of capitalistic life. It was only a matter of time before a leader would come around to challenge Deng’s formidable legacy.

At China’s 19th Party Congress last week, that challenger arrived. President Xi Jinping cemented his status as the core of the party and the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng—or even Chairman Mao Zedong. The Communist Party National Congress unanimously passed an amendment to the constitution of the Communist Party, the de facto highest law in the land, to include “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” as a guide for party action. Each paramount leader of China has had his contribution to Communist Party ideology enshrined in the same manner, but the only other use of “thought” was ascribed to Mao. Deng was afforded only a “theory,” as was his successor Jiang Zemin, and ineffectual Hu Jintao was downgraded to “outlook.”

What propelled Xi’s rise to power as a “lingxiu,” or wise and great leader, was both his political background and his timing. Anti-corruption sentiment had reached a fever pitch, and he thus had the mandate to go after those in his own party—to remove bad actors, yes, but also those who can check his power. 

It would be too simplistic, however, to suggest that Xi’s personal ambition is his primary motivation in consolidating power. The vision he has for China’s future involves loftier goals. According to a report issued at the opening of the 19th Party Congress, the key elements of China’s current policy outlook are to “build a moderately prosperous society in all respects, strive for the great

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