China’s Return to Strongman Rule

The Meaning of Xi Jinping’s Power Grab

Watching the party congress on a public screen in Hong Kong, October 2017. Bobby Yip / REUTERS

A new era has begun in Chinese politics. On October 24, as the curtain fell on the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress, party officials revised their organization’s charter to enshrine a new guiding ideological principle: “Xi Jinping Thought.” Few observers know exactly what this doctrine entails—it is an amorphous collection of ideas about maintaining China’s one-party state and transforming the country into a global power—but most immediately grasped the political symbolism of its introduction. The party has elevated the Chinese ruler’s ideological contributions to the same level as those of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the only other CCP leaders whose ideas have been so canonized.

This was only the first inkling that Xi had scored a major political victory at the party congress. The real extent of his triumph became clear the next day, when party officials selected the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. Xi stacked the seven-member committee with loyalists, all of whom will be too old to stand a chance of taking his place at the next party congress, in 2022. As a result, Xi’s rule is now set to last for the next 15 years and perhaps beyond.

Xi will amend the party’s charter and China’s constitution to legitimize the extension of his power.

However powerful Xi appears to be, he now must earn the political capital to secure an extended term as China’s leader. In practice, he will need to deliver on his promises to rebalance and sustain China’s economic growth and to restructure its legal system.


Of the seven members of the CCP’s last Standing Committee, only two remain: Xi and his deputy, Premier Li Keqiang. The body’s five other members are all new, and four of them are allies of Xi.

Li Zhanshu, the party’s new number three, forged a close friendship with Xi more than 30 years ago and was Xi's chief of staff during

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