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As party gathers, Xi displays firm grip on power


    President Donald Trump walks with President Xi Jinping of China at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., in April.

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 smoldering 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.

On Oct. 18, Xi will open another Communist Party congress, but 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 revitalizing the party — and perhaps position himself as indispensable to its survival.

“Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party is headed in the direction of strongman rule,” said David M. Lampton, the director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a longtime analyst of Chinese leaders. “The 19th Party Congress is more likely to look like a coronation than an institutionalized transition to a leader’s second term.”

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 is poised to surpass its Soviet brethren as the longest-ruling Communist Party in history.

“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 hard-line, centralized 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 centers 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, and political repression outside the party, including a crackdown on legal activists and more stringent media censorship, including on the internet.

One big question as the congress meets this week is whether Xi tries to claim an even bigger role than he already has in the nation’s future.

If he follows the script for leadership successions that his predecessors have followed since the 1990s, Xi will promote some next-generation leaders, who would be waiting in the wings for him to retire in five years.

Such figures could include Chen Min’er, the party secretary of Chongqing in southwest China, who was close to Xi when they were both provincial officials and enjoyed Xi’s conspicuous support.

But Xi may instead open the way for holding onto power in some form beyond his second term as China’s president, which ends in 2023, the current term limit set by the nation’s constitution.

One way he could do this would be to hold off in appointing any promising younger leaders to the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s highest rung of power.

Another would be to enable his ally and anti-corruption czar, Wang Qishan, to stay in the Standing Committee.

At age 69, Wang has exceeded the age, 68, when an informal party rule says top officials should step down once the next party congress comes around. Keeping Wang on could set a precedent for Xi to buck the same rule at the end of his second term, when he will be 69 himself.

Xi also appears likely to use this congress to mark his place in the party’s history by inscribing his ideas, and perhaps even his name, into the party’s constitution, giving his policies a sheen of permanence.

“He’s going to get the ideological canonization,” said Christopher K. Johnson, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. “If you’re opposing him, that’s no longer just a disagreement with the individual party chief or Xi Jinping personally. Then you’re challenging the party line.”

The weeklong congress will bring some 2,300 selected delegates to Beijing for a carefully choreographed celebration of Communist rule, complete with the pageantry of goose-stepping soldiers, fluttering red hammer-and-sickle flags and the playing of “The Internationale.”

Yet despite the triumphant stagecraft, Xi remains driven by a fear that communist rule could collapse in China as it did in the Soviet Union unless the party maintains firm control over an increasingly wealthy and diverse society that now has over a third of the world’s billionaires.

To do this, Xi has tightened his control over possible competing centers of power, including those billionaires and their businesses, the internet, the military and other arms of state power, as well as over the 89 million members of the party itself.

Xi’s opening report on Wednesday morning is likely to sound a warning that the party cannot let down its guard, said analysts and party insiders who have followed preparations.

Xi’s speech is also likely to call for renewed commitment to what he calls “reform.” But his notion of reform is unlikely to look much like previous bouts of economic liberalization that Deng and other leaders unleashed in the 1980s and 1990s.

Back then, the party gradually embraced market forces and then full-throated capitalism, pulling back some of its power over many sectors of the economy.

Xi’s version of reform is pointed in the opposite direction: to invigorate party control.

“He spent his first five years basically dismantling the old system, which he sees as too lax, too corrupt,” said Minxin Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who studies Chinese politics.

What Xi wants to build now, Pei added, is “a disciplinary state.” He continued: “It disciplines everybody. It disciplines the party, it disciplines Chinese society. And to enforce discipline, you have to have a very powerful security state.”

More than any other recent Chinese leader, Xi has cast himself as the salvation of both party and nation. He has also been dismissive of his recent predecessors, whom he implicitly blames for failing to act forcefully enough to ensure the party’s survival.

Xi’s government had “solved many long-standing problems that had remained unresolved, and achieved many great feats that had been left undone,” said the communiqué of a meeting last week of the Central Committee, a council of some 200 senior party officials, which is seen as setting the tone for the coming congress.

For Xi, the fall of the Soviet Union is a warning of what will go wrong if China’s party succumbs to those dangers.

“Why did the Soviet Union collapse?” Xi said to officials in 2013. “There was ideological chaos, the party apparatus at every level seemed ineffectual, the military was no longer under the leadership of the party.”

Xi wants to ensure that the Chinese Communist Party stays in power long after it celebrates the centenary of its founding four years from now, and long after it overtakes the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in length of time in power, a milestone that by some measures it will cross next year.

In a sign of that ambition, Xi’s speech to the congress is also likely to flesh out goals for as far out as 2049, when the People’s Republic of China celebrates 100 years since its founding.

As the “princeling” son of a revolutionary, Xi exudes a sense of inherited responsibility for preserving the party. Since he took office, Xi has removed officials for corruption and disloyalty more senior than previous leaders dared take on, and overseen investigations of more than 200 officials at the vice-minister level or higher.

Xi has also ordered party members and officials to return to an almost puritan faith in Marxism and Mao, even amid China’s flashy wealth. He introduced draconian rules weaning cadres off fancy meals, heavy drinking and karaoke sessions. He shook up the military and security services, dumping dozens of generals, including two commanders last summer.

And he created a plethora of new leadership groups that allow him to control policy more directly than previous party leaders.

“Xi started off fast,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who studies Chinese elite politics. “Now he looks like he’s got all the pieces in place and will start whatever the positive agenda of the Xi Jinping era is.”

The major decisions to be unveiled this week were most likely made in advance by a small circle of senior party leaders.

“The intense interest in this congress is how far Xi can and will go in reshaping the norms of Chinese politics to get his way,” Fewsmith said. “Everyone has been on pins and needles because they sense that something is changing.”

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