We have been preoccupied in this country with record-setting rates of inflation, drama around the upcoming mid-term elections, rapid-fire shifts in leadership in the UK and Russia’s ongoing brutality in Ukraine. Meanwhile, another drama has been unfolding in Beijing that has great disruptive potential for the world order. At the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist party, Xi Jinping further solidified his power as leader of the world’s most populace nation.
Political machinations in China are opaque and largely mysterious to Westerners and so we tend not to pay much attention. As Howard French, writing in Foreign Policy, says: “According to the beau ideal of Chinese politics—as with most authoritarian systems—high-stakes debates over policy and power are meant to be conducted behind a thick and soundproof curtain. The public, much less the outside world, should receive a glimpse of nothing more textured than a smooth and placid surface of the machinery of state. The aim here, of course, is to suggest serene unanimity and magnify the authority and prestige of the leader.”
But what drew my attention to the events in China occurred when this veneer seemed to be shattered in “a few awkwardly filmed seconds near the conclusion of a quinquennial session of the ruling Chinese Communist Party” when China’s former leader Hu Jintao was dramatically led out of a session during last week’s Communist Party Congress in Beijing.
I was startled by this unusual and unexpected video clip and wondered what lay behind the piercing Xi’s usually impenetrable veil.
French argued that “the possibility that thrusts itself immediately into consideration is that Hu, often dismissed as a faceless, weak, and ineffectual leader during his 10 years in power from 2002 until Xi’s anointment in 2012, had chosen this moment to publicly mark his disagreement with the management of the party under Xi, which has brought about an extraordinary and stifling concentration of power into one man’s hands.”
But the more likely explanation was that Xi had staged this unceremonious departure as a way of telling the world (the clip was not shown within China) that his hold on power is complete. Henry Gao, also writing in Foreign Policy, states unequivocally: “This ritual of ascension was finalized through the public humiliation of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao, as it sent the unmistakable message that Xi is the only one true leader.”
This incident is the culmination of a decade-long plan for Xi to achieve his absolute hold on power, most specifically his purging the leadership of the once powerful Chinese Youth League, a faction within the party that represented what little opposition there has been to Xi in his rise to unchallenged authority. As Martin Quin Pollard states in Reuters, “The three most glaring omissions from China’s new Communist Party leadership share one common trait: all rose through its Youth League and were considered members of a once-powerful faction whose influence Xi Jinping has now effectively crushed.
“In a dramatic incident widely viewed as symbolic of the faction’s demise, Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, who is 79 and a Youth League veteran, was unexpectedly escorted from the stage at Saturday’s closing ceremony of the party congress.”
What happens next in China remains unclear. Whether Hu chose to assert his more gradual, reformist model of governance or Xi staged the incident to secure his position as unequivocal leader of the CCP, the result is the same—Xi is in power for life, with all the uncertainties such a position creates on the world stage (see Vladimir Putin!).
Pollard concludes his article with a word of hope by citing John Delury, professor of Chinese studies at Seoul’s Yonsei University, “history would remind us that no political system on earth has eradicated the existence of internal disagreement, rivalry, and power struggles. It can take time, but after one particular faction is eliminated, another faction eventually emerges.”
The drift towards autocracy has an echo in our country as well as we approach next month’s midterm elections. What will emerge for China and for us? Time will tell.