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China’s congress gives nod to third presidential term for supreme leader Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Lan Hongguang/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)
March 13, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, nodded through approval for a third presidential term for ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping on Friday, paving the way for him to wield power in the country’s top jobs indefinitely.

Some 3,000 unelected delegates to the congress voted unanimously for Xi, 69, to continue in post as president, a widely expected outcome that will likely mean tougher policies at home and rising tensions with the international community, analysts told Radio Free Asia on Friday.

He was voted in for a third term as Communist Party general secretary, his most important post, at the 20th party congress last October, in a move that broke with an unwritten rule in operation since the death of late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping that national leaders step down after two terms in office.

Friday’s “vote” came five years after the National People’s Congress approved amendments to the Chinese constitution removing term limits for the party general secretary and largely ceremonial state presidency. 

Xi also remains as commander-in-chief of the two-million-strong People’s Liberation Army, after being reapproved as chairman of the Central Military Commission on Friday.

Xi was sworn in on a copy of the Chinese Constitution, alongside former anti-corruption czar Zhao Leji as head of the National People’s Congress and former Shanghai party chief Han Zheng as vice president, a largely ceremonial post.

Zhao and Han are both key Xi loyalists, with the former presiding over Xi’s anti-corruption purges as head of the party’s disciplinary arm.

Party ideologue Wang Huning was named head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which works with the party’s United Front Work Department to promote loyalty to Xi outside of party ranks and to spread his personal brand of political ideology beyond China’s borders.

Li Qiang, who implemented Xi’s zero-COVID policies in the form of the brutal 2022 Shanghai lockdown, is widely expected to take over from Li Keqiang as premier in a weekend vote.

In charge of everything

Japan-based China scholar Hong Xiangan said the outcome came as no surprise.

“They were just going through the motions,” Hong said. “He’s already the supreme leader of the country.”

“The Communist Party hasn’t had such a supreme leader in charge of everything since Mao Zedong, who was the first-generation Communist Party leader to conquer the nation,” he said.

He said Mao likely had cannier political skills than Xi, however.

“Mao never got rid of [his premier] Zhou Enlai, who lasted [in power] his whole life,” Hong said.

By contrast, Li Qiang will be taking over from Li Keqiang at the head of the administration, while Xi ally Ding Xuexiang will be in charge of the day-to-day running of the party, he said.

But he said Xi’s insistence on being in charge of everything could backfire.

“Mao Zedong knew very well the difference between the emperor and his prime minister,” Hong said. “[He believed] that each should get on and do their job.”

“Now, he’s acting as an all-in-one leader,” Hong said of Xi, suggesting that his reliance on political allies over technocrats could make it harder to face current challenges, which include a flagging economy in the wake of the zero-COVID policy.

“Are there any capable ministers?” he said. “Looking at these people’s resumes … it doesn’t look as if any of them have any idea about running the country.”

But he said Xi likely has no way back from his current path.

“There’s no way for him to make a U-turn,” Hong said. “There’s no going back now, and the opportunity won’t arise again until the next generation of leaders comes along.”

‘Even more draconian’

None of the 2,952 delegates in the Great Hall of the People on Friday voted against the motion to approve Xi, which came after a motion approving a government restructuring plan.

Feng Chongyi, a professor of political science at the University of Technology Sydney, said Xi has now succeeded in removing any significant potential opponents from the highest echelons of Chinese politics, and has a clear path to rule indefinitely.

“All kinds of policies will now become even more draconian,” Feng said. “[Xi] will get more arrogant, unscrupulous and intensify [his campaigns].”

“The Chinese people will suffer more as a result, as will domestic and foreign affairs, international relations and people will suffer more hardship,” he said.

Feng said there is still no way to be sure when Xi will move to annex democratic Taiwan by force, but he said the risk of that military conflict is directly linked to the solidity of the Chinese leader’s grip on power.

“His power is unlimited, so if he wants to go crazy, he could decide to totally disregard life and property in the service of his personal power or achievements,” he said. “He only thinks about himself, so he won’t hesitate, even if it brings down disaster on … the international order.”

Current affairs commentator Johnny Lau said Xi sees the threat of instability everywhere, both domestically and internationally.

“External forces [influencing Chinese politics] is their long-term nightmare,” Lau said. “As the economic situation gets worse, we will see a lot of issues with people’s livelihood surfacing.”

Expanded party control

And the party-state now lacks even the meager checks and balances that it once had, according to current affairs commentator Wang Zheng.

“When a single voice emerges and there are no voices of opposition, the country will be done for,” Wang said. 

He said widespread censorship and fear of political reprisals now make it very hard to hear any kind of dissent in China at all.

“If [state broadcaster] CCTV takes to the streets to interview passers-by about what they think of their president, the vast majority of people are going to say that they support him,” Wang said.

“If it’s a foreign media organization, then a lot of people would be scared to answer at all,” he said.

Keyword searches for “Xi Jinping” on China’s Twitter-like Weibo appeared blocked, while comments on the official Xinhua News Agency report on Xi were hidden, RFA reporters found.

But some netizens turned to foreign social media sites to decry Xi’s long-expected third term.

“After Mao Zedong, another life long dictator has come to power. Although I knew it would happen, I still feel disgusted when I see this news officially,” said one comment.

“Unanimous approval, nobody votes no, no abstentions, 100% support rate! This is the Whole Process Democracy? This is the largest democratic election in the world? This is the real national humiliation!” said another.

The National People’s Congress is also expected to nod through planned structural reforms bringing government security and intelligence branches under the direct control of the party, rather than the country’s cabinet, suggesting a further bid to consolidate political power in the hands of Xi, analysts told RFA in recent interviews.

The government announced plans on Wednesday to set up a central data bureau to tighten control over “big data” intelligence on its 1.4 billion citizens, as well as implementing tighter party control over the banking system and financial markets.

Xi’s third term will likely also see ongoing friction with Washington, after newly appointed foreign minister Qin Gang warned that the United States and China are destined for conflict if Washington refuses to “hit the brakes” as it “speed[s] down the wrong path” of engagement with Beijing.

Qin spoke on the sidelines of the “two sessions” annual meeting of China’s National People’s Congress, which kicked off on Sunday, dismissing calls by the Biden administration for “guardrails” to prevent increasingly sour U.S.-China relations from deteriorating into full-blown hostility.