China's ruling Communist Party is set to slide back to its founder Mao Zedong's era soon as President Xi Jinping is set to break the decades-old 10-year term rule to cling in power and perhaps for life, amid mounting pressure from the U.S.-led West against Beijing's aggressive quest to become a dominant world power.
On Sunday, 2,296 delegates “elected” under the ideological parameters set by 69-year-old Xi, will attend the carefully-choreographed Communist Party's once-in-a-five-year Congress which is widely expected to endorse his continuation in power.
The outcome of the in-camera Party Congress is expected to end two very strict five-year term limits followed by Xi's predecessors to avert the danger of the one party state becoming a country with a single leader dominating the political scene.
In the century-old history of the CPC, Mao remained at the helm until his death in 1976, ruling the most populous country and subjecting it to his ideological experiments like the Cultural Revolution during which millions of intellectuals were exterminated and wiped out much of the country's civilisational past to create a new socialist order.
Mao’s mercurial leadership was marked by brutal campaigns to purge the remnants of the capitalists and traditional elements from society and implement his brand of Communism called Mao Zedong Thought. It ended up disastrously driving the communist nation to near bankruptcy.
Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, who earned the title of Paramount Leader for his sedate and pragmatic leadership putting the country on the path of economic development reversing Mao’s hardline policies, introduced the collective leadership system with a ten-year term limit and 68-year age limit to avoid the ills of the one leader domination of the party.
The 12th Congress of the CPC back in 1982 under the leadership of Deng set China’s political and ideological direction for the next 35 years. The same Congress set a new ideological direction for the party giving high priority to economic development through market reforms and opening to the world.
It adopted the "Resolution on Certain Questions on Party History," which concluded that Mao had committed profound errors for having departed from the party’s official line in 1956 on the primacy of economic development, continuing the political class struggle for two more decades.
The 1982 Congress also resolved formally to repudiate Mao’s personality cult, absolute power and leadership-for-life and restore the principles of collective party leadership, including an evolving convention of term limits.
Since then, all of Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao followed the 10-year norm. Incidentally, China recorded extraordinary economic growth during their tenures, propelling it to become the second-largest economy after the U.S.
The opening up of China during those decades helped China to get unfettered global access and engagement, including becoming a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
"That era has now passed. And the new era of Xi Jinping has begun," said former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in one of his recent lectures in the U.S. on China.
“This is not simply an analytical assertion on my part. It is what Xi himself has proclaimed: as Mao's era of China standing up was followed by Deng’s era of China becoming prosperous, now followed by Xi’s self-proclaimed new era of Chinese national power," Rudd, a fluent Chinese language speaker and widely acclaimed expert on China and the CPC, said.
Over three and half decades later, the party which controls all limbs of governance including the military, the judiciary and legislature are in the cusp of returning to the 'One Leader' rule amid its toughest period of economic slowdown exasperated by the 'Zero COVID' policy, increasing adversity with the US and the West besides uneasy relations with neighbours like India and Japan.
Xi, known as a 'princeling' as he was the son of the former vice-premier, Xi Zhongxun, who was persecuted by Mao for his liberal views rose to ranks steadily becoming Vice President under the previous President Hu.
While he had the image of a sedate leader in his previous postings, he transformed himself into the most ambitious and powerful leader soon after he took over leadership of the party in 2012 immediately followed by the Presidency and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the overall high command of the two million-strong Chinese military.
From day one after assuming power, Xi has launched a ruthless campaign against corruption, which besides striking a chord with people helped him systematically weed out political opponents.
"If there were only one lens through which to interpret Chinese President Xi Jinping's remarkable rise over the past decade, then it would have to be his signature anti-corruption drive," Wang Xiangwei former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
“Since he came to power in late 2012, Xi and his supporters have deftly combined this ruthless effort with a relentless ideological campaign aimed at consolidating power by crushing political rivals and strengthening control over all levels of society,” Wang wrote in his recent column in the Post.
"The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) – the Communist Party’s principal anti-corruption agency, which approves the punishment and expulsion of members – has over the past decade investigated and disciplined nearly five million high-ranking and grass-roots officials, or “tigers and flies" in party parlance," he said.
Observers say besides the ruthless campaign, Xi's continuous rise to power was regarded as puzzling as the mighty Chinese economy continued to slide since he assumed office.
When he came to power in 2012, the economy was thriving with double-digit growth. The growth rates steadily declined every year and the government has cut the growth forecast pegging it around 5.5 per cent for this year, the lowest in decades.
The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China recently warned in its annual position paper that China was losing the allure that it used to have and that its market’s once-lauded predictability has been eroded by erratic policy shifts.
As a result, many financial institutions have already cut their forecasts for China’s annual economic growth this year and in 2023, citing uncertainties in pandemic control and other policies, it said.
Also puzzling to many in China were the continuous anti-monopoly campaigns against the country’s most successful mega companies like Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and Didi which were widely regarded as a crackdown aimed at curbing their rise to ensure the CPC controls over them.
Analysts argue that the campaigns against the private sector have resulted in growing unemployment, which was stated to be around 19 per cent the highest in recent decades.
"Under normal circumstances, the poor state of the economy would leave the country’s political leadership under extreme political pressure. Indeed, Xi Jinping appears to have created his own “new normal” — not in the economy, but in politics — whereby Xi’s consolidation of personal political power over the last decade is near complete. We see this across multiple fronts," says Rudd.
But Xi’s backers at the higher echelons of the CPC describe his successful campaigns to eradicate extreme poverty, end civil unrest in Hong Kong against China, the massive reform and consolidation besides modernisation of the Chinese military and enhancement of Beijing’s influence across the world with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as his major achievement.
The heightening Russia-Ukraine conflict, the growing trade war with the U.S. besides the increasing hostility from Washington and the West to stifle China’s rise, empowering Taiwan, which China claims as its own, are the reasons for a strong leader like Xi to continue, they argue.
Xi's continuation in power is a new normal internally and externally as people have to learn to live with it, a senior diplomat here said, adding perhaps the silver lining is that China’s neighbours and the world around are familiar with his style of functioning.
"He has a 10-year record for us to evaluate, understand and formulate the policies to deal with aggressive China and in a way, he may be better than a new leader about whom the world may have to spend years to understand and deal with," the diplomat said, adding it is important to see the policy documents to be adopted by the Party Congress, expected to last for a week, which may provide the direction in which China plans to move ahead.