A third term for China’s authoritarian president further entrenches a regime of control, surveillance and crackdowns in the world’s second-most powerful country. 

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Unquestioned command: spotlight on Xi Jinping

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing this week.
Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing this week.
Credit: Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

Party of one

At the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th congress in Beijing this week, Xi Jinping is poised to receive a historic third term as general secretary, cementing his position as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Though the workings of the party are notoriously opaque, its principal organs – including the 2300-person congress – are filled with officials who have been approved or are controlled by Xi. His unrivalled status marks an end to the party’s attempts in recent decades to prevent an individual achieving excessive power. Instead, Xi, who is 69 years old, now has unquestioned command over the world’s second-most powerful country, including its 1.4 billion people, its two-million person military, and its $US18 trillion economy.

But it has been a chequered ascent. Xi had a privileged youth as a “princeling” – the child of a senior party official – but his father was jailed during one of Mao’s purges. Xi was removed from school and, at age 15, was sent for “re-education” for seven years to the countryside, where he lived in a cave. Yet he never rejected the party. He tried repeatedly to join and was accepted in 1974, before gradually rising through its ranks.

Still, when he became general secretary in 2012, there was little sign that he would break the mould of modern Chinese leadership. Despite early hopes that he might be a liberal reformer – he famously spent two weeks in Iowa as an up-and-coming official in 1985 and slept in the Star Trek-themed bedroom of a family in the Midwest – he has turned out to be China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao.

Rivals and successors

Before Xi, power in China shifted for decades between varying factions and alliances, often associated with party elders. But Xi has eliminated internal opposition to his rule and effectively neutered the old guard.

His success against his political rivals was partly luck. When he was first due to be anointed leader, his main opponent was a fellow princeling, Bo Xilai, a prominent and charismatic provincial party chief who gained nationwide attention for his crackdown on organised crime. But Bo came undone over a bizarre – and still mysterious – scandal, in which his wife murdered a British businessman, possibly over a business deal. Bo was expelled from the party and charged with corruption.

The affair enabled Xi to launch a massive anti-corruption campaign that not only helped to combat widespread corruption and bribery, but enabled him to systematically purge his rivals from senior positions. Xi then ensured that his supporters occupied the party’s most powerful roles. By 2018, the congress was ready to scrap a two-term limit on the presidency and pave the way for a third term for Xi; it did so with a vote of 2958 in favour and two against.

Xi has also attempted to prevent public voices of protest to his rule. He has cracked down on dissent, expanded state surveillance, tightened controls over the media and social media, and targeted sources of potential opposition, including prominent business figures such as Jack Ma, the founder of China’s e-commerce behemoth, Alibaba. More than 1.4 million alleged criminals were arrested to ensure that this week’s congress would be “safe and stable”.

But pockets of resistance remain. Last week, a protester disguised as a roadworker hung banners over a flyover in Beijing, calling for greater freedoms and the removal of Xi. “We want a vote, not a leader. We want to be citizens, not slaves,” said one banner. Images and hashtags such as “I saw it” went viral on social media, before being blocked. The protester, known as “Bridge Man”, was arrested. His condition and fate are unknown.

Xi stumbles

In his first 10 years as leader, Xi has overseen a doubling of the nation’s gross domestic product and massive boosts to military spending. He enlisted almost 150 countries to his signature infrastructure-building scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative, shoring up commercial and diplomatic ties across Asia, Africa and the Pacific. In his quest for national “rejuvenation”, he abandoned Beijing’s previous cautiousness and adopted an increasingly assertive approach to foreign policy, including militarising islands in the South China Sea, imposing economic sanctions on countries such as South Korea and Australia, and willingly committing to a contest for global power and influence with Washington. He has shown scant regard for international condemnation of China’s mass detention of Uygurs in Xinjiang province and brutal curbs on civil rights and protesters in Hong Kong.

Alongside these human rights abuses, his rule is increasingly plagued by missteps.

China’s economy is weakening, partly due to Xi’s stringent measures to eliminate Covid-19. His approach to the pandemic has involved travel restrictions, mass testing and snap lockdowns covering tens of millions of people.

In his speech to the congress last Sunday, Xi celebrated the party’s “all out people’s war to stop the spread of the virus” – a claim that suggested he has no plan to loosen the increasingly unpopular restrictions.

China is also facing a worsening property crisis. Home sales and values are dropping and developers are facing bankruptcy. Stalled construction has meant that the country has an estimated two million unfinished apartments, including many that have already been bought off the plan.

China’s economy is expected to grow just 3 per cent this year, compared with average growth of more than 9 per cent since Beijing began opening the economy in 1978. China was expected to publish its latest growth figures on Tuesday but delayed, concerned that the grim news would interfere with the rosy messaging from the congress.

Xi and Australia

In 2014, Xi visited Australia and delivered an address to parliament, celebrating “the vast ocean of goodwill between China and Australia”. He was warmly welcomed by former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, who described Xi’s address as
one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in Australia’s parliament and said the two countries shared “common dreams, common aspirations”.

Relations soon began to unravel. As Xi’s foreign policy became more assertive, and ties between Beijing and Washington frayed, Canberra began to view China as a domestic and international risk rather than as a relatively trouble-free source of demand for Australian exports and assets. China imposed sanctions on a range of Australian goods, and detained Australians Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun.

No Australian leader has met with Xi since 2017, though he may meet Prime Minister Anthony Albanese this year to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties.

Xi’s efforts to boost ties with Pacific states have worried Washington, Canberra and Wellington, and prompted frenetic diplomatic activity to try to counter Beijing’s outreach.

But the greatest source of tension between Beijing and Western nations is likely to be over the future of Taiwan.

Xi told the congress last Sunday that he was committed to “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, but was willing to use force if necessary and warned other nations to avoid interfering. Receiving the loudest and longest applause during his speech, he declared: “The complete reunification of the motherland must be achieved.”

On Monday, the United States secretary of state, Antony Blinken, warned that China’s plans to annex Taiwan were happening “much faster” under Xi.

Albanese said earlier this year that China was becoming “more aggressive”, adding that no country should unilaterally try to change the status quo in Taiwan. But he would not say whether Australia would become involved in a “hypothetical” future war. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "Unquestioned command: spotlight on Xi Jinping".

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