Xi Jinping will be China’s principal leader for another five years, even though China still maintains a veneer of collective leadership represented by the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. At 64 years old, Xi is like most members, a Baby Boomer born in 1953. Xi has strengthened the grip of the party, purged or sidelined rivals, and could break recent precedent and remain president for a third five-year block, or until 2027. He would be over 70 years old, the nominal retirement age for Politburo Standing Committee members. But by not selecting any member less than 60 years old, Xi signaled no replacement was being groomed for a transition.
The 2017 Chinese National Congress marks the beginning of the Xi era. His leadership team is in place. In a three and one-half hour speech, Xi presented a vision for not five, but 30 years in which he sees China as a “great modern socialist country” at the center stage of the world and a new authoritarian model for other developing countries to follow. He believes the West is dispirited, divided and distracted while China is a confident, growing power. In a final act before adjournment, the party faithful amended the party constitution to add Xi’s thoughts as a guiding principal: “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era.”
Although the entire production looks solid, it has a fragile base. Xi is attempting to instill ideological discipline with dated Marxism and strict Leninism to justify the party and its exclusive hold on power. But legitimacy is mostly based on satisfaction with the direction of the economy and improved quality of life. In fact, Xi and his team must work every day to ensure growth and the distribution of its benefits like every other great state. It is not clear Xi’s latest modification of the model can do it.
It is also unlikely that the world’s largest, most opaque and most repressive political party will become a model welcomed by most countries, regardless of Xi’s personal charisma or China’s public relations tools.