Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to serve a historic term.
With America coming out of a devastating pandemic and looking ahead to a consequential midterm election in November, you may not be up to date on international affairs. But President Xi Jinping just secured an unprecedented third term, becoming China’s most powerful leader since the late Chairman Mao Zedong, who ruled until his death at age 82.
Following a series of secret meetings during the Communist Party’s weeklong congress, Xi was handed another five-year reign, which wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t amended the Chinese Constitution in 2018 to remove the two-term limit on the presidency. On top of being president, Xi is also the Communist Party general secretary and head of the country’s army.
“Power will be even more concentrated in the hands of Xi Jinping,” Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a Chinese politics expert at Hong Kong Baptist University, told the AP. “There is no counterweight or checks and balances in the system at all.”
But first, here’s more on Xi Jinping’s background and why his continued reign is significant:
What’s the Communist Party congress?
During a series of meetings in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square, more than 2,000 handpicked delegates gather from around the country to pick China’s leadership for the next five years. This includes the next president and top policy-making officials to serve on the political bureau, or “Politburo.” To put things into perspective, this recent event marks the 20th congress in the party’s more than 100-year history.
Though it has been around for a while, the party’s decision-making process on the leadership has long been shrouded in secrecy. What we do know is that the party reviews the country’s progress and lays out its agenda for the next five years.
“It’s not just about ideas, it’s really about signaling a leader’s power and legacy,” David Bandurski, who leads the research program China Media Project, told NBC.
Who’s Xi Jinping?
Xi first came to power in 2012 after holding various positions at the village, provincial, and county levels. This includes being in charge of restoring order after social unrest in regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, where China has been accused of human rights abuses.
But the Chinese leader’s path to power can be charted from an early age. His dad, Xi Zhongxun, was a communist revolutionary and subsequent top government official before being cast out of the party after criticizing it. That’s when the young Xi quickly went from living a life in luxury to struggling with his family to get by in the countryside, where they became manual laborers for several years.
Since taking charge of the country, Xi has expanded its economy, military strength, and role as a global power. But, during his speech in front of congress, he acknowledged China’s challenges over the past five years, even some of those of his own making, like his “zero Covid” policy, which caused some economic troubles.
Despite economic turmoil and even rare displays of civil disobedience over the approach, Xi has made it clear that he has no plans of changing course and issued a broad warning of more obstacles ahead.
“Be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms,” he said.
What’s at stake?
While there don’t appear to be any significant changes to China’s political or economic system, it looks like those who will hold the most power are also some of Xi’s most loyal followers. For instance, Li Qiang is now in line to the country’s top economic official, despite no experience in national government. That means Xi has few around him challenging his authority.
Foreign policy experts are saying Xi’s continued leadership could strain relations between China and the U.S. even further. On top of taking sides with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, tensions over Taiwan have already come to a boiling point as China continues to try to claim the self-governed island as its own, against the objections by the U.S. and other Western allies. During his speech, Xi warned against any foreign interference, saying China reserves the option of “taking all measures necessary.”
“If [Xi] continues along the same track, we’re going to see a continued downward spiral in the relationship,” Scott Kennedy, who’s a senior advisor at the think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We will see greater Chinese focus on ideology domestically and internationally, and a greater emphasis on military security.”