China's Xi sets eyes on more power as congress closes

Beijing (AFP) –


China's leader Xi Jinping is set to emerge from the most defining Communist Party congress in decades with tighter control of the aspiring superpower when the gathering wraps up Tuesday.

Xi will undoubtedly be handed a customary second five-year term as general secretary of the party but analysts say the gathering could lay the foundation for him to remain China's paramount leader beyond 2022.

The 64-year-old party boss could consolidate his power by filling the country's ruling council with allies, possibly without even presenting an obvious heir apparent.

But a clearer marker of his place as China's most powerful leader in decades could come in the form of his name being enshrined in the party's constitution.

Communist China's founder Mao Zedong and the architect of market reforms, Deng Xiaoping, are the only Chinese leaders to have their names in the document -- and only Mao was alive when his was included.

"It would confer upon him an extraordinary authority not only as the core leader but in a sense a status of helmsman like Mao Zedong," said Willy Lam, politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"It would enable him to be like Mao, leader for life as long as he's healthy," he said.

- 'New era' -

The constitutional amendments could be unveiled on Tuesday but the line-up of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, which currently includes Xi and six other men, is expected to be made public a day later.

A vast security apparatus has been thrown around the congress, with businesses ranging from nightclubs to gyms closing to avoid any incidents and factories shuttered in what so far has been a failed attempt to clear the city's notorious smog.

When he opened the congress at the massive Great Hall of the People last week, Xi declared that China had entered a "new era" with the ambitious goal of becoming a "global leader" by mid-century.

His bold vision comes as Xi has sought to portray himself as a responsible global leader while US President Donald Trump trumpets a nationalist "America First" policy and the European Union grapples with Britain's exit from its club of nations.

Xi's blueprint suggests the Communist Party will continue to increase its control of the country, with no suggestion that crackdowns on human rights activists would wane.

Some of his goals, such as building a modern military by 2035, go beyond the end of his second term, suggesting that he also foresees himself staying at the centre of China's political life for years to come.

Party leaders seem to agree. Over the past few days they have fawned over their general secretary's newly unveiled guiding philosophy: "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era".

The concept places a heavy emphasis on the party's role in governing every aspect of the country from the economy to what people are writing on social media.

- 'Full control' -

But despite Xi's rising power, Lam said the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee, the body that controls power, would still be crucial to Xi's efforts.

Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are expected to remain on the committee while the five other current members are supposed to step down under an informal retirement age set at 68.

There is no consensus among China watchers about who will end up on the committee, or if anybody will emerge as a potential successor.

If the right allies are named, it would show that "he has full control over the Politburo Standing Committee," Lam said.

But Bill Bishop, Washington-based author of the Sinocism China Newsletter, said the committee's make-up will not matter if Xi gets his name in the constitution.

"If it goes in, then basically the succession issue doesn't really matter because as long as Xi is alive he will be the ultimate decider," Bishop said.

"It's about signalling to the entire party the primacy of Xi Jinping."