Authorities in China have stepped up nationwide “stability maintenance” measures targeting anyone with a critical opinion of the ruling Chinese Communist Party as official media announced the date of the five-yearly party congress.
President Xi Jinping looks set to reshuffle his leadership team and consolidate his personal grip on power at the 19th Party Congress beginning at the earlier-than-usual date of Oct. 18, suggesting the president may be keen to strike before his political plans can come unstuck.
Xi, who has already succeeded in taking over key roles formerly reserved for his second-in-command and having himself designated a “core” party leader in the manner of late supreme leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, will lay out his ideas for further economic reform, military modernization and the fight against corruption in official ranks.
But Xi has already shown himself to be far less willing to tolerate dissent and criticism than his recent predecessors, rolling out a massive ideological crackdown at the start of the year that includes detailed policing of foreign online content, social media activity and the country’s news organizations.
Hong Kong political affairs commentator Liu Ruishao said there is no other faction in the party at the moment with enough power to challenge President Xi.
“There isn’t another figure or faction among the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party leadership who can gather up enough support to oppose Xi Jinping,” Liu said.
“During the past five years, Xi Jinping has managed to turn himself into a ‘core’ leader of the Chinese Communist Party, and of the Central Military Commission,” he said. “At the same time, he is head of a group of 11 leaders at the highest ranks of the party, and wields enormous economic power.”
Xi Jinping Thought
Among the issues at stake at the 19th Party Congress is whether or not the term ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ will enter the party constitution, enshrining Xi’s status as a party strongman.
Chinese constitutional scholar Zhang Lifan said there are still plenty of variables, however.
He said the clearest indication of how successful Xi’s bid for power has been will be the lineup of the party leadership for the next five years, as well as any moves on the part of Wang Qishan, head of the party’s graft-busting Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
“Ultimately, we still need to see who is on the list of names,” Zhang said. “It doesn’t seem as if Xi Jinping Thought will be formally enshrined, but it will still be a matter for discussion.”
“A lot depends on whether Xi has managed to achieve deals with the other factions in the party,” he said.
Veteran Hong Kong-based political journalist Ching Cheong said there has been no announcement suggesting the president’s contribution to Communist Party ideology will be honored in this way, however.
“There has been no mention of [his] thought, which suggests that Xi is facing a great deal of resistance within party ranks,” Ching said.
But he said Xi may score a victory over the age of serving leaders, by striking down a rule that requires them to retire at 67.
Close Xi ally and Politburo standing committee member Wang Qishan, who heads the party’s disciplinary arm that is implementing Xi’s anticorruption campaign, is 69 this year.
“It is very likely that Wang Qishan will stay on in the Politburo standing committee,” Ching said, citing leaked accounts of comments made by Xi at a July 26 meeting. “That’s my prediction.”
Christopher K. Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said the 19th Party Congress could yield unexpected results, however.
“I think the biggest unexpected development will be to expect the unexpected,” Johnson said. “I think that Xi Jinping may do things that are even more radical than we’ve even considered, in terms of structure and in terms of design.”
“Old norms don’t really apply to analyzing the current situation,” he said.
The party congress comes amid growing speculation that Xi will break with recent decades of party tradition, and seek a third term beyond the second that he is about to enter.
“I think Xi thinks he is born to the throne,” Scott Harold of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy told journalists in Washington on Thursday. “After you have purged your predecessors … it is a risky situation to try to then hand off power and think you will be safe.
“[And Xi] is much more comfortable with political power than either of his predecessors,” Harold said.
Cybersecurity law, petitioners
Meanwhile, a new cybersecurity law has sparked concerns that the country’s more than 730 million internet users will no longer be able to scale the “Great Firewall” of internet censorship with the same ease as before, while new ideological programs are targeting religious followers, rights activists and lawyers around the country.
And China’s army of “petitioners,” ordinary people with complaints against the government, will also be subjected to tighter-than-ever restrictions on their movements ahead of the Party Congress.
An Aug. 25 directive issued by a “stability maintenance” steering group under the party’s Central Committee orders complaints departments at all levels of government and party to ensure that no petitioners are allowed to crowd around the outside of the government buildings in the run-up to the party congress.
Now, petitioners seeking to file complaints at the State Council complaints department in Beijing are being forced to line up on the other side of the road, petitioners told RFA on Thursday.
“At a time when the highest authorities in the country are facing considerable embarrassment [over the sheer number of complaints], they decide to fake an improvement,” Hubei petitioner Wu Lijuan said. “They have sent out huge numbers of petition-takers to try to fool people.”
“If they really had any intention of giving some redress to ordinary people, then they wouldn’t be forcing us to re-register our complaints that we already registered years ago,” she said.
Meanwhile, other petitioners are simply being held under house arrest or close surveillance by local authorities to prevent them traveling to complain to higher levels of government ahead of the party congress.
“There are more than 20 law enforcement people outside my door with no official documents,” octogenarian petitioner Chen Shufeng, who said she is contemplating harming herself with kitchen knives, told RFA. “They have been there [since] Aug. 25.”
“I’m not allowed to go out to buy milk or vegetables, or to go to the hospital to see the doctor,” she said. “They won’t let me out of the main gate.”
“I haven’t eaten anything for the past couple of days,” said Chen.
Fellow petitioner Li Lirong said the police had confiscated her ID card and those of two friends who came to help Chen out.
“We came here to help this old lady, who is in her eighties,” Li said. “Three of us came here, and they have confiscated our ID cards, and now they are calling our local police to come and fetch us.”
Reported by Gao Feng and Yang Fan for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Wong Si-yu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.