China’s Communist Party meets every five years to outline, among other things, its goals for the next half decade, lay out its plans for political succession, and state its economic goals. The idea is to maintain stability through continuity while advancing the kinds of programs that have transformed China into the world’s second-largest economy. This year, though, the party congress, which just concluded, had some significant new elements. It enshrined the “thought” of Chinese President Xi Jinping into the party’s constitution, an honor previously accorded only Mao Zedong; second, it did not reveal a successor to Xi, who under the current rules must step down in 2022; third, it did not outline a plan for the kind of double-digit economic growth that China has enjoyed over the past two decades. The political consequences, at least in the medium term, will be a consolidation of Xi’s power, experts said, while the economic consequences could have far-reaching global effects.
Three seemingly innocuous words—“Xi Jinping thought”—and their inclusion in the Communist Party’s constitution “greatly increases, ... broadens, and deepens Xi Jinping’s personal power within the Chinese system,” Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center, told me.
“Xi Jinping thought” has 14 main principles, including a reform of the rule of law; the need to follow socialism with Chinese characteristics; environmental conservation, as China moves to increase the share of its energy produced by renewable sources; and giving the Communist Party “absolute authority” over the military. Xi’s “thought” will now be taught in Chinese schools and propagated in the state-run media, which all but ensures that the Chinese president’s ideology will remain both politically and culturally significant for years, if not decades, to come. Xi now “has a greater ability to drive policy across the entire apparatus of the Chinese state—the government, as well as the party, and the military. ... And it also puts more pressure on those who would oppose him to get in line and support his initiatives,” Denmark said.