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Political Hurdles Remain for China’s Xi Despite Passage of ‘Historical Resolution’

Xi is now under tremendous pressure to perform after having artificially inflated his “quan wei” and image through propaganda and the “historical resolution.”

◎ Xi is now under tremendous pressure to perform after having artificially inflated his “quan wei” and image through propaganda and the “historical resolution.”

On Nov. 11, the Chinese Communist Party passed a “historical resolution” during a prominent conclave of the Party elite. Details from the communiqué of the Sixth Plenum of the 19th Central Committee indicate that the “Resolution on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century” (henceforth referred to as the “Resolution”) depicts General Secretary Xi Jinping as having made important contributions to the Party in its first hundred years of existence. 

The document also obliquely makes the case for why Xi is instrumental to the Party’s future, particularly with its effort to “realize the Second Centenary Goal and the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.”

Many saw the “historical resolution” as being of great political significance, with major media outlets and China commentators saying that Xi “gained power” with the passage of the Resolution. They also argue that the Resolution affirms Xi’s “political supremacy” and elevates him to the same stature as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, two powerful CCP paramount leaders who each passed a resolution on the Party’s history. 

Finally, commentators and the media say that the Resolution puts Xi, who reportedly has “no rival leader or heir apparent in view,” on track to taking a norm-breaking third office term at the 20th Party Congress in 2022, as well as grant him “added power in picking his allies to rise in the ranks.” 

Western China watchers have been describing Xi’s leadership as “unrivaled” even before the 19th Party Congress in 2017. This view has been gaining currency with each move by Xi to consolidate power to a greater degree, including the addition of his political thought to the CCP Constitution in 2017, the scrapping of term limits for the presidency in 2018, and now the adoption of Xi’s “historical resolution” by the Party. 

Curious explanations
The dominant narrative about Xi Jinping and his “historical resolution” is self-contradictory. Mainstream media outlets and commentators observe that Xi has no opponents, or at least none that are visible. They also note that Xi reigns “politically supreme” in the regime. But if both propositions are accurate, then it follows logically that Xi does not need the “historical resolution” or any “added power” that comes with it to secure a third term next year or ensure that his allies are reshuffled to key positions. Instead of tying Xi’s “historical resolution” to political actions that are foregone conclusions given his reportedly unassailable position in the Party, commentators and media outlets ought to stress that the document is immaterial and even superfluous in the grand scheme of CCP elite politics in the Xi era.  

Then there is the argument that Xi’s “historical resolution” is an affirmation of his “political supremacy” and a way to place Xi on the same pedestal as Mao and Deng. This is almost certainly the view that Xi wants observers to take away from the content of the Resolution and official propaganda in relation to it that was published around the Sixth Plenum period. 

The “political supremacy” argument, however, quickly falls apart when the substance of Xi’s “historical resolution” is compared with that of his predecessors. Both Mao and Deng issued their respective resolutions only after they had decisively triumphed over their factional rivals at the time and established substantial personal “quan wei” (prestige and authority). 

Thus, Mao and Deng could afford to openly criticize and repudiate the “incorrect line” of their foes in their resolutions while promoting their own political orthodoxies. In contrast, Xi credited all his predecessors with helping to “Sinicize Marxism,” including Jiang Zemin, the figurehead of an influential faction that opposes his leadership. 

Xi’s “historical resolution” only indirectly alludes to problems during the Jiang faction’s era of dominance (1997 to 2012), such as recognizing that the Xi leadership had to fix “lax and weak governance,” secure an “overwhelming victory” over corruption, and ensure “balanced, coordinated, and sustainable” economic development. 

This fundamental break from the hard-hitting documents issued by Mao and Deng indicates that Xi is not yet at their stature, even though Party propaganda seems to signal otherwise. 

Political insecurity 
Major media and commentators have not adequately explained the significance of Xi Jinping’s “historical resolution,” but they are correct in linking it with his effort to secure a third office term in 2022 and dominate personnel reshuffle horse-trading at the upcoming Party Congress. 

A brief recap of Xi’s political situation is necessary to make better sense of what his “historical resolution” really represents. Xi took office in 2012 amid fierce factional fighting with the Jiang faction over the Wang Lijun incident and an attempted coup by Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang. 

A compromise candidate for the Party leadership and a princeling without his own faction or extensive networks, Xi struggled to push through his preferred policies in the first half of his first term. Xi also faced interference from powerful factional rivals and “passive resistance” from officials uncertain about Xi’s “quan wei” and political longevity. To overcome the problem of seeing his orders “fail to leave the gates of Zhongnanhai,” Xi proceeded to rapidly consolidate power, grow his “quan wei,” and marginalize his political opponents through the anti-corruption campaign, military reforms, personnel reshuffles, propaganda, and the accumulation of key tokens of power (official titles, “borrowing” unofficial titles associated with Mao, becoming “core” leader, establishing “Xi Jinping Thought,” etc.). 

Xi has consolidated power to a high degree over the past nine years and is by no means weak politically. However, Xi still encounters challenges to effective governance from entrenched rivals in the CCP’s permanent bureaucracy (political and legal affairs, intelligence, etc.) and crucial sectors dominated by his rivals (finance, tech, entertainment, etc). There is also uncertainty about Xi’s political future given that modern CCP succession norms limit leaders to only two five-year terms. 

To avoid becoming a powerful but paralyzed “lame duck” Party boss, overcome bureaucratic and factional resistance, and actualize his grand vision for China, Xi has to overwrite prior norms governing the duration of leadership tenure and set himself to become a paramount leader of great “quan wei” after the likes of Mao and Deng. Hence, Xi abolished term limits for the Chinese presidency in 2018, published a revised Party history in the first half of 2021, and pushed through a “historical resolution” touting his “political achievements” at the Sixth Plenum. 

Brittle leader
Xi Jinping’s “historical resolution” is an effort at boosting his “quan wei” via propaganda and providing ideological justification for why he should not be stopped from taking a third term. However, “quan wei” derived from propaganda is no substitute for genuine political achievements, and Xi’s only mentionable achievement to date is his anti-corruption campaign. Meanwhile, Xi has presided over sizable failures, including noticeable economic deterioration with each passing year and growing international antagonism towards China over the CCP’s malign activities and “wolf warrior” antics. 

Xi is now under tremendous pressure to perform after having artificially inflated his “quan wei” and image through propaganda and the “historical resolution.” Xi’s rivals will not hesitate to pounce should Xi fail to meet the lofty expectations he has set for himself or weather the many crises facing China. The passage of the “historical resolution” has left Xi and the Party much more vulnerable to Black Swan events and other risks. 

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