China’s Communist Party is poised to deliver Xi Jinping a momentous breakthrough this week that will help secure his political future — by rewriting history.
Senior party officials have gathered at a closed-door meeting in Beijing to cement Mr. Xi’s dominance as he moves to claim a likely third term next year as China’s leader.
The meeting, known as the plenum, is expected to approve a decision on Thursday that will reassess the party’s 100-year history and enshrine Mr. Xi in the party’s official firmament of era-defining leaders. The move would elevate Mr. Xi to a stature alongside Mao Zedong, the founder of the country’s Communist rule, and Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of its economic takeoff.
This week’s meeting was the start of a momentous year in Chinese politics. Its announcements will play a big part in the leadership shake-up at a Communist Party congress that is likely to be held in 2022, when Mr. Xi, China’s most powerful leader in decades, appears on track to secure a third five-year term as the party’s general secretary. There is no rival leader or heir apparent in view.
The decision to place Mr. Xi among the country’s historical giants would bolster his argument that he is the only leader capable of steering China toward superpower status through uncertain times. China navigated the Covid-19 pandemic relatively well, but it faces growing distrust from the United States and other Western countries, economic risks from debt-laden companies and local governments, and social pressures as its population gets older.
Mr. Xi has faced a succession of crises, but he has often been able to turn them into vindication for his hard-line ways. He responded to months of pro-democracy unrest in Hong Kong by imposing a harsh security law. He applied sweeping restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19 in China. And Beijing claimed victory after Canadian authorities released Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese telecommunications executive, at the same time that China quietly released two Canadians it had arrested.
By claiming a third term as party leader, as he is expected to do next year, Mr. Xi would break the pattern of staying in power for only two terms. In 2018, Mr. Xi made a bold power play by eliminating a term limit on the presidency, opening the way for him to lead China indefinitely. That move overturned widespread expectations that the party had been settling into a 10-year cap on leaders’ time in power.
Glorifying Mr. Xi’s achievements, and making him a peer of Mao and Deng, would help fireproof Mr. Xi against any challenges to his record. The decision is sure to become the focus of an intense propaganda campaign, as well as indoctrination sessions for party officials.
Reporting and research by Chris Buckley, Steven Lee Myers, Liu Yi and Claire Fu.
The meeting of the Communist Party’s Central Committee is a big deal in Chinese politics. The Central Committee brings together the party’s elite — about 200 central and provincial officials who have voting rights on its decisions, and 170 or so “alternate” members with no vote. The committee usually meets once a year to set the direction for politics and policy.
Past plenums have inaugurated major changes. A Central Committee meeting in 1978 set China on a path toward market reforms. One in 2013 approved a blueprint for Xi Jinping’s economic and social reforms. And another, in 2019, set in motion preparations for Hong Kong’s drastic national security law. Unusually, this latest meeting is expected to pass a resolution on Communist Party history.
The four-day meeting, or “plenum,” of the Central Committee lays the ground for a once-every-five-years party congress later in 2022 that will approve a new leadership lineup for China. Xi Jinping seems very likely to claim a third five-year term at that congress, bucking the two-term limit observed by his predecessor.
Even with his formidable power, Mr. Xi needs to carefully handle the party elite, heading off potential discontent and enforcing loyalty, and the meeting was a chance to do that. These plenums, though, take place behind closed doors, and we are unlikely to find out details about what Mr. Xi and other officials said about any plans for the coming leadership shake-up.
A decision on history sounds like an unusual move: Imagine if President Biden summoned lawmakers and governors to agree on an assessment of American history. But managing how the past is remembered has long been important to Chinese leaders’ claims to authority. And the new resolution on history that the meeting will issue has far-reaching implications by emphasizing that Mr. Xi’s plans, and his potential influence, extend for decades ahead.
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