One day after having his name and writings enshrined into his party’s constitution, placing him in the vaunted ranks beside Mao Zedong, President Xi Jinping proudly announced China’s top ruling council Wednesday, showing off a politburo stacked with allies. But the unveiling was missing one key element: a clear successor.
The introduction of the new Politburo Standing Committee was the final act of the 19th Communist Party Congress, which saw Xi emerge with an iron grip on China and a new focus on expanding his influence across the globe.
“Xi is the party, and the party is Xi.”
Wednesday’s demonstration of power at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, analysts say, was the clearest indication yet of Xi’s global ambitions. And while experts say Xi has no interest in getting his hands dirty in areas like policing and security — traditionally U.S. foreign policy preoccupations — he does intend to “shape the global order” to better suit China’s interests.
China’s relationship with the U.S. will be among the first indicators, with analysts warning that a new, more confident Beijing will challenge Washington and will be “much less amenable to U.S. pressure” — particularly when it comes to North Korea.
“What we see from this Party Congress, and the elevation of the Xi Thought, is an extremely confident Xi Jinping and an extremely confident China, and that is also going to have a real impact on how foreign countries deal with China and how China deals with the world,” China analyst Bill Bishop told VICE News.
The ages of the six officials of the new politburo, all in their 50s and 60s, and the lack of a clear successor suggest Xi has little intention to stand down in 2022, at the end of his second term in office. And the Chinese president has positioned himself so that no one can challenge him without appearing to also challenge the party.
“Xi is the party, and the party is Xi,” Bishop said.
In his opening address to Congress last week, Xi made it clear that China was entering a “new era” and that it wanted to take “center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind.” He spoke not about the next five years but about the next 30, suggesting that by 2050 China would become a modern socialist “strong power” with leading influence on the world stage.
“Xi laid out his vision for China to return to its rightful place at the center of the world after a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign imperial powers,” Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, told VICE News.
“Not being Donald Trump is not enough to demonstrate responsible global leadership.”
A rising China coincides with real political instability and turmoil in the West — personified by Brexit, the rise of far-right populism, and President Trump’s isolationist agenda — giving Xi a clear opening to take advantage.
Following Trump’s inauguration, Chinese officials worked hard to keep the U.S.-China relationship relatively smooth, because they knew that any major problem could have political blowback on Xi, analysts said. But after this week’s Communist Party Congress, that’s likely to be less of a priority.
“I think that concern is no longer operative,” Bishop said. ”The Chinese don’t want the relationship to fall apart, but I think they are also going to be much more confident and much less amenable to U.S. pressure in most areas.”
One of those areas is North Korea, said Bishop.
“The Chinese will move on North Korea if it’s in their interest to move. They are not going to do anything to make Donald Trump happy [just] because Xi and Donald Trump are somehow friends,” Bishop said.
Trump praised China Wednesday for its efforts in this area, having previously lambasted Beijing for failing to do enough.
But, while China does want to play a bigger role globally, it has shown no desire to get involved in challenging the U.S. as the world’s policeman.
“[China] has not shown the same interest on matters of security, whether they be issues on its border, such as North Korea, or further afield, in places like Syria,” Haenle said.
How Xi will use his new power to reshape the world order remains unclear, but with the U.S. pulling back in areas like climate change and global trade, Beijing is set to play a much greater role in global policy — as long as it serves China’s interests.
“They do want the ability to shape the world and shape the global order in ways that are more favorable to China than they are now,” Bishop said.
But analysts say Xi will have to do more in the coming months and years to demonstrate China’s leadership on the world stage.
“Not being Donald Trump is not enough to demonstrate responsible global leadership,” James Hannah, assistant head of the Asia program at Chatham House, told VICE News. “China’s greater influence, which Xi is committing to, will require delivery in areas outside of the even more dissent-free domestic climate.”