Prince Xi Jinping’s rise has been foretold by many. Yet, Xi’s unprecedented third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is stoking new fears in the hearts of business and media persons, besides China’s neighbours and nationals. Effortlessly, the 69-year-old Xi managed to acquire immense animal power at the end of the week-long 20th five-year party congress on 23 October. Xi will be supported now by the party’s policy-making 7-member Standing Committee and the 24-member Politburo, both filled with his cherry-picked allies, die-hard loyalists and incorrigible yes-men.

Anyway, Xi has been powerful since 2012, when he was elected to the twin posts of general secretary of the CCP and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Now, Xi is more powerful. He will be the indisputable head of the armed forces too. He will be re-confirmed as president of China in the next annual legislature session of the government in March 2023.  With such authority, Xi is increasingly viewed as a wholesome personification of authoritarianism in China.

A Fawning Congress Approves

Though the re-anointment script had a ring of familiarity about it, the party congressional gathering was an unabashed show of Xi’s hold on his party, its standing committee and its politburo. The orchestrated show was out and out Xi-centric. At the start of the congressional assemblage, Xi cantered across the stage, leading his new cavalcade of seven handpicked sycophants of the new Standing Committee. Xi made this possible by breaching CCP’s retirement rules.

With a more powerful Xi at the helm now, collective decisions by committee members would become history. Democracy would be phased out totally, to be replaced by unquestioned autocracy. Electoral autocracies in the region, driven by powerful heads of state, may pick up democracy-negating lessons from Xi. Adding more autocratic power to Xi’s elbow are the changes made to the CCP charter. These include a diktat to party members to protect Xi’s position at the core of CCP leadership. A fawning Congress approved the resolution saying it would “rejuvenate China on an irreversible historical course.”

The Hu Jintao Revelations

What added an ominous dimension to Xi’s show of might was the forcible removal of Hu Jintao, the frail-looking 79-year-old former party general secretary. Hu Jintao was sitting next to Xi and he was perplexed, not prepared to leave. He was forced out of his chair and escorted out. Later, the state media reported Hu Jintao was unwell. Unwell or not, forced exit of a senior leader is an unmistakable sign of Xi’s autocracy in its most diabolical form.

Pekingologists may be divided over whether and how Hu Jintao’s exit could impact Xi’s politics. Whatever, Hu Jintao’s departure carries an unintended symbolism. Politicians with any ties to Xi’s predecessors will have no place in the party hereon. Close confidants alone can aspire to find a place in Xi’s inner circle. In essence, the Hu Jintao drama reveals Xi’s mind and his strategy of eliminating from his inner circle those who could challenge him and his autocracy tomorrow. Remember Hitler limiting his inner circle to Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goring, Joseph Goebbels, and seven other loyalists.

Xi’s Eclectic Inner Circle

Who makes up Xi’s inner circle? Otherwise known as Standing Committee, Xi’s inner circle excludes Chinese premier Li Keqiang. At 67, though considered to be young, he has been dropped as he is seen as a contender for Xi’s position. Others excluded from the Committee are Li and Wang Yang, besides Li Zhanshu and Han Zheng. In their places, Xi has four of his loyal men now. One, Li Qiang, a vocal Xi supporter. Then, the party secretary Cai Qi. The third is Li Xi, CCP chief of Guangdong. The fourth is Ding Xuexiang, Xi’s chief of staff.

This eclectic composition of the coterie suggests Xi is building a broad personal aura around himself at the cost of his party. The party charter stipulates leaders can have two terms aggregating to a maximum of 10 years, not more. Xi’s third term breaks this norm. In addition, Xi has violated the rule stipulating those over 67 would be disqualified for leadership positions. Xi is 69 and Xi’s new General Zhang Youxia is 72.

Global Leaders Get Goosebumps

Thus, both the norms have gone out of the window, perhaps with the aid of opportunistic amendments. Truly, Xi has put his personal interests before his party’s. This is a sure sign of Xi moving towards total dictatorship. Thus, leaders around the globe are getting goosebumps and the fear is palpable. A stronger Xi would be more audacious in executing his plans to extend China’s hegemony beyond its borders. Quite possibly, Taiwan and India are on Xi’s radar right now.

Hegemonistic objectives apart, a more powerful Xi would aim at total self-sufficiency in the strategic defence sector in a bid to make the People’s Liberation Army a globally-feared force. Thus, an invincible Xi would be China’s opportunity, strength and weakness. Opportunity because Xi is expected to continue with current policies and consolidate the gains.  Strength because a strong authoritarian Xi would make China a globally-dreaded military power. Weakness because a formidably strong Xi is sure to obliterate the last traces of inclusion, democracy, free speech and people power in China. The weakness would end up negating the sum total of Xi’s strengths and opportunities.

China’s Gamble Moment

The bottom line is clear. Vesting so much power in Xi is invitation to disaster. History is replete with instances where limitless autocrats, blinded by arrogance, carried away by megalomania and influenced by hubris have run berserk across nations. Examples abound of autocrats living in cocoons of comfort and remaining in self-imposed isolation, away from reality. In instance after instance, either ignorant of what was happening outside or overzealous about boosting their masters’ morale, the sycophantic coteries have kept the power-drunk autocrats uninformed and misguided, finally leading to their downfall.

These signs are already there and visible in Xi’s China. On many occasions, Xi’s administration did overstep its authority. Often, not backed by competence, authorities fail to act on issues of great urgency. The early 2020 Covid outbreak is an example. Such instances will multiply now. This is sure to force Xi into not implementing policies inimical to his power-hold, though beneficial to his countrymen.  Aiding him in his inexorable march would be Xi’s censors, who would go to ridiculous levels to stifle free speech. Unmistakably, this will be China’s Gamble Moment.

Notorious for Economic Overreach

Xi’s such coconut-crab-like holds will end up squeezing China’s economy. Xi will soon come down heavily on property speculation, making the housing market slump further. This slump can halt long-term growth and hasten debt-defaults among developers. Xi might blow new life into his suicidal zero-Covid policy, thus squeezing consumer-spends and turning the screws on a beleaguered economy.

As regulatory crackdowns intensify, entrepreneurs will explore avenues to exit China to escape punishing taxes and punitive actions. Xi’s views on online education are fairly known. When an online-averse Xi continues with his educational polices, current unemployment crisis would deepen. Xi is notorious for his economic overreach and these are likely scenarios.

Consider this example. A few years ago, in 2017, Xi forced schools and housing colonies in northeast China to remove their coal-fired boilers to address the issue of air pollution. Xi did this without replacing the dismantled boilers with the promised heating systems powered by natural gas, leaving the children literally out in cold.

In Conclusion

From a small-time deputy party secretary of Zhengding County in 1982 to general secretary of CCP and president of the People’s Republic of China, Xi has come a long way vis-à-vis power and authority. He has transformed China into an aggressive Big-Brother state. In his 100-minute well-rehearsed delivery in the 20th party congress on 23 October, Xi dropped a hint: “We have used a combination of measures to take out tigers, swat flies and hunt down foxes…..”.

The living creatures Xi mentioned are supposed to be metaphors respectively for corrupt senior officials, corrupt low-ranking bureaucrats and fugitives suspected of major economic crimes. Quite possible, Xi was employing these metaphors to camouflage his designs on India, Taiwan and the United States. This may be the beginning.