Chinese President and Communist Party General-Secretary Xi Jinping continues to consolidate power and has reached new status, adopting the title “helmsman,” a descriptor not used since Mao Zedong and denoting ultimate authority, according to U.S. intelligence officials.
Army Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said Mr. Xi’s increased power will fuel the Chinese military’s drive to create forces more powerful than those of the United States in the coming years.
“I think Xi is firmly in control of the party, of the military and every aspect of Chinese society,” Gen. Berrier told the Senate Armed Services Committee in testimony late last week.
In his prepared remarks, Gen. Berrier said a Chinese Communist Party Central Committee meeting in October marked a significant shift in Mr. Xi’s power.
“The ensuing communique likely signaled Xi’s singular political position within the party, declaring him the ‘core navigator and helmsman,’ an invocation not used since Mao Zedong,” the three-star general said.
The most famous sobriquet of Mao, founder of the Chinese Communist Party and hero of the Chinese Revolution, was “Great Helmsman.” Mr. Xi’s use of the term highlights what analysts say is his plan to consolidate his rule under an extreme Chinese version of communism.
Gen. Berrier said the CCP session outlined the party’s economic and military goals, including renewed efforts to shift the economy to developing high-technology industries. “Beijing believes that China remains in ‘a period of important strategic opportunities,’” he said.
Larry Ong, a senior analyst with the U.S.-based Chinese political risk consultancy SinoInsider, said the addition of the titles used by Mao are part of Mr. Xi’s drive to consolidate his power indefinitely.
“By ‘borrowing’ from Mao, Xi is looking to boost his ‘power-prestige,’ or ‘quan wei’ — the sum total of an official’s formal and informal power, authority and prestige,” Mr. Ong said, adding that use of the title does not mean Mr. Xi wants to become a new Mao.
Under Mr. Xi, China has pursued military expansion abroad and increased political control domestically. The State Department this year declared Beijing engaged in genocide against minority Uyghurs in the western province of Xinjiang.
Militarily, China has stepped up naval and aircraft pressure in neighboring seas against rival claimants to disputed waters. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin in recent days have issued sharp criticism of Beijing’s assertiveness in the region.
“It will not have escaped the attention of anyone here that as China’s role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems — and the interests and values that shape those systems — are becoming harder to reconcile,” Ms. Ardern told a China business summit Monday in Auckland.
Beijing has also set off alarm bells within the Pentagon over stepped-up military provocations against Taiwan, the island democracy with close U.S. ties. Mr. Xi has declared reuniting Taiwan with the mainland a core interest and has dispatched military aircraft and warships around Taiwan in large numbers in recent weeks.
Mr. Xi became Communist Party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission, the ultimate power position, in 2012. He initially was slated to serve two five-year terms.
But in 2018, Mr. Xi changed party rules to eliminate term limits, paving the way for him take on a third term next year or even a fourth term after that.
The term limits were set up when Deng Xiaoping was CCP leader and were meant to prevent another dictator like Mao from creating a personality cult and imposing totalitarian control.
Mao ruled China from 1949 until his death in 1976 with devastating results, including actions that historians say caused the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese through policies of political extermination, forced collectivization and other policies.
China experts say Mr. Xi’s hold on power is less certain because of the party’s history of factionalism.
No known power factions are following Mr. Xi’s purge of thousands of officials and military leaders who could have challenged his authority.
That was carried out by eliminating rivals from two political power centers known as the “Shanghai faction,” led by those associated with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and the “Central Party School faction” under President Hu Jintao, Mr. Xi’s immediate predecessor. Mr. Xi thoroughly purged a third faction within the People’s Liberation Army of perceived rivals, along with officials from the other factions.
As a “princeling,” the offspring of a high-ranking party official, Mr. Xi cobbled together his own support base by eliminating rivals from the other power centers.
“Nine years after Xi Jinping took office, we can now say that a ‘Xi faction’ is emerging,” said Mr. Ong. “If Xi does take a third and even fourth term, he will lay a foundation that would allow the ‘Xi faction’ to dominate the regime in a similar fashion to what the Jiang faction did in the previous two decades.”
China watchers say the remnants of the Jiang faction remain the greatest threat to the Xi regime and will try to stop Mr. Xi in the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress next year, when the question of a third term will still give them influence, Mr. Ong said.
Analysts also noted recent remarks published in Macao by former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao suggesting renewed infighting between Mr. Xi and the Hu Jintao faction. The New York Times exposed Mr. Wen in 2012 for allegedly using his power to amass a fortune worth $2.7 billion.
Last month, Mr. Wen wrote an article praising his mother, Yang Zhiyun, who made $120 million as part of the corruption scandal.
The report by Mr. Wen set off viral discussions on China’s vibrant social media that were promptly censored.
Analysts say the incident may have less to do with a perceived political rivalry with Mr. Xi than with the fact that Mr. Wen was accused years ago of using his relatives to amass wealth, believed to be a common road to riches for top party officials.
Rooting out rivals
Miles Yu, a senior State Department policy planning official in the Trump administration, said Mr. Xi has rooted out all opposition to his rule and is moving toward creating a totalitarian system.
“Chinese President Xi Jinping is a die-hard communist who believes in the ideology,” he said in a recent interview.
Mr. Yu said the Trump administration countered what he said was Beijing’s manipulation of successive American administrations by pushing back against false narratives and by leveraging the advantages of the U.S. free and open system against the authoritarian Chinese model.
“In reality, the Chinese regime at its core is fragile and weak, fearful of its own people and utterly paranoid about confrontation from the West, especially the United States,” he said.
The CCP is seeking survival in power and then domination, regionally and eventually globally. Chinese domination has been cast in state propaganda as a “community with a share future for mankind” under Mr. Xi and his “China Dream” ideology.
The survival-dominance narrative of Mr. Xi is a break from the policy of earlier Chinese leaders spelled out as “bide our time; building our capabilities” when China’s military and economy were far smaller than they are today.
Mr. Xi also used China’s handling of the pandemic to consolidate power despite international outcry against Beijing for its handling of the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak that soon engulfed the world.
“Unfortunately, most Chinese people on the mainland would not know that Beijing had mishandled the pandemic due to CCP propaganda,” Mr. Ong said.
China’s elites understand they are in the pandemic together and may not use it as an excuse to challenge Mr. Xi.
“Moreover, the party is currently capitalizing on the pandemic to advance its global domination agenda,” Mr. Ong said. “And part of this involves promoting its ‘successful’ handling of the pandemic and so-called institutional advantages.”