BEIJING – On the eve of the opening of a key Chinese Communist Party congress, party leader, head of state and commander of the armed forces Xi Jinping seems more in charge than ever, having given no indication of stepping away from power or anointing a successor.
Xi had given few signs during his steady rise through the ranks of the party that he would develop into one of modern China’s most dominant leaders, or that he would put the economically and militarily ascendant country on a collision course with the U.S.-led international order.
Those illusions have been all but swept away, however, ahead of the century-old party’s opening of its 20th congress Sunday. What’s not clear is how long he will remain in power, and what that means for China and the world.
“Xi Jinping is certainly a polarizing individual," said Joseph Torigian, a Chinese politics expert at at American University in Washington, D.C.
While some have resented XI's trampling on what few freedoms Chinese citizens still enjoyed under the one party state, others say China's various and acute challenges require that a “strong leader is needed to keep at bay the recipes for chaos and dysfunction,” Torigian said.
Xi's third term is a break with an unofficial two-term limit that other recent leaders had followed. What's not clear is how long he will remain in power, and what that means for China and the world.
“I see Xi having his way at the 20th congress, mostly. It is a question of how much more powerful he will be coming out of it," said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies. "He is not coming out looking weaker.”
One of Xi’s signature policies has been an anti-corruption campaign that has been popular with the public and conveniently enabled him to sideline potential rivals. A former justice minister and a former deputy public security minister received suspended death sentences last month.
The continuing anti-corruption campaign, Tsang said, shows that “anyone who stands in his way will be crushed.”
Xi, 69, had the right pedigree to climb to the top. He enjoyed a privileged early youth in Beijing as the son of Xi Zhongxun, a former vice premier and guerrilla commander in the civil war that brought Mao’s communists to power in 1949.
His family, though, fell afoul of the capriciousness of Mao's rule during the anarchy of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which banished intellectuals to the countryside and subjected many to public humiliation and brutal beatings in the name of class struggle.
His father was jailed and Xi, at the age of 15, was sent to live in a poor rural village in Shaanxi province in 1969 as part of Mao’s campaign to have educated urban young people learn from peasants. He lived as villagers did in a hut carved into the area's cliffs.
The experience is said to have toughened Xi and given him an understanding of the struggles of the rural population. He stayed in the village for six years, until receiving a coveted scholarship to prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“Knives are sharpened on the stone. People are refined through hardship,” Xi told a Chinese magazine in 2001. “Whenever I later encountered trouble, I’d just think of how hard it had been to get things done back then and nothing would then seem difficult.”
Alfred Wu, who covered Xi for Chinese state media in Fujian, remembers him as quiet and low-profile, saying he wasn't as assertive as he has become as national leader.
“Nowadays, Xi Jinping is totally different from Xi Jinping as a governor," said Wu, now an associate professor of public policy at the National University of Singapore.
Xi was moved to neighboring Zhejiang province in 2002, where he was party leader for more than four years, the top position outranking the governor. He then briefly was made party secretary in nearby Shanghai in 2007, after his predecessor fell in a corruption scandal.
Over his time in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai, Xi was seen mainly as a pragmatist who didn’t originate bold proposals but generally backed the economic reforms that Deng had initiated and benefited in particular coastal areas such as those three jurisdictions.
He also spoke out against corruption as governor in Fujian after a major smuggling scandal, a hint perhaps of the national crackdown that came after his rise to the top.
Xi was thrust into the national leadership in 2007. That's when he joined the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Communist Party's Politburo, a prelude to being named to the top position at the next congress in 2012.
Xi has taken control of economic and military matters and had his name enshrined in the party constitution alongside Mao by adding a reference to his ideology — Xi Jinping Thought.
The ideology is vague but emphasizes reviving the party’s mission as China’s political, economic, social and cultural leader and its central role in achieving the goal of “national rejuvenation,” the restoration of the country to a position of prominence in the world.
His government has increased the role of state industry while launching anti-monopoly and data security crackdowns on high-flying private sector firms including e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and Tencent Holding, the owner of the popular WeChat messaging service.
Xi has also revived a 1950's propaganda slogan “common prosperity” in a nod to a burgeoning gap between the rich and the poor, though it's unclear if the government plans any major initiatives to address that.
With the economy sagging from pandemic-era restrictions and a government crackdown on spiraling real estate debt, concern is rising that Xi is engineering a shift away from Deng's strategy of “reform and opening up” that delivered four decades of growth.
Wu views Xi as a disciple of Mao rebelling against Deng, who allowed the private sector to flourish and sought positive relations with the West. “He’s really anti-U.S. and anti-West,” Wu said.
Xi's more confrontational approach stems from a belief that now is the time for a stronger China to play a larger role in international affairs and stand up to outside pressure.
Xi has antagonized Japan, India and other Asian neighbors by pressing claims to disputed islands in the South and East China Seas, and territory high up in the Himalayas. He has also ramped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, the island democracy that the Communist Party says belongs to China.
Relations with the U.S. have tumbled to their lowest level since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979, with the Biden administration maintaining tariffs imposed by former President Donald Trump and blocking Chinese access to important American technologies.
Within China, the Communist Party under Xi has increased surveillance, tightened already strict control over speech and media and cracked down further on dissent, censoring even mildly critical views and jailing those it believes went too far.
Authorities have detained an estimated million or more members of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in China's Xinjiang region in a harsh anti-extremism campaign that has been labeled genocide by the U.S. In Hong Kong, Xi's government responded to massive protests with a tough national security law that has eliminated political opposition and altered the once-freewheeling nature of the city.
Xi is facing a challenge to his government’s harsh “zero-COVID” policies, which have taken an economic and human toll. Small groups of residents staged protests during a two-month lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year.
In a rare political protest, someone hung banners from an elevated highway in Beijing this week calling for freedom, not lockdowns, and worker and student strikes to force Xi out. They were quickly removed, police deployed and any mention of the incident speedily wiped from the internet.
The government has stuck with the policy, which earlier was seen as a success as COVID-19 ravaged other parts of the world. Although there is simmering dissatisfaction, particularly as life returns to normal in other parts of the world, most people don't dare to speak out.
Associated Press journalists Dake Kang and Joe McDonald contributed to this story.