The Resistible Rise of Xi Jinping

China’s president radically changed his country and the Communist Party through skill, determination—and a series of lucky breaks.

China’s 19th Party Congress began Wednesday with a three-and-a-half-hour speech by Xi Jinping, a telling sign of a man who knows he has to be listened to. The general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party — usually referred to in English by his far less important title of “president” — is the heart of a weeklong love fest in Beijing as officials gather to determine the makeup of the leadership for the next five years and more.

But Xi’s power in office reaches far beyond the assembled delegates in the Great Hall of the People. Xi has near-absolute command over the ruling party and, through it, a state of 1.3 billion people, a 1.6 million-strong army, and an $11 trillion economy. The United States is still richer and stronger, but the office of the U.S. president — even when the officeholder is not deemed a “moron” by members of his own cabinet — is far more radically limited than the position held by his Chinese counterpart. Xi’s rule has tightened the grip of the party on his country and slashed away space for any opposition. While his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, struggled to make their authority felt, even before formally assuming office in 2013 Xi was purging his foes. Under the rules of the party, he’s about to reach the halfway mark of his term — but there’s a growing consensus that power in 2022 will stay in his hands, with no appointed heir in sight.

But Xi’s rise was not inevitable. The speed and range of his purges depended partially on his own political skills but far more critically on opportunities offered him by the rest of the party. Xi arrived at the party’s highest echelon at a moment of growing paranoia — triggered by public discontent about rampant corruption, deepened by the revolutionary Arab Spring in 2010, and reinforced by the Ukraine rebellion of 2014. Xi represented the possibility of deliverance for China’s autocratic, but consensus-based, political system — and a promise to protect it against any opponent, including Xi’s main rival in the Communist elite, Bo Xilai. Bo’s fall in 2012 gave Xi the momentum he needed to create a rolling attack on his foes that left him the only man who mattered.

And so Xi managed to thoroughly change the party — imposing absolute security and receiving absolute control — largely, if paradoxically, because he did so in the course of allegedly preserving it. Absent the paranoia-inspired acquiescence of his party colleagues, and the opening provided by Bo’s unforeseen fall, Xi would almost certainly still be president of China — but hemmed in by political rivals, restricted in his use of the party’s security machinery, and limited in his ambitions.

Before we go on, a caveat. The party’s code of omertà is tight, and the outside world’s knowledge of what happens behind the palace moats of Zhongnanhai, Beijing’s Kremlin, minimal. Reliable information has become even harder to come by in the age of Xi, where the fear of talking to media, and especially to foreigners, has become more acute than ever. Tales of the leadership — including entire alternate histories promising supposedly hidden truths — circulate online and among the Chinese dissident diaspora, but most of them are fantasy. This account relies on private conversations with insiders, media accounts, and the opinions of foreign experts to create a rough first sketch of a history that may never be fully revealed. Yet the outlines of the story are clear, as is what they mean for the future direction of the world’s largest country.

China's President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 18. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Xi’s ascent to the role of general secretary was fixed in 2007 at the 17th Party Congress, when his position as heir apparent was solidified. The horse-trading around this was part of a semicodified system of succession going back to 1989, when Jiang Zemin became general secretary following the Tiananmen massacre. Hu Jintao became Jiang’s heir apparent in 1997 and took on the role in 2002. Stability, as ever for the party, was paramount, but there was also a belief in rule by consensus and committee — at the top.

By the late 2000s, however, there was a strong feeling among the Chinese elite that Hu’s administration had been a failure. Despite the nominal ease of the succession, Jiang had never abandoned his desire to keep power in his hands, holding on to key military roles until 2005 and working through his political allies to hamstring his successor. Hu, once able to do a passable imitation of a human being, had become increasingly robotic, barely a presence in the public mind despite his constant unsmiling appearances on stage.

By 2007, Hu’s weakness had set up Xi’s strength; he was expected to be a more assertive, confident, and charismatic leader when he took over in 2012 — but still a party man to the core, one who had risen steadily through the system and was expected to serve it. By 2017 he’d pick a clear heir of his own, establishing a new generation of leadership to continue these traditions. But he would not be ruling alone; instead, he’d be guided, and constrained, by a range of other top figures on the Standing Committee, the seven to nine men who would make up the core leadership, and in the 25-seat Politburo.

Foreign observers often look for familiar patterns of “reformers” and “hard-liners” within authoritarian states. But the most important ties in the party at the time had very little to do with ideology. Instead, they were determined by affiliation: who you had come up with, served under, and were patronizing yourself. And so Xi’s new Politburo would be expected to include allies of Hu, Xi, and even the cadaverous Jiang.

The biggest challenge for the new administration would be rampant corruption, from the petty extortion of street vendors through to enormous payoffs for political influence and the wholesale ransacking of state resources. In percentage terms, Chinese corruption’s worst point had been the 1990s. But even if corruption had been slightly curbed since then in relative terms, in absolute ones China’s economic boom meant that the sums of money involved had become eye-bogglingly large, with scandals running into the billions of dollars.

From the party’s point of view, corruption was rotting the public’s faith and crippling the nation. From the point of view of most members of the party, however, if everyone else was getting rich, then why couldn’t they? Even a cursory glance at China’s new social media revealed that officials were seen as skinning the people, not serving them. Worst of all, the military itself was rotten — to the extent that a war, even a small one, could become a disastrous failure. The authorities were jailing 10,000 officials a year on corruption charges, but that was a droplet in a river. Helicopters were disappearing from bases, sold off to private firms; thousands of army license plates were flogged off to truckers so that they could avoid roadside tolls; and military officers — who had officially been told to get out of private business entirely a decade before — were running condom factories and Beijing nightclubs.

One reason why corruption was on everyone’s mind, though, was that the spaces available to talk about it had broadened. It can be hard to distinguish how much of the limited online and press openness of the late 2000s was deliberate policy and how much was laziness and indifference within an increasingly corroded system. But for some thinkers in the party, openness was seen as the solution to corruption. Online supervision of lower-level officials by the public, combined with more freedom of the press, would eliminate the rot at the bottom — while remaining carefully limited from going further. Chinese bloggers became adept at pointing out Rolexes on the wrists of city officials supposedly paid less than $1,000 a month. Even those deeply embedded in the system felt the need to talk in this language: “We want democracy and an open press in China,” a prominent nationalist provocateur claimed in private conversation. “But we have to go slowly, slowly. China is a complicated country.”

The Arab Spring put an end to these ambitions. An already present paranoia about Western cultural infiltration was given new life by the scenes at Tahrir Square. “Color revolution,” already a concern after the Central Asian revolts, began to grip the Chinese leadership’s imagination. The country’s founding legitimacy rests on revolutionary martyrdom — but it’s also twice been threatened by passionate (and unemployed) youth taking to the streets, in the Cultural Revolution and in the Tiananmen protests. That gave the scenes from the Arab world an extra edge and made the threat posed by revolt a tangled one: It had to be both discredited as a Western-backed, insincere form of revolution and sincerely crushed.

A few posts by online exiles about a “Jasmine Revolution,” a call for protest that never materialized, prompted a massive upping of security in Beijing. Chinese officials were prone to exaggerating the capabilities and role of U.S. intelligence in these events. “The Green Revolution was just caused by CIA spies!” one yelled down the phone when his account of how much the Iranian people loved their government, based on a weeklong trip, was questioned. Yet Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of U.S. capabilities further escalated the sense of threat from the West — as did the discovery and elimination of an extensive CIA network between 2010 and 2012. A renewed urgency about the reach of the West, and the need to reassert the dominance of the party, began to seize the leadership.

Then-Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai attends a meeting during the annual National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People on March 6, 2010 in Beijing, China. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

A security state demands a strongman to lead it. Yet by early 2012, it wasn’t Xi who worried the country’s liberals most but one of his rivals — the consummate politician Bo Xilai. Like Xi, Bo was a scion of red aristocracy; their fathers, Bo Yibo and Xi Zhongxun, had helped forge the revolution, fell in the chaos of the 1960s, re-emerged under Deng Xiaoping, and then worked hard to promote their sons’ careers. Both had divorced their first wives and made advantageous marriages: Xi to the celebrity army singer Peng Liyuan and Bo to Gu Kailai, the daughter of a revolutionary general and a prominent lawyer.

Bo’s campaigning for higher office had initially been seen as gauche, but his publicity skills proved better suited to the 2000s, as the internet and the rise of a less controlled media opened up new means of campaigning that eluded most of Bo’s peers. Bo’s TV-friendly good looks and smooth talk were as winning to foreign politicians as they were to Chinese crowds.

As party chief of Chongqing, one of the country’s largest cities, Bo was in the national papers almost daily — a rarity for a provincial leader. He arrived in 2008 with a blaze of furious activity, running a highly publicized anti-gangster campaign that purported to have ended organized crime in the city. Bo followed that cleanup with an extensive cultural campaign, ordering “frivolous” shows off the air in prime time to be replaced with party propaganda (and crashing ratings) and organizing mass singalongs to “red songs” — a mix of revolutionary classics and modern patriotic numbers. It inspired imitations throughout the country — and won lengthy praise from Xi himself on a Chongqing visit in 2010. In 2011, it became an official part of the party’s 90th anniversary celebrations.

Alongside the cultural campaign, a simultaneous expansion of public services, new parks, and urban housing made Bo genuinely popular in the city. Journalists, academics, and other officials rushed to praise the “Chongqing model,” incentivized both by a belief that Bo was the coming man and by the all-expense-paid (plus a few red envelopes) trips that the city administration offered. Even Henry Kissinger, a national hero in China for his role in Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit, blessed Bo at a red songs event before a crowd of 100,000 people.

All of this worried both China’s embattled liberals and Bo’s rivals within the party. Dissidents and intellectuals saw the red songs as an unhealthy reminder of Cultural Revolution fervor. His peers saw him as dangerously charismatic and ambitious and a potential threat to the established consensus-based order, where politicking was supposed to be a matter of backroom deals, not open campaigning. There were hints that Bo might even be able to overturn Xi’s succession. At 63 in 2012 — four years older than Xi — he wasn’t able to wait for a chance at the top job. “Bo would almost certainly have been elevated into the standing committee and then he would have been untouchable.… That was a very frightening prospect for his rivals, who thought of him as a Hitler-like figure,” a senior Chongqing official told the Financial Times in 2012.

At that year’s 18th Party Congress, fixed as usual for the autumn, the stage seemed set for Bo to join the ranks of China’s most powerful men in the Politburo and to provide a permanent counterweight to Xi. And then it all came crashing down — and opened up a chance for Xi to rule unchallenged.

A screen shows a video of Gu Kailai, wife of ousted Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Bo Xilai at the media room for Bo Xilai's trial on August 23, 2013 in Jinan, China. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

On Feb. 2, 2012, Wang Lijun, Bo’s brash police chief, was suddenly demoted to a minor position. On Feb. 6, he turned up at the American consulate in Chengdu, 200 miles away from Chongqing, begging to be given political asylum. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had, Wang claimed, murdered a British businessman and fixer, Neil Heywood. The Americans were firm, though; there was no way they could give Wang refuge — especially with Chinese police surrounding the consulate. A day later, he was on a first-class flight back to Beijing, accompanied by the vice minister of state security.

Whatever really happened, Wang’s very public flight gave Bo’s rivals, especially Xi, a golden chance to take him down. By March 15, he was out as party chief; by April 10, he was officially under investigation. He languished in detention for more than a year before charges were officially brought the next July, culminating in public show trials for him and his wife alike.

Tens of thousands of people had hitched a ride on Bo’s bandwagon, and now the scrabble to get off left many of them trampled underfoot. Ambitious underlings sent clippings of their bosses’ praise of Bo to the authorities. Regular pundits disappeared from the opinion pages for a while, like expert sycophant and “top journalism educator” Li Xiguang, who had made the mistake of praising Bo too loudly. (Like many others, Li would re-emerge a couple of years later with his tongue ready for Xi’s broad posterior.)

Gu Kailai became “Bogu Kailai” in reports, a linguistic aberration something along the lines of saying “Mrs. Bill-Hillary Clinton.” There were wide speculations that this was a deliberate attempt to remind everyone of Bo’s culpability. But the real answer lay in the desperation to prove that you were on the right side — especially among journalists who had heaped fulsome praise on the Chongqing model. “It was a misprint in a piece of Xinhua [the state news agency] copy,” an experienced Xinhua reporter claimed. “And then everybody imitated it because they thought it must mean something — and then nobody could stop.”

A screen shows the picture of the sentence of Chinese politician Bo Xilai (Center) on September 22, 2013 in Beijing, China. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

Bo’s purge had been technically initiated under Hu’s auspices. But that made it the perfect cover for Xi to move against other potential opponents — and to carry out his own version of Bo’s policies at the same time, putatively in service of the party’s integrity rather than his own personal ambition. Even as the “Chongqing model” was officially discredited (and Xi’s own praise for it erased from media archives), Xi was imitating his former enemy’s techniques. He entered office with a promise of national cleanup, sparing neither the great (“tigers”) nor the petty (“flies”). Unlike previous campaigns, retired officials, civilian and military alike, were in the crosshairs despite being theoretically out of the game. Like Bo’s gang crackdown, the anti-corruption campaign was broadly popular among a public increasingly fed up with the vagaries of bribery — although it was hard to distinguish genuine enthusiasm from the mandatory praise of the leader’s schemes. And, at least at first, it was also popular among a party establishment desperate for a renewed sense of order and public legitimacy.

Perhaps the most significant scalp claimed by Xi in his early years was that of Zhou Yongkang, a powerful deal-maker under Hu who had retired from his post on the Standing Committee in 2012. After Bo’s fall, rumors about his ties to Bo circulated widely, possibly prompted by Xi himself. “Bo and Zhou were nowhere near as close as claimed,” the daughter of one of Zhou’s fallen allies said. “But Xi wanted to link the two of them together so that he could go after Zhou.” In the year before Zhou’s own arrest was announced, his appointees were systematically accused of corruption and removed from office. Ling Jihua, a close ally of Hu’s, was another early victim, rendered particularly vulnerable when his son died in a Ferrari crash the same month that Bo fell — another stroke of luck for Xi. Senior army officials, once thought untouchable due to the military’s fierce resistance to any inquiry into its own ranks, were also hit — one literally arrested in his hospital bed.

Xi’s weapon in this campaign was the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the party’s internal watchdog. He put his close ally Wang Qishan in charge of it, a friend since childhood and former colleague. Before the arrival of Wang, the CCDI had been much more limited in who it could target, wary of offending the powerful and circumscribed, in particular, by the feared Ministry of State Security. But it had been closely tied to Zhou, and several of its former ministers and vice ministers were among the first to be reaped. It was the CCDI that now gave officials bad dreams.

The CCDI’s procedural tool was shuanggui, the rapid seizure and isolation of suspects in order to prevent them from contacting their own networks of power. It literally means “double designation,” referring to the official notice to appear at a “designated time and designated place.” In practice, it was quasi-legal kidnapping, carried out under the authority of “party discipline.” A CCDI team would turn the wing of a local hotel into an improvised detention center, where they would force confessions — and information on other targets — out of their subjects using every means possible, including torture. By 2013, the purges had become so widespread that the major state-owned oil enterprises established a routine of calling senior staff in the early morning to check that nobody had disappeared into detention overnight.

In ordinary times, those targeted would have been able to fight back, drawing on the wealth of personal friendships, mutual blackmail material, and institutional loyalties that every Chinese leader accumulates on the way up. But back-footed by Bo’s fall, and their networks disrupted by the numerous retirements, changes in title, and prosecutions that had followed, they were never able to mount any kind of resistance. Chinese political plotting requires getting people from across a vast country together in the same room — surveillance makes communications too risky to use. But the very act of getting high-ranking officials together, outside of approved occasions, could now be taken as evidence of a conspiracy. Previous purges, although frequent, had been followed by a cooling-down period, an ebb and flow that gave the chance for recovery and resistance. But the shock and awe of Xi’s campaign never let up.

Xi’s crackdown did curb much of the mid-level corruption and especially the wild banqueting and brothel culture that had become the norm among officials and businessmen. But referring to it solely as an anti-corruption campaign misses the point. There was no doubt that many — virtually all — of those who had fallen had been corrupt. But so had everyone. Chinese government salaries had fallen far behind inflation, so even with the packages of benefits that came with the post it was impossible to keep up one’s neighbors without taking something on the side. And an official who insisted on being clean would be seen as either dangerously naive or up to something, a Frank Serpico among dirty cops. Xi’s own family had accumulated billions of dollars.

Perhaps the fallen had been a little dirtier than most. But those picked for sacrifice in the campaign, however, tended to come from areas where Xi’s rivals had strong power bases: the southern provinces, especially Sichuan; the energy sector; and the army. Not that the inequities of Xi’s approach made any difference to the public, which was pleased to see high officials receive any comeuppance at all. “Oh, they all sing the same tune,” a guard at the Tangshan Prison said wearily, describing the fallen party officials he now oversees. “‘Everyone was doing it. Everyone was taking money. I was just unlucky, poor me.’”

People walk past a poster featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping with a slogan reading "Chinese Dream, People's Dream" in Beijing on Oct. 16. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

The other plank of Xi’s new program was the reassertion of total party dominance over all sectors of public life, especially over policing its own people. When Xi arrived, there had been the usual wide-eyed speculations that he could be a new Mikhail Gorbachev. His Western enthusiasts pointed to his time in Iowa as a sign that he must be eager to embrace the wonders of freedom. But it turned out that a lifetime spent as the heir to a Leninist party was more influential on Xi’s thought than two weeks among the cornfields. The paranoia of Western infiltration and rebellious youth prompted by the Arab Spring gave Xi unrestrained access to the full possibilities of China’s security state, turned against both his foes inside the party and the party’s potential rivals in civil society.

Again imitating Bo’s Chongqing techniques, he began a mass roundup of potential critics and a freeze of civil society. 2012 immediately saw an assault on Weibo, the country’s most popular microblogging platform, which had become a way for journalists to call out (suitably minor) corrupt officials and for thinkers to post calls for reform. The “big Vs” of Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter’s blue-checked “verified accounts”) were silenced, either banned from the service or scared off after several of them were forced into televised confessions of wrongdoing. Human rights lawyers, once given a limited space to operate, were shut down or arrested. A new NGO law was introduced, modeled on Russia’s, that limited the ability of organizations to receive foreign funding and scared many into closing. Foreign textbooks were forced out of Chinese universities. The newspapers became an endless drumbeat of praise for Xi mixed with territorial jingoism.

Each of the campaigns fed into the other. Since the primacy of the party was at stake, resisting Xi’s purges could be framed as treason. Meanwhile, the fall of the great was rupturing local networks and kicking the brutally Darwinian political economy of Chinese officialdom into high gear. Ideological vehemence was necessary, not just to show allegiance to the new leader but to prove that you were doing something, anything, to justify your post. And the easiest thing to do was to pick on acceptable targets, like feminists, fans of yaoi, churches, and ethnic minorities — and remind them just who was in charge.

A paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of the portrait of China's late communist leader Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square during the opening ceremony of the 19th Communist Party Congress in Beijing on Oct. 18. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

Both these campaigns are still going on. Fresh scalps of public officials were culled just before the Party Congress. The political situation remains frozen, the language of media and academia stilted and sycophantic. Unauthorized contact with foreigners is understood to be dangerous for anyone in a position of power. Sources who would once go on record now speak anonymously; those who always preferred cover now won’t speak at all. The government is doubling down on big data, offering the possibilities of a surveillance state that can trace every purchase, movement, and online posting — or claim to, at least.

In the run-up to the Party Congress, Xi has been given a prominence far exceeding any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Even when he was general secretary, it was very easy to forget that Hu Jintao existed; late at night, Hu himself might have had doubts. But Xi is everywhere — slogans, posters, daily television. The contrast in visual imagery between the blank-faced Hu, never allowing an iota of emotion to slip, and the easily confident, in-command Xi is startling. New slogans now circulate with Xi’s name attached in a way that Hu’s own effort, the “harmonious society,” never managed. “Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream.” “Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.” Some of this was mandated, but much of it is voluntary, eager signaling by everyone from academics to businesses that they are on board. Xi’s name can be crammed into anything, no matter how irrelevant or insignificant.

What will Xi do with this power? There are still a few optimists who believe that economic reform is the next step, now that he has the power to override resistance. But all indications so far have been of the primacy of the party-state in the economy, just as in every other aspect of life — a fact reiterated by Xi in his opening speech at the Party Congress. As Americans have found since 9/11, it’s harder to wind down a security state than it is to crank it up.

As for how popular Xi genuinely is, it’s hard to judge; he certainly seems to have a strong base with the middle-aged homeowners who make up the central pillar of party support. Inside the party, things seem far less certain. One of the underappreciated achievements of Xi’s earlier predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, was to break the country out of the cycles of political revenge that had begun in 1949. Part of that bargain was the collective leadership system, upheld even by those temporarily at the top in the knowledge that the winds could change. Xi has snapped some, if not all, of the links that kept things from getting out of hand.

So now, even as they smile and grovel to survive, many inside the party are nurturing private hatreds — which means that Xi can ill-afford to let go of the power he’s taken into his hands, even if he gives up his official titles in 2022. In Chongqing and Dalian, nobody will criticize Xi directly — but they’ll still speak fondly of Bo, a coded indication of their feelings about the man who built his rule off their former favorite’s fall.

Top photo; China’s President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 18. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

James Palmer is the Asia editor at Foreign Policy. (@BeijingPalmer)