Chinese President Xi Jinping is all about reform. That’s “reform” as in “kicking butt.” The main take-away from the Third Plenary Session of the Communist Party’s 18th Central Committee is that Xi has consolidated power remarkably quickly and is eager to use it. Some parts of his agenda impress outsiders, such as further relaxing the one-child policy and closing reeducation labor camps. Such steps defuse popular anger toward the regime. Other Xi initiatives are decidedly less appealing, like the vow to “utilize and standardize Internet supervision,” which is code language for censorship. But whether liked or disliked outside China, everything Xi intends to do is directed toward one goal: to consolidate the Communist Party’s central and permanent role as the leader of the nation.
Democracy is the yielding of power from the party to the people. That’s not what Xi wants. He wants to gather power inward on the theory that only a strong leader can govern a country in which the mountains are high and the emperor is far away. Getting local governments to toe the line “requires a lot of political brute force, and it’s something you can only achieve if you are extremely vigorous,” says Arthur Kroeber, Beijing-based managing director of economic research firm GK Dragonomics. Kroeber says Xi’s anticorruption campaign seems to warn, “Look, this is the way it’s going to be, and if you don’t like it, we have a lot of space in the jails for you.”
The theme of the third party plenum, held on Nov. 9-12, was “reform and opening up.” That’s a phrase consciously copied from an earlier third party plenum—the one in December 1978 at which Deng Xiaoping began to launch China into the global economy. Deng helped lift hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, giving the world’s most populous nation what is now the world’s second-biggest economy. Xi wants to show his countrymen he’s determined to carry on Deng’s legacy, yet he draws inspiration from the man Deng repudiated: Chairman Mao Zedong. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, fought alongside Mao. According to the official story, Mao saved him from execution, and the elder Xi repaid the favor by sheltering Mao and his troops at the end of the Long March retreat from the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek.
As a princeling, Xi is determined to demonstrate his ties to the founding generation. Intent on returning China to a purer past, he has presided over a crackdown on corruption that has netted senior party officials—even as members of his own extended family have become rich. He’s brought back the Maoist notion of a “mass line” that enforces ideological discipline by requiring officials to “listen to the people,” introspect, and cleanse themselves of any deviations from party doctrine. He isn’t making it easy for the people to speak, though; in September, China’s top court said Web users could face jail time if “defamatory” rumors they put online were read by more than 5,000 people or reposted more than 500 times.
Xi doesn’t trumpet his differences from his predecessors as an American would. Chinese leaders worry that the people will lose faith in the party if it seems to be swerving in different directions. (“Unswerving” is a big word in China.) So in its 60-point resolution, the Central Committee dutifully name-checks “Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thought of ‘Three Represents,’ and The Scientific Outlook on Development”—those last two being the slogans of past presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, respectively. It’s as if Barack Obama obsessively paid tribute to President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”