Like his predecessors, Xi wields power through his control of the Communist Party, the military and the government.
But Xi has expanded his power beyond previous limits. He has concentrated decision-making around himself. He has intensified the power of the party over society. His name, his image and his words fill the media.
To many, this wasn’t supposed to be the path that China would take. After decades of reforms, the country showed signs of moving toward collective leadership, preventing the re-emergence of autocratic rule. Here’s how Xi dismantled those barriers.
I. One-Man PartyXi overturned term limits, erased factions and installed loyalists to establish sweeping control of the Communist Party.
In his view, an all-powerful party leader is needed to secure China’s rise in a dangerous world.
Xi has also remade the party elite. Under previous leaders, senior officials rose from different backgrounds and factions, diluting the power of the top leader.
When Xi first took power in 2012, few in the Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful group in China, had close ties with him.
By the end of 2022, virtually every member was a longtime protégé or had proven his loyalty.
Many of them first worked with Xi decades ago when he was still a little-known provincial official. A personal tie to Xi is not the only ticket to the top, but it helps.
Xi has also forced potential rivals out of the party’s 24-member Politburo – the second tier of power – and installed officials with the skills to help realize his vision of China as a technologically advanced superpower.
II. Sidelining the GovernmentStep by step, Xi has deepened the control that he and the party have over the government, which oversees the economy and day-to-day administration.
The Communist Party has long been the ultimate decision maker in China. But after Mao died, Deng Xiaoping and his successors built some checks against excessive power, hoping to avoid a repeat of Mao’s turbulent rule.
The party and government systems worked in tandem. Party leaders often set broad policy, and government ministries and agencies refined and implemented their goals, sending feedback to the leaders.
Xi has overturned that pattern. He declared that “east, west, north, south and center, the party leads everything.”
Xi expanded the power of policy groups within the Communist Party, taking away the initiative from government agencies.
Some government agencies have been absorbed into the party, making it even clearer that Xi calls the shots. The party’s propaganda department took over the state media office, tightening the party’s grip on information.
The party also took over the government’s oversight of religious and ethnic affairs.
Xi also founded a national security commission within the party that has magnified his power to root out perceived political threats.
Many other government agencies were subsumed under party authority.
The leader of at least nine of these commissions? Xi himself.
III. Reining In Private CompaniesThe party has pressured executives, cracked down on corporate power and exercised greater control over company decisions.
Private companies have long been the drivers of China’s economic takeoff, creating jobs and paying a large share of taxes. Leaders courted private investors.
But Xi has changed the deal for business. His message: Businesses can still do well in China, but they must follow the party’s agenda.
The party concluded that Alibaba was getting too arrogant. It was fined billions of dollars for violating antimonopoly laws, and its founder, Jack Ma, stepped down.
Private companies have been required to install and expand internal groups to do the party’s work …
… giving political leaders more control over decisions.
IV. You Are Being WatchedThe world’s biggest and most pervasive surveillance system ensures that nobody can easily challenge the power Xi has amassed.
If the party suspects that an official has been disloyal, investigators can visit their house, question them and take them away.
A visit from these investigators, who don’t follow normal police procedure, can be chilling. They can secretly detain officials and turn them over to prosecutors, usually on corruption charges.
The party-controlled courts almost always find them guilty.
Xi has stepped up surveillance of citizens, too, especially during the pandemic. People can be watched on the streets, online and even abroad.
The surveillance is one more way that Xi has cemented his daunting power — over the party, the government and everyday people.