China Enshrines ‘Xi Jinping Thought,’ Elevating Leader to Mao-Like Status

“This is a way of trying to project his historic stature,” said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing who formerly taught at Tsinghua University. “The congress report and the party constitution revisions both show that Xi wants to be a kind of peer with the past leaders. That doesn’t mean he sees himself as rivaling Mao in importance, but I think it’s intended to give him an ideological status that can’t be challenged, like Mao in that sense.”

Restoring China to greatness is a central message of Mr. Xi’s philosophy. That goal already has guided Mr. Xi’s policies of building up the military, strengthening domestic controls and raising China’s profile in global affairs.

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Portraits of Mr. Xi, left, and Mao Zedong at a market in Beijing. Credit Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Approved by the party congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, which meets every five years, the change to the constitution adds a clunky new phrase — “Xi Jinping Thought for the New Era of Socialism With Chinese Special Characteristics” — alongside the hallowed names of Mao and Deng Xiaoping.

While the meaning of those 13 words — 16 Chinese characters — may seem opaque, they are freighted with significance for the future both of the party and of China.

The critical phrase is “new era,” which Mr. Xi has used throughout the congress. He has described Chinese history since 1949 as divided into two eras — the three decades after Mao seized power in a revolution that established a unified People’s Republic and ended nearly a century of civil war and foreign invasions, and the three decades after Deng took power in 1978 and refocused China on developing its economy.

In his report to the congress, Mr. Xi suggested that if Mao made China independent, and Deng made it prosperous, he would make it strong again — propelling the country into its “new era.”

To underline that point, the congress also added a second mention of Mr. Xi’s ideas to the constitution: his call to modernize and strengthen China’s armed forces.

By enshrining Mr. Xi’s ideas as “a new component of the party’s guide for action,” the party is putting Mr. Xi on a doctrinal pedestal alongside Mao and Deng. Until Tuesday, Mao and Deng were the only Chinese leaders whose names appeared in the constitution’s list of fundamental doctrines.

Adding Mr. Xi by name raises him above his two most recent predecessors, the former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin: Their ideas are on the list of doctrines, but not their names.

Still, Mr. Xi’s authority is not directly comparable to the almost godlike influence Mao commanded.

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Delegates arriving for the closing session of the party congress on Tuesday. Credit Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After Mr. Xi came to power in 2012, he surprised many by how quickly and forcibly he took control. This included putting his imprint on two of China’s most powerful institutions, the party and the military, which he did using a sweeping anticorruption drive.

But both Mao and Deng were founders of the People’s Republic, and hardened revolutionaries whose decades of fighting and self-sacrifice gave them a charisma and authority that Mr. Xi simply cannot replicate.

On the other hand, the Chinese economy, state and military are much more powerful now than they were under Mao, or even under Deng, which gives Mr. Xi far more global influence than his predecessors.

Further signs of Mr. Xi’s political supremacy will be evident on Wednesday when other members of the party’s top leadership, the Politburo Standing Committee, are publicly presented after the party congress has concluded. How many of those members are close allies of Mr. Xi will be another important barometer of his power and could provide insight into a possible successor years from now.

In the past five years, Mr. Xi has assembled his own earthy strain of Communist Party doctrine, overtly hostile to Western liberal ideas and suspicious of the intentions of the United States and other Western powers. Instead, Mr. Xi sees the party as the guardian of both Mao’s revolutionary ideals and nationalist pride rooted in China’s ancient traditions.

The congress finished on Tuesday with several other major steps. Most important, the delegates voted in a new Central Committee, a council of 204 senior central and local officials who usually meet once a year to approve broad policy priorities.

There was a notable absence on that list: Wang Qishan.

Mr. Wang, 69, was the enforcer in Mr. Xi’s drive to root out corruption and strengthen discipline in the party. He has passed the usual retirement age? for the committee, but party insiders had said that Mr. Xi might try to keep him in a senior position. His absence from the list means he will likely retire.

The Chinese Communist Party has its own constitution, or charter, which is different from China’s national Constitution. The party’s constitution sets rules and principles for its members. It also lays out the party’s vision of its history, and of how current and past leaders contributed to that heritage.

Changes to this constitution can be made only at the party congress, which usually meets every five years and has been meeting for the past week. Since the congress’s 2,300 delegates are carefully chosen for loyalty, very few oppose changes once they are proposed by the leadership.

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