Xi Jinping
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Chinese President Xi Jinping drops his ballot during a vote on a constitutional amendment lifting presidential term limits, at the third plenary session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

For Xi Jinping, do titles matter more than they should?

Now in position to lead his nation indefinitely, the leader could be the most powerful man in Beijing since Mao Zedong, but history suggests titles and power don’t necessarily go hand in hand

Xi Jinping
The abolition of presidential term limits in China has paved the way for Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely, and earned him both bouquets and brickbats for being the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

But is he? While there is no doubt that he is a strong leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the moment, his relentless habit of accumulating titles could hint at greater insecurity than it seems.

After all, the relevance between power and titles in the CCP is relatively new to the 96-year-old institution. For many of his predecessors, titles conferred little power and even less protection.

Military delegates arrive for the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP

The title in the news, which is the presidency of the state, is a prime example. One of its most famous holders, Liu Shaoqi, was purged while holding the honour in 1966 and later died during arrest.

The presidency was not given to anyone else and was even abolished from the constitution in 1975. When it was reinstated in 1982, it was a largely symbolic position held by party elders past their heydays.

The meaninglessness of titles in the CCP extends beyond the presidency. Deng Xiaoping was only too happy to cede the general secretary position, the highest in the party, to protégés like Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang.

All that mattered to Deng was that he held on to the military chief title, knowing too well that in the fragile institutional world of the CCP, only brute power counts. When he had to, he got rid of both Hu and Zhao.

Deng Xiaoping, then head of the Delegation of the People's Republic of China, addressed the Sixth Special Session of the UN General Assembly in 1974. Photo: Xinhua

In fact, Deng grew so assured of his position that he gave up this military title in 1989, passing it to Jiang Zemin. It did not stop Deng from pulling off a purge in the People’s Liberation Army in 1992 and also launching his famous Southern Sojourn the same year to revitalise economic reforms.

Deng remained China’s most powerful man till his death in 1997 and the last title he held was “Most Honorary President of the Chinese Bridge Association”, an honour for his love of the game.

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As a New York Times obituary of the man observed: “The posts and titles Mr. Deng held in the Communist Party hierarchy never quite equalled or conveyed his stature as paramount leader, a term that seemed invented for Mr. Deng, who was still arguably the most powerful citizen of China when he died.”

Even when all the top titles are concentrated in one man in the CCP, it need not necessarily translate into power. For eight years, Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao was nominally the most powerful man, being the leader of the party, military and government.

Delegates arrive before a vote on constitutional amendments at the National People's Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: AFP

Yet, he remained largely in the shadow of Jiang and at critical times, such as the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, there were clear communications from the military that there were two lines of command – to Jiang and then to Hu.

Given the tenuous relationship between titles and power in the CCP, it begs the question why Xi felt compelled to amend the constitution and hold on to the presidency.

It is the least important of his three titles and merely aligns it with the limit-free tenures of party secretary and military chief.

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To these eyes, there is a practical consideration. The title of the presidency is most commonly used globally.

By holding on to it, Xi has a more politically acceptable title overseas. In a post-cold war world bereft of fellow communist brethren, trotting round the world as a “General Secretary” could be awkwardly anachronistic.

But perhaps more important than that is Xi’s desire to signal to the party and the Chinese people that he is powerful and he is here to stay.

Quite why he might think this telegraph is necessary, five years into his leadership, suggests anxiety more than security on his own hold on power.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang walk out of the Great Hall of the People after a session of the National People's Congress. Photo: Kyodo

Domestically, his much-needed crackdown on corruption has earned him many enemies. It was only two years ago that an anonymous letter, purportedly from “loyal Communist Party members” asked him to resign from all posts. It rattled the leadership enough and led to detention of about a dozen people.

Overseas, a long-running expectation of a United States determined to contain China continues to occupy realist minds in Beijing. It is a hunch made worse by threats of an upcoming trade war with Washington.

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Can the furious collection of titles afford him the space, time and strength to tackle the twin ambitions to solve domestic problems and build China’s stature globally?

With a dozen titles to his name and counting, Xi has earned the nickname of “chairman of everything”. True strongmen, such as Mao and Deng, could barely be bothered with this buffet of designations.

The story of Hua Guofeng may be instructive. After succeeding Mao in 1976, Hua took on the title of party chairman (a title not in use since), military chief and state premier. He lasted two years.

Xi is not Hua. He is far more powerful. But in the murky world of elite Chinese politics, the faux security blanket of more and more titles can be too tempting to discard.

Peh Shing Huei is the author of When the Party Ends: China’s Leaps and Stumbles after the Beijing Olympics, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016.