Chinese President Xi tightens grip on authority amid fears of a return to one-man politics

China is holding its most important political meeting in decades. The Communist Party’s 20th National Congress will see a shake-up of the country’s leadership but the top job is all but secured with President Xi Jinping to remain at the helm. It comes amid growing fears about what a return to one-man politics might mean for the future of the country. Special correspondent Patrick Fok reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    China is set to hold its most important political meeting in decades.

    The Communist Party's 20th National Congress, which kicks off Sunday, will see a shakeup of the country's leadership. But the top job is all but secured, with President Xi Jinping expected to remain at the helm after scrapping term limits in 2018, paving the way for him to cement his status as China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

    But it comes amid growing fears about what a return to one-man politics might mean for the future of the country.

    Special correspondent Patrick Fok begins his report in rural Shaanxi province, where Xi lived as a young man.

  • Patrick Fok:

    The ride is bumpy, but the surroundings are pristine, with fields brimming with crops.

    This is the village of Liangjiahe, considered a living shrine to China's leader. As a teenager, Xi Jinping was sent here under Mao Zedong's campaign to reeducate privileged urban youths. He spent seven years in the village deep in rural Shaanxi province living in caves carved out of the hills, in one of them a case displaying books Xi is said to have read, in another, posters of modern China's founding father.

    Francois Bougon, Author, "Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping": It was a very hard time.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Francois Bougon is a former Beijing correspondent and author of "Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping." He says Xi's time in Liangjiahe formed the foundations of his future.

  • Francois Bougon:

    The years in Liangjiahe is used right now in his political career. You can say he is a man of the people, a down-to-earth man, and not only the son of revolutionary red aristocrat.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Xi's father suffered as a result of Mao Zedong's purge of potential rivals, and, in Liangjiahe, the younger Xi endured hard labor.

    But far from turning against China's Communist Party, he embraced it. In Mao, he saw a role model.

  • Francois Bougon:

    He is the first leader since the death of Mao in 1976 to acknowledge the legacy of Mao without reservation. He follows Mao in the way he governs the party. The cult of personality, it's very Mao style.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Now, as the twice-a-decade Party Congress nears, Xi is expected to take a step closer to emulating his political hero. Having scrapped presidential term limits in 2018, he has paved the way for a historic third five-year term as leader.

    And Xi's quest for power could extend well beyond that, with many political analysts believing, like Mao, he intends to rule for life.

    But it comes as the country faces mounting challenges under the 69-year-old Xi Jinping's leadership. Ongoing and frequent lockdowns across the country under his signature zero COVID policy have taken a heavy toll. The International Monetary Fund this week cut its growth forecast for China this year to 3.2 percent, its weakest expansion in more than four decades, excluding the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020.

    Earlier this year, authorities warned of action against any criticism of the country's COVID policies. But there are plenty of signs of people cracking. This COVID testing booth was spotted recently sprayed with graffiti, saying, "Give me freedom or give me death."

    Alfred Wu is an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

    Alfred Wu, National University of Singapore: Lots of people have been locked at home for months, and lots of mental health issue. Now youth unemployment rate is very, very high, almost 20 percent.

    So, basically, it's some sort of failure in China, but Chinese leadership particularly under Xi Jinping insists this is the approach he wants to adopt.

  • Patrick Fok:

    China's two-term limit was established in 1982 by the reformist leader who followed Mao, Deng Xiaoping, to avoid the kind of chaos that can occur under a single authoritarian leader.

  • Alfred Wu:

    Deng Xiaoping's reform try to tackle this issue. Deng Xiaoping want more check and balance, because they knew that Mao Zedong made a lot of mistakes.

  • Patrick Fok:

    They were more than mistakes. Tens of millions of people died as a result of Mao's failed economic policies and his Cultural Revolution that led to a brutal purges of national and horrific scale.

    He was China's unchallenged revolutionary leader for more than three decades. As part of the shakeup of China's leadership of the Party Congress, political scientists like Wu Qiang expect Xi loyalists will replace outgoing members of China's top policymaking body, the Politburo Standing Committee, giving him a level of control unseen since the days of Mao.

  • Wu Qiang, Political Scientist (through translator):

    A drastic change is happening with CCP's ruling approach, turning from an authoritarian system of market economy and globalization that has been running since 1992 to a totalitarian system. This totalitarian system is a new change for China's future and for the world. It's a fundamental change.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Under Xi, China's relationship with the West has become particularly fraught. His declaration of no-limits partnership with Russia's Vladimir Putin just weeks before his invasion of Ukraine drew international criticism.

    It's raised questions also at home.

    Xu Qinduo is a senior fellow at the Pangoal Institute.

  • Xu Qinduo, Senior Fellow, Pangoal Institution:

    Chinese principle is like respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. So, some of the behaviors, some of the policies of the Russian — of Russia is not really in line with the Chinese principle.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Rising nationalism fueled by Xi's assertive foreign policy has also strained China's image. According to Pew Research, some 82 percent of Americans now have a negative view of China.

  • Wu Qiang (through translator):

    China's sense of insecurity and distrust towards international society results in international society's suspicions and distrust towards China. As China closes its borders, it ends up in a confrontational and contradictory relationship with the international community.

  • Patrick Fok:

    Meanwhile, China's ambitions for national rejuvenation and, some say, global supremacy by 2049, when it marks the centenary of the People's Republic, have been dealt a fresh blow after the Biden administration rolled out sweeping regulations to limit Chinese access to semiconductors.

    It could crimp its ability to develop swathes of its economy. It's seen as the most aggressive action by President Biden yet to prevent China from developing technology that could pose a threat. It prompted an angry response from Beijing.

  • Mao Ning, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman (through translator):

    In order to maintain the hegemony of science and technology, the United States abused export control measures and maliciously blocked and suppressed Chinese enterprises. This approach deviates from the principle of fair competition and violates international economic and trade rules.

  • Patrick Fok:

    But, even without that, the upcoming political gathering has fueled debate over whether one man should dominate this massive country and if it should turn away from the collective leadership that's transformed China into a powerhouse over the last four decades.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Patrick Fok in Beijing.

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