Xi Jinping's Power Grab Forces China's Propagandists to Hide Past Views

The Chinese Communist Party broke with a decades-long norm on Sunday when it confirmed Xi Jinping as its leader for a third consecutive term, forcing some of China's staunchest propagandists into an unexpected about-face.

The extension of Xi's rule had been widely expected, but it was only confirmed when the party's twice-a-decade national congress concluded on Saturday with his name still high on the delegates list.

The next day, it emerged that the Chinese leader had successfully packed the party's top decision-making body, the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, with loyal technocrats while pushing out others before the traditional retirement age.

It set the country on a course fraught with uncertainty and unpredictability for at least another five years—if not for the remainder of his life.

China's Xi Jinping Forces Propagandists Into About-Face
Left to right: Xi Jinping, Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi, members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the 20th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, greet Chinese and foreign press at the Great Hall of People on October 23, 2022, in Beijing. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

When Jiang Zemin stepped down as boss of China's ruling party in 2002 after two terms, "it was the first time that any ruler of a communist nation had left office without dying or being deposed by a coup," Susan Shirk, a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego, observed in a 2018 paper.

A decade later, Jiang's successor, Hu Jintao, also voluntarily retired from China's top leadership positions—as general secretary, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and president—before handing the mantle to Xi.

The two peaceful transfers of power, although not lacking in factional rivalry, appeared to demonstrate that China had institutionalized the succession, long seen as a stumbling block for authoritarian party-states, which often descended into infighting.

It was welcomed in many corners of the world. Among observers in the West, Xi, a mild-mannered former provincial governor, was seen as a potential reformer, beginning his rule with a promise to stamp out corruption.

Few among the Chinese commentariat have been as loyal to Beijing's cause as Hu Xijin, the former editor of the state-run tabloid, the Global Times.

On November 14, 2012, a day before Xi emerged as CCP general secretary, Hu Xijin called it an important moment. "This is the institutionalization [of the transfer of power]. Bless China," he wrote on his personal Weibo account.

As Xi assumed office the following day, Hu Xijin commented: "In the past, social countries were never able to properly resolve transfers of power. Leaders often served until death, leaving the country in turmoil."

"The CCP has successfully solved this issue and achieved consecutive smooth transfers of power," he said, likening it to the biggest reform of China's political system since the period of economic opening in the 1980s. The new tradition would be key to "China's long-term stability and policy continuity."

"It deserves high praise," the nationalist firebrand wrote.

But as many would later realize, Xi's anti-graft campaign turned out to be a convenient tool with which to purge political opposition within the party.

Then in 2018, there were further signs of Xi's intention to bust the established norm when he oversaw the abolishment of presidential term limits from the Chinese constitution.

China's Xi Jinping Forces Propagandists Into About-Face
Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and president of China, greets Chinese and foreign press at the Great Hall of People on October 23, 2022, in Beijing. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

On Sunday, as the CCP announced that delegates had unanimously chosen Xi to lead the country for another term—granting him institutional power not seen since the days of Mao Zedong—Hu Xijin was forced into his first dizzying reversal.

"China will be more united and stable in the next five years. The entire country's development and progress will be realized on a more solid political foundation," he wrote on Twitter.

"I am sure that a stronger country and a better life await all Chinese people at the end of this five-year period," he said.

But critics in the West weren't the only ones who were scrutinizing his and others' past comments. On Monday, China watchers noticed Hu Xijin had changed his Weibo settings to hide posts older than six months, in a move to effectively conceal potentially troublesome views.

It was perhaps the clearest sign yet that not even China's most ardent propagandists were privy to the Chinese leadership's thinking and inner workings.

Meanwhile, other commentators who had roundly mocked the state of democracy in the United States after the January 6 attack on the Capitol have chosen to remain silent about Xi's power grab.

Separately, the Global Times, Hu Xijin's former newspaper, scrubbed an old editorial from its website on Sunday after it was shared by users on Twitter and other websites.

The paper's commentary, published two days after Xi became leader in 2012, said: "Comrade Hu Jintao's retirement from all leadership positions was a demonstration of exemplary conduct and noble character."

"It proves China's progressive reforms are indeed entering a new stage, winning high admiration and revitalizing social confidence in the past two days," it said.