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China's rules may be rewritten to allow Xi Jinping to stay on longer as leader

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

China's communist leaders meet in Beijing this week. Expect the 400 members of the party's Central Committee to prepare the way for Xi Jinping to remain China's leader, even if that requires them to rewrite some recent history. NPR's John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Only twice before in its hundred years has the Communist Party of China issued what it calls resolutions on history - that is, official interpretations of its own past. The first was in 1945. Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, an expert on Communist Party historiography at the University of Vienna, says it solidified Mao Zedong's position as leader.

SUSANNE WEIGELIN-SCHWIEDRZIK: In order to show that Mao Zedong Thought was not just a theoretical framework that might be right or might be wrong, they then used party history to show that as long as Mao Zedong had not been the leading figure, the party was running from one problem into the next.

RUWITCH: Weigelin-Schwiedrzik says the resolution set the stage for Mao to take China in the direction that he wanted. After he died, she says, a second resolution on history was concocted to put disastrous policies of his, like the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, in the rearview mirror. Mao had been a great leader of the revolution, it said.

WEIGELIN-SCHWIEDRZIK: But that after 1949, he actually had no blueprint which he could use in order to establish socialism in China.

RUWITCH: That resolution allowed Deng Xiaoping to steer the country in a new direction of economic reform and openness. Now the party is poised to pass a third resolution on history. The objective of this one? To elevate Xi Jinping and establish an official narrative around him that makes it easier for him to keep power.

JUDE BLANCHETTE: Saying Chapter 1 was Mao, Chapter 2 was Deng, and now it's on to the third chapter.

RUWITCH: Jude Blanchette is a China politics specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

BLANCHETTE: This is now going to be a meeting of monumental proportions for the Xi era because the history resolution is, like most history, not backward looking but forward looking.

VICTOR SHIH: So he's eager to refashion Chinese society, Chinese economy, in a way that he wants.

RUWITCH: Victor Shih is an expert on elite Chinese politics at the University of California, San Diego. He says Xi Jinping wants to rectify imbalances that emerged out of the past four decades of breakneck growth by putting the party back at the center of Chinese life. He also wants China restored to what many believe is its rightful place on the international stage.

SHIH: I think he, along with a lot of people educated in his generation, they do still strongly share this nationalistic vision of seeing China rise again as the premier power in the world.

RUWITCH: Analysts say Xi is likely to get a green light to continue as China's top leader at a party Congress next year. The history resolution should help by depicting him as being on par with Mao and Deng. But Vivian Zhan, who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says throwing out term limits and concentrating power like Xi has done has a cost.

VIVIAN ZHAN: For the common Chinese citizens, they do not care that much, actually. But for elites, they perhaps have their own thoughts. And there's, of course, a lot of doubt and criticism about this move.

RUWITCH: Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that while a third term might seem like a slam dunk for Xi, there's still a year to go before the party congress, and a lot can happen.

BLANCHETTE: There's nothing ironclad or assured in authoritarian politics.

RUWITCH: And that's a lesson that Xi Jinping has undoubtedly learned from history.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELLO METEOR'S "RED ELEVATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.