Xi Crowned “Core Leader,” but True Strength Disputed

The of the 18th Party Central Committee concluded on Thursday. After four days of silence from the PLA’s Jingxi Hotel, the Party released a communique detailing its approval of two new sets of regulations aiming to root out evils such as corruption, dishonesty and flattery, and “unrestricted power or any unsupervised Party members.” The document also appealed for the Party to “closely unite around the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core,” reviving calls that sprang up in January. Xi’s ascent to a rank never attained by his immediate predecessor is now being closely scrutinized for clues about the strength of his position ahead of the leadership transition expected at next year’s 19th Party Congress. From Xinhua:

A key meeting of the of China (CPC) has called on all its members to “closely unite around the CPC Central Committee with Comrade as the core.”

[…] Party members were told to resolutely safeguard the authority of the CPC Central Committee and its central, unified leadership while pushing forward the comprehensive and strict governance of the Party.

The communique also urged them to become more aware of the need to uphold political integrity, keep in mind the bigger picture, follow the CPC as the core of the Chinese leadership and act consistently with CPC Central Committee policy.

“Together we must build a clean and righteous political environment, and ensure that the Party unites and leads the people to continuously open up new prospects for socialism with Chinese characteristics,” it said. [Source]

The New York Times’ Chris Buckley reports:

Mr. Xi’s newest title, carrying echoes of those political strongmen, reinforces his power to shape the new leadership of the party. It is also a warning that officials should fall in line, though some privately fear he has amassed too much control and has eroded traditions of collective leadership, built up to prevent a return to the arbitrary abuses of Mao’s final decades.

[…] In China, such titles are a powerful political currency, and Mr. Xi’s new status will resonate through the party hierarchy.

“It seems that this plenum really was a victory for Xi,” Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who studies Chinese leadership politics, said by email. “What exactly that means in terms of personnel changes is hard to say, but it seems that Xi will get what he wants.”

[…] Mr. Xi’s elevation “shows his colleagues that he is more than willing to ignore past so-called norms, which could have big implications for appointments next fall,” when the congress is likely to meet, said Christopher K. Johnson, an expert on Chinese politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. It “confirms that he is no first among equals, but just first.” [Source]

Assessments of the declaration’s significance have been somewhat mixed, however. The University of Freiburg’s Daniel Leese told The Wall Street Journal that “collective leadership […] by now seems to be no more than a facade, with Xi’s predominance clearly established.” But Reuters’ Michael Martina and Benjamin Kang Lim noted the communique’s insistence that the principle of collective leadership “must always be followed and should not be violated by any organization or individual under any circumstance or for any reason,” which “signaled his power would not be absolute.” Renmin University’s Zhou Xiaosheng told The Washington Post that “it is obvious that all this noise about loyalty is because there is a lack of loyalty,” while an unnamed Chinese expert added that although “his notional authority has been established […] how substantial it is has yet to be observed.” Xi “may be pleased now to be called the ‘core,’” The Economist commented, “but it will make little difference to his authority.”

The Economist also argued that Xi’s power seems less absolute than widely believed last week, noting the limits of central power in general and the failure of initiatives to rein in steel production, property prices, tobacco consumption, and soil pollution:

Nearly four years into his rule, Mr Xi is commonly described as the most powerful Chinese leader in decades. He has taken charge of all the most important portfolios, cultivated a huge personal following and purged his opponents. Bypassing ministries, he rules through informal “leading small groups”, heading so many of them that foreign commentators have labelled him “chairman of everything”. Rumours fly (without evidence) that Mr Xi may even try to extend his powers beyond the normally allotted ten years. Given his seeming strength, it would be logical to suppose that he could do almost anything he pleases. The toiling mills of Tangshan, however, suggest how hard the president often finds it to persuade local officials to carry out his wishes. Mr Xi may be chairman of everything, and he may well be stronger than any leader since Deng Xiaoping. But in a country so vast, diverse and with so many entrenched interests, he often seems to be master of nothing.

Mr Xi spars with crusty generals, powerful bureaucracies and large state-owned enterprises controlled by the central government. But an even greater impediment to his power is an age-old one: local authority. This is reflected in a popular saying that refers to the compound in Beijing where China’s leaders live and work: “Policies do not go beyond Zhongnanhai.”

[…] There will be much speculation about which [of Xi’s allies], if any, will succeed him. Some analysts believe he has no successor in mind, and interpret his willingness to flout party convention as a sign of Mr Xi’s self-confidence. Yet it may be that he does not want to start grooming an heir (in China, this tends to begin very early). If so, that could suggest something else: that neither at the centre nor in the provinces does Mr Xi feel strong enough. Therefore he cannot trust anyone else with what he calls his “Chinese dream” of the country’s “great revival”. [Source]

This disconnection between central and local authority has shown itself recently in new ride-sharing regulations and the clash between Guangdong’s traditional pragmatism towards labor activism and Beijing’s harder line.

Elsewhere, The Economist summed up the challenge facing Xi at next year’s 19th Congress:

[Xi] has accumulated enormous power at the top of the pyramid but less down the slopes. He will want the party congress to place his favoured people in positions of power. At the same time he needs to start preparing the ground for a successor of his choosing after the end of his tenure in 2022. It is widely assumed that the next president must come from the so-called “sixth generation” of leaders, born in the 1960s. The trouble is that no member of the sixth generation who is associated with Mr Xi has the record required for the top job. Potential leaders tend to spend five years in a high-ranking job, such as party secretary of a large province, and then another five years on the party’s standing committee. It may well take ten years for them to be ready. That means Mr Xi’s choice could not take over until 2027—and he himself would probably want to serve an extra five years beyond the ten given to the party leader under existing rules. Such a move would be unprecedented and controversial, and could precipitate a political crisis. The plenum will be the first meeting to deal with the question of whether that risk is acceptable to the party as a whole. [Source]

See Jonathan Brookfield at The Diplomat for a more exhaustive breakdown of the precedents and factional concerns involved in the 2022 transition. Dexter Roberts also examined the succession prospects at greater length at Businessweek late last week, while South China Morning Post has published a stream of reports on likely winners and losers. The former include some of Xi’s associates from his brief tenure as Shanghai Party chief, and three provincial Party chiefs and nine governors yet to reach the Party’s Central Committee. Other articles have focused on continued uncertainty surrounding the future of former Xinjiang Party chief Zhang Chunxian.

On Sunday, former SCMP editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei expressed skepticism at the persistent rumors that Xi is planning to extend his term:

As for Xi staying past 2022, there isn’t much evidence to support the idea. Changing the rules would be risky, and trigger intense political infighting which goes against Xi’s intention to strengthen the party’s control and legitimacy.

[…] All this speculation may come from Xi’s supporters, who believe their man the best leader to steer the country onward, using foreign media to test the waters.

But more intriguingly, they may also come from his detractors. After all, it has become a fine tradition for different party factions to feed overseas reporters suggestions of some developments they don’t want to see, hoping to nip them in the bud. [Source]

Amid this uncertainty and the frustrated policy goals catalogued by The Economist, Xi’s signature anti- campaign is becoming even more closely entwined with his personal power as both a legitimizing achievement and a direct political instrument. The public parade of fallen senior officials—including a former energy chief and Party chiefs of Sichuan and Yunnan—picked up before the plenum, as South China Morning Post’s Nectar Gan reported:

“The sentencing in relatively major, influential cases like these is surely of political sensitivity and significance,” Chen Daoyin, a political scientist at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said.

“Therefore, completing the judicial process in cases of provincial-level officials at such a time is definitely not a coincidence, but an intentional arrangement for the sixth plenum, like offering a sacrifice before a battle.”

[…] Renmin University political scientist Zhang Ming said the broadcasts were meant to show the achievements of the anti-corruption crackdown and ­inspire awe in officials to cement Xi’s authority.

“Xi has been consolidating power all along, but it seems like so far his authority is not yet enough. He has not achieved many real political achievements and graft busting is probably one of the few – hence the high-profile display of the corruption crackdown results,” Zhang said.

Chen from the Shanghai ­University of Political Science and Law agreed. He said the series was aired with great fanfare to put ­psychological pressure on members of the Central Committee attending the plenum. “It has a deterrent effect,” he said. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong previewed the anticipated strengthening of the anti-corruption regime on Wednesday:

Throughout a campaign that has punished more than a million officials since late 2012, Mr. Xi has called for greater checks on political power—creating a “cage of regulations” that ensures cadres “dare not, cannot and don’t want” to be corrupt.

[…] Mr. Xi, who became party leader in late 2012, has during the past year or so imposed new rules targeting negligence or poor performance, and banned intraparty dissent against national policies. He empowered the party’s discipline-inspection agencies to police political loyalty, and stoked ideological fervor with campaigns such as encouraging the hand-copying of the party’s 15,000-character constitution.

At this week’s policy meeting, the party leadership may task its discipline-inspection agencies with more preventive duties in deterring graft and policing a wider range of disciplinary violations, according to Ling Li, a visiting professor of Chinese legal history at the University of Vienna.

Stricter asset-disclosure rules for party members could be in the cards, though such a proposal likely faces internal resistance, other academics say. While the party has steadily toughened disclosure rules over the past two decades, requirements still fall far short of a so-called sunshine law that would require officials to publicly declare all their personal assets. [Source]

As The New York Times’ Chris Buckley reported on Sunday, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection has been enforcing ideological orthodoxy alongside its anti-corruption work. The Commission’s leader , a close ally of Xi’s, is due to retire next year: an extension of his term may offer clues regarding Xi’s own plans.

Best known as the country’s anticorruption agency, the commission has lately assumed a growing role as political inquisitor, investigating the loyalty and commitment of cadres to Mr. Xi and his agenda, while cementing the commission’s role as his chief political enforcer.

“It’s not just anticorruption, but more powerfully about central control,” said Jeremy L. Wallace, a political scientist at Cornell University who studies Chinese politics.

[…] At the Ministry of Public Security headquarters in Beijing this month, for instance, hundreds of officers were marched into a cavernous auditorium to listen to investigators excoriate senior ministry officials for lacking “political judgment” and demand greater loyalty to Mr. Xi and the party.

Then their boss, Guo Shengkun, the minister of public security, rose to offer contrition, vowing to make his officers “even more steadfastly and conscientiously” obedient to Mr. Xi and other party leaders. “Loyalty to the party is the top political imperative,” he acknowledged. [Source]

Buckley also noted the CCDI’s recent scolding of the Central Propaganda Department for its feeble enforcement of Party will on the media. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television attracted similar criticism.

At The Washington Post, Simon Denyer places the ongoing political maneuvers in the context of Xi’s longstanding determination to save China (and the Party) from the fate of the Soviet Union:

In many ways, Xi faces a set of problems similar to those confronting then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, including a slowing economy and a corrupt, truculent party opposed to reform. And the Soviet example is never far from his mind, experts said.

The “Soviet collapse teaches the CPC [Communist Party of China] lessons in Party leadership,” the nationalist Global Times tabloid reminded its readers this week, citing Su Wei, a professor at a Communist Party school in Chongqing. It stressed a need for greater discipline.

But while Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost tried to harness openness and transparency to clean house, Xi has moved in the opposite direction, clamping down on the media, civil society and the legal profession.

Having seen Gorbachev lose control of the process, leading to the collapse of the , Xi has centralized power and tried to clean house from within. [Source]

The Soviet specter also appeared in a Xinhua commentary on the importance of regulating the Party on Sunday:

To many observers, the CPC is Asia and even the world’s most vigorous political Party.

This can be attributed to a serious and meticulous approach to political life taken by the 95-year-old CPC, a fine tradition and political advantage of the CPC.

Strict governance must begin within the Party itself. Over the years, the CPC has formulated basic norms of intra-Party political life, featuring principles such as to “seek truth from facts,” linking theory with reality and maintaining close links to the people.

Historical lessons from the former Soviet Union and the CPC’s own history highlight the importance of intra-Party political life.

Paralysis through bureaucracy, abandoning democratic centralism and no longer following Marxism as its guiding theory, brought the communist party in the Soviet Union to its end. [Source]

The piece also blamed “abnormal intra-Party political life” for “political mistakes” such as the Cultural Revolution, and noted more recent “negative influences such as money worshipping, hedonism and extreme individualism.”