The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has just held its annual plenum — its sixth since 2012 when the current committee was formed — with its key decision being the designation of Chinese President Xi Jinping as the core leader of the CCP. The Sixth Plenum was significant as it marked the opening of a year of political transition which will conclude in October 2017 with the CCP’s 19th National Congress, during which President Xi is expected to be elected to a second 5-year term in office, and five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, and another six members of the Politburo, are scheduled to retire. While the party’s current rules concerning term limits require President Xi to retire in 2022, some observers believe he may be planning to serve an additional term until 2027, which, if true, “would be unprecedented and controversial, and could precipitate a political crisis.” However, observers also recognize that a viable successor to President Xi has yet to emerge from the current leadership:
“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.”
If President Xi is indeed maneuvering for a third term in office, his elevation as core leader will facilitate his consolidation of power, which in turn will allow him to “surround himself with allies, sideline rivals and ensure his rule is less fettered.” As the former Tsinghua University political scientist Wu Qiang points out: “The ‘core’ designation comes with fangs … It’s a clear statement that any dissent or resistance to Xi’s authority, even coming from the highest levels, can and will be punished.” At the conclusion of the Sixth Plenum, the Central Committee issued a communiqué instructing the CCP’s members to “closely unite around the party center with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core … and unswervingly safeguard the party leadership’s authority and centralized unity.” The Central Committee also adopted new “disciplinary rules that … include new directives on acceptable political behavior and stronger supervision.” Such measures are needed by President Xi as he is not yet “in a position to dictate the direction” of the 19th National Congress, “where he must compete with rivals to place allies in top posts.”
In historical perspective, the CCP’s previous core leaders include Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin, all of whom were strong leaders: Mao was the first Chairman of the Central Committee of the CCP; Deng guided the CCP in its period of market reforms; and Jiang guided the CCP through the turmoil following the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Jiang however did not transfer the title of core leader to his successor Hu Jintao, and the CCP Central Committee did not designate Hu as core leader during his decade as President. This underscores the perception of Hu as a weak leader:
“Even after his full retirement, Jiang was still believed to wield considerable influence behind the scenes during Hu’s 10-year reign until the latter’s retirement in 2012. Looking back, many people hold that Hu’s weak leadership skills, coupled with meddling from Jiang and his supporters in the leadership, had greatly weakened the authority of the party centre, and contributed to rampant official corruption due to a lack of effective supervision and controls.”
Indeed, it was precisely the weakness of Hu’s leadership that observers perceived as having “allowed corruption, income inequality and environmental woes to worsen … These problems convinced some in the party elite to seek a stronger, more decisive leadership, paving the way for Mr. Xi’s rise.” These weaknesses stemmed from Hu’s “consensus-driven collective leadership model,” which bred “corruption, inefficiency and bureaucratic resistance to Beijing’s priorities.” Ironically, this collective leadership model had been implemented by Deng in response to Mao’s “extreme consolidation of power” that had culminated in the disaster of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Predictably, some observers have voiced their fears that Xi’s increasingly strong rule heralds a Mao-like return to “irrational rule, restrictions on individual liberty and economic stagnation.”
Are these fears justified? Zheng Yongnian, the director of the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, notes that these observers have failed to appreciate that the decentralization of power during the Hu Jintao era had led to the formation of “factions and cliques” in the CCP which then “stymied the proper exercise of authority of the top leadership with excessive checks and balances.” This emergence of a “feudal system” at the top level of the CCP blocked efforts at reform and allowed corruption to flourish, with powerful corrupt leaders establishing “oligarchies within the Party.” Indeed, if Xi’s anti-corruption campaign had not removed these “tigers” from the CCP and dismantled their oligarchies, “China would have become Russia under Boris Yeltsin or even today’s Ukraine.” Xi Jinping’s power centralization hence represents a much-needed corrective to the “unsustainable” decentralization of the Hu Jintao era:
“Today, the CCP top leadership is in need of a ‘core’ and the late Deng Xiaoping had spoken clearly about the need of having a ‘core’ in 1989 in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crisis. While people typically associate the idea of core with ‘personal dictatorship,’ it is not only about the core of power, but also about the political responsibility concomitant with the concept of core that Deng was referring to. In any political system, be it presidential system or cabinet system, it is necessary for someone to undertake the main political responsibility in order to ensure effective operation of the government.”
President Xi’s likely second term in office will coincide with the first of the CCP’s Two Centenary Goals. The first centenary goal will be the transformation of China into a “moderately prosperous society in all respects” by 2021, the centenary of the establishment of the CCP. The second centenary goal is the transformation of China into “a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious” by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Given that China has an estimated 300 million people living under the poverty line, President Xi is under pressure to ensure that the CCP’s 13th Five Year Plan succeeds in its goal of lifting “10 million people out of poverty every year from 2016 to 2020, achieving the 2020 poverty relief target,” and thereby fulfilling the 2021 Centenary Goal. This is the context through which President Xi’s actions should be seen.
For example, the achievement of the 2021 Centenary Goal will require that state resources allocated under the 13th Five Year Plan are not embezzled or otherwise misallocated through corruption. President Xi’s anticorruption campaign, which has caught several “tigers,” including “an ex-member of the Politburo Standing Committee, Zhou Yongkang, two vice chairmen of the previous Central Military Committee, and a top Party bureaucrat, Ling Jihua, once the most trusted aide of Hu Jintao,” should hence be understood as being a necessary requirement for the successful achievement of the 2021 Centenary Goal, rather than just a means for Xi to consolidate his power, as some critics allege. The cleansing of corrupt elements from the CCP will allow Xi to push through his program of the Four Comprehensives (“comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepen reform, comprehensively implement the rule of law and comprehensively strengthen Party discipline”) and establish “the institutional foundation for the next stage of China’s development.” This foundation can be found in Xi’s institutionalization of an intricate system of leading groups within the CCP bureaucracy to facilitate the reform process:
“The political situation changed after the 18th Party Congress, mainly because several leading institutions, such as the Central Comprehensive Deepening Reform Leading Group, the National Security Council, the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Information, and the Leading Group for National Defense and Military Reform of the Central Military Commission, were established ... This has greatly enhanced the coordination between the different groups. Also, unlike the past, these leading small groups have formalized their operation and management. In the past, the leading small groups operated as informal, closed-book mechanisms, offering little information and detail to the public. Today, these leading small groups have made strides towards greater transparency in policy processes.”
China’s engagement with the world will also be shaped by the continuity of leadership that is represented by President Xi’s elevation to core leader of the CCP. China’s overseas investment projects, which range from Southeast Asia to as far as Africa and Latin America, have been reorganized and intensified under President Xi’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiatives. These overseas investment projects are essential for President Xi to guide China through its economic transition from its “old normal” of manufacturing-led double-digit GDP growth to its “new normal” single-digit consumption-based economy. These overseas investment projects will not just benefit the partner countries by allowing them to obtain major infrastructural improvements and industrial zones at low-interest or no-interest concessional interest rates — thereby jumpstarting their industrial development — they will also assist the Chinese government’s supply-side reform process by creating major overseas markets for Chinese industries to export their industrial plant, thereby reducing China’s industrial overcapacity. For this strategy to succeed, however, commitment from the Chinese government is needed, especially in the case of countries where political risk is high, for example Pakistan which is the site of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor megaproject, but which is also a major terrorist hotspot. President Xi’s elevation as core leader of the CCP will ensure the commitment of the Chinese government towards the successful completion and implementation of these overseas investment projects, and the long-term success of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.