The Communist Party of China’s (CPC) sixth party plenum concluded on October 27, and it called on members to "closely unite around the Communist Party of China Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core." The designation of “core” leader marks a significant mustering of Xi’s leadership power ahead of the 19th CPC Party Congress next year.
The four-day closed-door meeting that put “comprehensive and strict management of the Party” on its agenda was an important development in China’s anticorruption campaign. With the participation of nearly 400 of the most important political officials in China, two key regulations for internal party discipline were revised and approved, signifying the CPC’s determination in translating the short-term anti-corruption drive that began in 2012 into real institution-building and long-term policy. Apart from a rules-based framework to regulate political life within the Communist Party, the party plenum also approved revisions to intra-party supervision.
Following President Xi’s ascension to power in 2012, a large-scale and controversial anti-corruption campaign was rolled out. Up to 90,000 Party members have been disciplined for graft, including more than 150 senior officials ranked at the vice-ministerial level or higher. Not only have western sources identified the anti-corruption campaign as Xi’s power consolidation and centralization strategy, many in China have also warned about the vindictive nature of the anti-corruption campaign and how China’s economy could be paralysed by fear.
Despite the sceptical views, it is important to recognize that the anti-graft movement is both timely and necessary for CPC’s legitimacy and continued existence. China has upheld the widespread belief of “GDP-ism” since the opening of its economy during Deng Xiaoping’s era. When Deng Xiaoping became China's leader in December 1978, China’s economy had fallen behind many countries with a per capita income of less than US$ 100. Deng then adopted a hybrid economic system — a combination of capitalism and socialism — to prioritize economic development over many other aspects as he realized the importance of economic prosperity in safeguarding the party’s legitimacy. While China’s economic reforms of the past two decades have generated bountiful wealth, the absence of rule of law and effective institutional supervision have given some officials the opportunity to unlawfully amass significant fortunes, causing great public uproar. Cracking down on such corruption is thus seen as a core plank of shoring up the party’s credibility and legitimacy:
While corruption has not led to its characteristic economic stagnation, its negative consequences — in the form of the demoralizing effect on perceptions about equity and justice — are driving the current corruption campaign. Campaigns tend to be run by “moralists” who argue that fundamental changes in values are needed to curb corruption — in this case to preserve the credibility of the Communist Party. It is this legitimacy aspect that drives President Xi’s actions.
Xi’s house cleaning operation against corrupt senior officers can also be seen as a way to solve problems left by his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Zheng Yongnian, the director of the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, notes that:
Under Jiang Zemin and the previous leadership, China has formed what Xi Jinping called ‘factions’, which is also known as ‘political oligarchies’ in political science terms. Special interests grew very powerful during the 30 years of opening and reform and this has stymied drive for reform. Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua, Xu Caihou, and Guo Boxiong had formed their own political oligarchies. They formed nationwide networks from the central government to local governments, across different ministries. If these political oligarchies had not been brought down, China would have become Russia under Boris Yeltsin or even today’s Ukraine.
It is important to recognize that the CPC has been in power for a long time and so it needs to take a long-term perspective. Political rot, ideological heresy and military disloyalty that will undermine and destabilize the survival of the party should be uprooted. Long range goals are very important. In this case, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign "is not only a traditional purge but also a major policy for party governance, designed to bolster the power and legitimacy of the CPC at a time of change that it considers threatening."
We should see the “core” as a position and not misidentify it with the individual who has been appointed to the position.
Judging from this perspective, the title of “core” has “more than a symbolic meaning for Xi, who already has a string of powerful roles and cemented his authority through an anti-corruption drive that has purged and intimidated rivals.” The title of “core” should be interpreted correctly, and the West should understand that simplifying this as another way for Xi to gather power does not help in understanding China. We should see the “core” as a position and not misidentify it with the individual who has been appointed to the position. As the anti-graft movement moves into its second phase of effective institutional building, the core leadership is of vital importance for the CPC to push forward political and institutional reform and challenge the remaining political oligarchies.
It is also important to note that the sixth party plenum flagged the entry of the CPC’s governance into a “new age” — to govern the party by rigorous rules and regulations. The 6,600-word communique spelled out dozens of moral principles, revising the obsolete and counterproductive codes of conduct. As reported, two documents on the norms of political life within the Party and intra-Party supervision were approved in order to ensure that "power wielded by officials is indeed put into the institutional cage". The revised code of conduct for the CPC this round is more than a platitude as party discipline will be enforced across the board with no exceptions, “putting the spotlight on high-ranking members of the Central Committee, Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee”. While the party plenum’s communique stressed that “upholding the authority of the party centre concerns the future and fate of the party and the country in line with the fundamental interests of the people”, it also “took pains to point out that the party would not allow any unchecked power; nor would it leave any special member unsupervised.”
Under this new era, Xi Jinping has striven to extract the good elements of the Mao and Deng periods, creating a synthesis, and to further develop them. Xi’s leadership style can be seen as an integration of Mao Zedong’s style and Deng’s reform policy. The sixth party plenum not only called for greater intra-party supervision, but also advocated for social supervision (or supervision by the general public). It also placed morality and party loyalty as its top priorities, a theme that often figured in Mao’s mass campaigns. Scholars observed that “Xi has borrowed some of the very effective messaging of Maoist era politics, albeit renovated and updated.” Xi is also living up to Deng’s legacy of reform with his unprecedented anti-corruption drive and reform agenda.
What Was Lacking in the Sixth Plenum?
New impetus has certainly been injected into the CPC following the sixth party plenum. Yet, pundits have opined that “requirements still fall far short of a so-called sunshine law that would require officials to publicly declare all their personal assets”. Despite taking on a positive attitude toward establishing a system for government officials to declare their personal assets, no clear timeline has been specified as of when will this system be implemented.
In addition, while the sixth party plenum signified the CPC’s determination in tightening Chinese officials’ political lives with stricter and more comprehensive rules, the listed “do’s and don’ts” are largely ideological and philosophical without clear definitions and details. It was reported that:
Official departments are to strictly follow the Party's political discipline and regulations, improve supervision, resist corruption and withstand risks, and foster a team of civil servants that have firm beliefs, obey rules and are diligent and honest. State Council's leading party group and various units under the cabinet were also told 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.
Without clear definitions and details, such clauses can be interpreted subjectively and arbitrarily, even encountering hindrances in real operations and execution.
The CPC hence has laid out “moral principles” for the party members to follow. This is heavily influenced by China’s long-standing Confucian tradition that places emphasis on systems of philosophical and ethical teachings. Without clear definitions and details, such clauses can be interpreted subjectively and arbitrarily, even encountering hindrances in real operations and execution. In this dimension, China can learn from the United States, or even Singapore (renowned for its corruption-free system) in drafting codes of conduct for bureaucrats.
As the penultimate plenum before next year’s 19th National Congress, in which a new Standing Committee will be formed, the sixth plenum has been regarded as the most important meeting for political jockeying. Many now look forward to see how Xi Jinping’s elevation as core leader can help pave his way to appointing his close allies into the party’s inner circles. Xi Jinping has to make good use of his increased power to address power struggles within the party so as to unite the CPC; to execute his reform plan for sustainable economic growth; and to lead China into a path of socialism with Chinese characteristics. China’s tragic past in 1989, when China experienced great turmoil when its top leaders Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun and Zhao Ziyang had differing political views, should serve as a painful lesson and constant reminder for the CPC today, that party unity is of utmost importance for its own survival.