Xi Jinping was well prepared for the leadership position long before he took the helm due to China’s meritocratic selection system. In the 1980s, he was placed as one of the candidates for the future generation of leaders. It is believed that he had already formulated his vision of China when he took over power from Hu Jintao. His vision of future China is reflected in his writings and speeches. He has published many of his writings, an unusual practice in China’s politics. Past leaders would usually publish their writings only after they had retired from politics.
Xi’s Vision of China
The key concept of Xi’s vision of China is the “China dream” which consists of three main parts.First, to lift the country from a middle-income to a high income economy by 2020. Today, China’s per capita income is around US$7,800, which means that China will have to achieve an average annual growth rate of about 6-7 percent in the next period of time. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Fifth Plenum in 2015 emphasized that during the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), China will have to realize 6.5 percent annual growth in order to reach per capita income of US$12,000, the level necessary for China to achieve “a modestly comfortable society” (xiaokang shehui). While it is not an easy task for Xi, considering the current economic uncertainties, the Xi leadership is determined to achieve this goal by enforcing the set of policy initiatives formulated in the past three years.
Second, to build a system of rule of law. Political reform in the line of democratization is not what Xi and his colleagues want to do. Xi regards “rule of law” as the key for China’s democratization in the future. His principle is achieving rule of law first and democracy later. At this moment,efforts will not be directed toward political reforms on democratization but toward building new sets of institutions for the establishment of the rule of law.
Sustainable economic growth with social justice is the goal of the Xi leadership.
Third, to govern and manage society effectively. To achieve this goal, the leadership is looking at building a large middle class society, namely, a “comfortable society.” The leadership has a consensus that wealth and social justice are the foundations of social governance. Development thus continues to take precedence, even though the leadership is shifting away from what China called GDPism, namely, the single-minded pursuit of GDP growth. Sustainable economic growth with social justice is the goal of the Xi leadership. A new form of socialism or neo-socialism is forming, at least on the ideological front.
Xi’s Means to Achieve his Vision
Xi has adopted a four-pronged approach. First is to formulate China’s long-term development plan through what Xi has called “top design.” Two main plans have been issued, namely, the third plenum reform decision in 2013 and the fourth plenum reform decision in 2014. The theme of the third plenum decision is to promote economic development via further and radical marketization, with the government playing a bigger role in social governance. The theme of the fourth plenum decision is to build a system of rule of law. These two decisions are extremely ambitious, compared to all previous reform initiatives. The third plenum decision had 336 reform items, and the fourth plenum decision had 180. There are some overlaps, but it still adds up to more than 500 reform items. Apparently, Xi could not put all these reforms into effect within his two terms as he only has 8 more years before he steps down. Therefore, it is believed inside China that these plans are for China’s next 35 years and until the PRC is 100 years old in 2049.
Second is to centralize power in order to overcome all kinds of reform difficulties. Xi has established four new powerful organizations, namely, the Central Small Leading Group to Deepen Comprehensive Reform, the National Security Council, the Central Small Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization, and the Central Military Commission’s Small Leading Group to Deepen National Defense and Military Reform. The establishment of these bodies has changed the way power functions at the top. Before Xi, the party’s Political Bureau Standing Committee had nine members. There was a division of labor among these members, with each looking after his own territories and making the final decisions, without effective coordination among them. Power was thus too diffused, and there were too many internal checks and balances. The Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao team was thus not able to materialize their ambitious plan which they formulated when they came into power. Xi has changed this situation. Xi is now the head of all these groups, with Li Keqiang as his deputy. Except for the national and military reform group, all other Standing Committee members are placed in different groups. Other reasons for power centralization include, as Xi himself has stressed, overcoming resistance from vested interests to further reforms, enforcing planned reforms, and building a set of effective new institutions.
Third is to launch a large anti-corruption campaign to secure a level of legitimacy for the communist party and to reduce popular complaints. In the few years of Xi’s rule, more than one hundred “tigers,” namely, government officials who were deputy ministerial level and above, were investigated and arrested for corruption. The number of arrested local government officials is even more. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is hugely different from those of all the previous waves as this campaign targets the political oligarchies. Zhou Yongkang, Ling Jihua and Xu Caihuo-Guo Boxiong had formed their power networks nationwide, connecting business interests with politics. While many “red” families or high ranking government officials’ families are also known to have accumulated wealth unlawfully, they may be spared. The difference lies in the fact that Zhou’s, Ling’s and Xu’s power networks were involved in both money and politics. These groups were regarded as posing a serious threat to the functioning of the Communist Party. Xi has a greater sense of responsibility toward the regime that his father’s generation had established.
China has realized that the US is reluctant to give it a larger role; it has to make efforts to build a China-led regional and even international order.
Fourth is to formulate a grand strategy for China’s foreign affairs. This strategy involves three related areas, which include building major powers relations with the United States (and also other great powers); launching the Silk Road plan, namely, the “One Belt One Road” initiative to reach out to the developing world; and implementing a new “good neighborhood” policy to defend China’s sovereignty while securing a relatively stable international environment. Today, China is an important player in the international order. It will not exit from the existing international order and will instead continue to make efforts to play a more important role. Meanwhile, China has realized that the US is reluctant to give it a larger role; it has to therefore make efforts to build a China-led regional and even international order. AIIB is a good example. But Xi does not aim at challenging the US-led regional and international order; instead, Xi has insisted that China continue to practice open regionalism, and build institutions which are complementary to the existing regional and international order.
The Challenges That Xi Faces
At the leadership level, Xi’s challenge is related to power succession. In less than two years, the CCP will hold the 19th National Party Congress where the current leadership will have to select the next generation of leaders. All eyes are now on whether Xi will follow the previous practice of choosing future leaders, or whether he will modify the process to choose someone he is satisfied with. Based on previous practices, 5 of the 7 members in the Standing Committee will have to retire, and Li Yuanchao, Wang Yang, Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai will enter the Standing Committee. The fifth candidate will be Xi’s own choice. However, uncertainties prevail. To change or not to change the previous practice is a major political challenge for Xi since power succession is the most important aspect of Chinese politics. It will affect the unity and stability of the CCP leadership.
Xi is also facing an increasingly inactive bureaucratic system. Due to power centralization and the large scale anti-corruption campaign, many bureaucrats have become inactive. How to motivate the bureaucratic system to get the job done poses another challenge for Xi.
Externally, China is facing a worsening external environment. Xi has been very pro-active on the international front, particularly on Japan and the South China Sea issue. The newly created National Security Council is performing below expectations. Equally critical is Xi’s relationship with the military. Under Hu Jintao, Hu did not have a substantial relationship with the military, nor did he have substantial influence over it. Likewise, the military could not influence Hu. For Xi, the influence is mutual. The military now has a bigger say over China’s foreign affairs. While Xi has planned a new and ambitious military reform program, its realization remains to be seen.
Overall, the crucial task for Xi in the next phase is to form a strong executive team to enforce policies both on the domestic and international fronts. Indeed, this is what Xi is actively doing. The anti-corruption campaign is slowing down and the focus is shifting to recruiting reformers into the leadership. Xi has recruited people from his previous work places in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai, in particular Zhejiang. Some major personnel changes before and at the 19th Party Congress are expected.