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How Xi Jinping can use his new power as ‘core’ of China’s Communist Party

The annual plenum of the Communist Party’s central committee, which ended on Thursday, released a communique of more than six thousand words after four days of secret meetings in Beijing.

As expected, the communique went to great lengths to expound the need to strengthen supervision and regulation of the behaviour and conduct of party members, particularly senior officials, with the plenum approving two documents to that effect as part of continuous efforts to combat corruption and boost the loyalty of party members.

Chinese Communist Party expands Xi Jinping’s political power, anointing him ‘core’ leader

But the most eye catching bit of the communique was in fact just two words – He Xin – or the core, as the party leadership formally endorsed President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) as “core of the party centre”.

Xi assuming the new title should not come as a surprise as some mainland media and officials had cranked up the propaganda justifying the new designation for him in the run up to the plenum.

But the official endorsement is still significant as it confirms the efforts to elevate Xi alongside Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) and expands his power ahead of a key party congress next autumn.

At the 19th congress, which the communique said would be held in the latter half of next year, the party will endorse a new leadership line up, including for the Politburo Standing Committee – the highest decision making body in China.

Under current rules, only Xi and Premier Li Keqiang ( 李克強 ) can remain. They will get another five years while the other five on the committee must step down because of age and term limits.

With the leadership changes just one year away, Xi’s new mantle will no doubt give him more clout in promoting more of his supporters to leadership positions. Since Xi came to power in late 2012, he has rapidly amassed power as the head of the party, the state, and the military. But he has also moved to exert power over the economy, traditionally the premier’s domain.

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The late paramount leader Deng coined the word “core” following the leadership changes in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989 when he removed Zhao Ziyang ( 趙紫陽 ) and installed Jiang Zemin (江澤民) as the head of the party. The effort was aimed at bolstering Jiang’s authority in the wake of the political upheaval. To justify the initiative, Deng said Mao was the core of the first generation leadership, himself the core of the second generation, and Jiang was the core of the third generation.

That designation elevated Jiang from a mere provincial party secretary from Shanghai to the level of Mao and Deng, thus helping him to expand his power and boost his authority to ensure his 15-year run as the ruler of the party and the country.

In a bid to cling on to power, Jiang did not pass on the politically significant title to Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) when he stepped down as the head of the party in 2002 and president in early 2003. In fact, he managed to hang on to the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission until 2004. Even after his full retirement, Jiang was still believed to wield considerable influence behind the scenes during Hu’s 10-year rein until the latter’s retirement in 2012.

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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.

Mainlanders’ growing discontent with corruption and a weak central leadership has given Xi, who succeeded Hu, an opportunity to launch an unprecedented anti-graft campaign to consolidate power and harness public support for a stronger central leadership.

According to the communique, 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.

But a People’s Daily commentary was much more direct in pointing out that endorsing Xi as the “core of the party centre” embodied the common wish of “the party, the military, and all ethnic groups”.

There is little doubt that following the plenum, the country’s massive propaganda machine will crank up to extol Xi’s leadership skills and vision.

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But interestingly, the communique also took pains to point out that the party would not allow any unchecked power nor would it leave any special member unsupervised. Moreover, it said that publicity regarding leaders should be based purely on facts and that fulsome praise should be banned.

Presumably, it referred to the two documents approved by the plenum on how to better govern the conduct of party members, particularly senior officials. Specifically, it urged ordinary party members to exercise their rights to supervise the conduct of senior officials.

But they will have to see how that can be achieved given the secretive nature of the party politics because the leadership usually releases details of new rules one or two weeks after the plenum, based on past practices.

The endorsement of Xi as the core leader will no doubt fan further speculation about his clout to change the leadership succession rules and also his intention to stay beyond 2022 when his second term expires and he is expected to step down. As argued previously in this space, despite Xi’s strong build up of power, it is still difficult for him to change those rules, which could trigger intense political infighting.

In fact, the communique’s emphasis on not allowing unchecked power and leaving no special member unsupervised is a very telling reminder.

China’s President Xi Jinping faces his biggest political test

But Xi’s new mantle and the communique’s highlighting of the need for strong central leadership could give him more power to shrink the number of the Politburo Standing Committee members from the current seven to five. When Xi came to power in 2012, he managed to reduce the number of the committee members to seven from nine in Hu’s era. The principal reason touted for this was that a high number of members on the committee had rendered the decision making process cumbersome and less effective.

Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper