In recent decades the “core” of the Communist Party leadership in China can be likened to a pendulum, swinging slowly one way and then reversing direction.
The core was a feature of political life under former president Jiang Zemin before swinging out of use under his successor Hu Jintao and coming back under President Xi Jinping.
In the weeks after the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, party elders including Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Li Xiannian and Wang Zhen reached an agreement to make Shanghai party boss Jiang the party’s general secretary, replacing the reform-minded Zhao Ziyang.
Along with Jiang, Song Ping, the top party official overseeing high-ranking personnel affairs, and Tianjin party secretary Li Ruihuan were named members of an expanded, six-strong Politburo Standing Committee, replacing Zhao and Hu Qili, who were ousted after the crackdown on the student-led democratic movement.
Jiang was on the same level of seniority as Song and Li, with all three having been members of the Politburo before their abrupt promotions to the party’s innermost body.
Then premier Li Peng, Qiao Shi, the top party’s graft-buster, and deputy premier Yao Yilin were all senior to Jiang in party ranking before he became their leader because they were already members of the Politburo Standing Committee.
That was the political scenario faced by Deng when he invented the term “core” of the party leadership.
He told top party leaders: “Now the new leadership has been confirmed, members of the Politburo should carry forward the spirit of solidarity in the first place. Please don’t be unwilling to be subservient to one another amid the new line-ups.
“Among the collective leaders of the second generation, I’m supposed to be the ‘core’, while Jiang Zemin is the ‘core’ among leaders of the third generation. I hope you all rally behind him, so as to uphold his leading status.”
With Deng’s help, and after years of effort, Jiang managed to consolidate his absolute authority. Once he had grown powerful enough to implement his will, he appeared to take steps to prevent his successor, Hu Jintao, from having the same level of political clout, even though Hu had also been nominated by Deng.
As a result, the number of seats in the Politburo Standing Committee, which had grown to seven in 1992, was further expanded to nine to dilute Hu’s power when he became the party’s general secretary in late 2002.
Hu wielded the least amount of real power of any top party official in decades because he was overshadowed by Jiang and had to share power with the other eight members of the Politburo Standing Committee. He was party chief for 10 years but was never given the title of “core” leader.
With Hu seen as nothing more than a Politburo Standing Committee convener – short of the necessary authority to bend other top leaders to his political will – other centres of power emerged. One of them was disgraced former security tsar Zhou Yongkang, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee during Hu’s second five-year term, who has since been jailed for life for corruption, abuse of power and leaking state secrets.
Hu’s weak power also gave rise to a saying that “government decrees fail to reach beyond the walls of Zhongnanhai”, the party leadership compound in central Beijing.
Xi Jinping, who succeeded Hu in late 2012, was a member of the same Politburo Standing Committee as Zhou and led a massive crackdown on corruption when he became party chief.
However, that crackdown, which prevented officials from taking commissions or kickbacks, further increased the level of inertia in government, with officials reluctant to fulfil their duties or take decisive action.
It was against that backdrop that the 197 full members of the party’s elite Central Committee decided to endorse Xi as the “core” of the party leadership at their sixth plenary session last month.