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An Enduring Dream? : Xi Jinping’s Consolidation of Power in China; By Shivani Shankar

Image Courtesy: The Los Angeles Post

Article No. 38/2019

Introduction

When Xi Jinping became the President of China in 2012-2013, the people of China believed that he would be the leader who would elevate China to the next level of advanced growth, power and status on the global stage. Compared to his predecessor, Hu Jintao, whose leadership was relatively reserved, Xi Jinping sought to make bold changes to the administration, its personnel and the very fundamental blocks of Chinese governance in the name of national growth and global stature. Having come in after serving in top administrative positions such as the Vice President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), General Secretary of the Chinese Communist party (CCP), he brought to the governance a very crucial aspect that China had apparently lacked in previous administrations, direction. Xi Jinping’s ideologies and political philosophies have been very goal oriented and hence, he has overseen the implementation of certain important albeit controversial policies at both the provincial and national level.

Broadly speaking, there have been three important aspects of his governance thus far. The first is how Xi Jinping has not tolerated corruption within China’s government due to his strong belief that in order for China to grow more on the global stage, they first need to have an effective government which is not weighed down by the negative aspect of corruption.

In order to weed out any corrupt officials, his administration has carried out a swift and effective anti-corruption campaign that has led to the apprehension and inquisition of several top leaders, some of whom are from the upper echelons of the Chinese government.

Anti-Corruption policy: Is it really what it seems?

Though on paper this seems to be an aspect that needs to be welcomed, some sceptics have doubts on the campaign’s true objective. While on the one hand the campaign has been used to remove corrupt officials, some view that the other side of the coin is that the campaign has been a tool to remove President Xi Jinping’s political rivals who in the long term could question his rule.

This is the foremost instance of how Xi Jinping has sought to amass power during his rule by trying to create a favourable political environment where he could rule unopposed.

Style of Government: Loyalty versus Competence

Xi Jinping has reshuffled several provincial leaders across the board, promoting like-minded individuals and his loyalists to provincial heads in the process. One significant reason for this is to ensure that having created the right political environment to rule in, Xi now has leaders to support his authority and more importantly rule out the possibility of any resistance. This is reinforced by the fact that he maintains a strong relationship with all of his newly promoted provincial heads which galvanises the support that he already commands, as will be examined henceforth in the paper.

The reshuffling of provincial heads shows how Xi Jinping seeks to rule unopposed by securing the unwavering loyalty of his subordinates and be the authority on most if not all aspects of decision making within several branches, groups and committees across the government of China, thereby further cementing his power as the alpha and omega of Chinese politics.

Return of One-Man Rule?

Last but most definitely not least, in order to further his political agenda and firmly believing that he is the right man to steer China to global supremacy, Xi Jinping has already amended the constitution of China to extend his tenure as President, perhaps indefinitely.

This could be seen as a sea change to the very foundations of China’s constitution as in the past, wherein Deng Xiaoping’s most important legacy was how he clearly stipulated the duration of the President’s tenure (a maximum of two consecutive terms) [i]. Deng’s stipulation was enforced back then in order to ensure that no leader would be above the law and misuse the powers of office to his or her personal benefit which could result in political mayhem that was characteristic of Mao Zedong’s era.

However, Xi Jinping sees this as the final step towards wielding total power as this drastic change will not only institutionalise and blur the lines between party and the state, resulting in the party’s interests taking precedence over those of the state, but more importantly it would concentrate all political power in his hands further cementing his grip on all arenas of life in China.

This paper discusses the three factors stated above in detail and seeks to answer the following questions:

  1. How is Xi Jinping using the anti-corruption campaign to amass power?

  1. How is Xi maintaining friendly relations with the provincial leaders for consolidating his powers? Will it have an impact on China’s political stability?

  1. How will Xi Jinping’s amendment of the Constitution of China, help in his pursuit for the consolidation of power?

Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Drive Policy

Xi Jinping launched the anti-corruption campaign in China in the year 2012 in order to find and remove corrupt government officials, party members, military personnel and any state-owned companies who were suspected of corruption. The campaign has led to the arrest, investigation and prosecution of many officials across the country. It has also led to the removal of opposition as contestations to his leadership. [ii].

While several officials were incarcerated by Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, the most notable of them were Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang, both of whom were known as President Xi’s top political rivals. While the former was arrested for crimes, which came to light at a politically advantageous time for Xi Jinping, that were committed by Bo’s family members, Zhou was charged based on his alleged connection to one of Xi’s political rivals. Hence, the connection between the prosecution of these high-ranking politicians and the resulting political benefit to Xi Jinping is proof of how the Chinese President has used the anti-corruption campaign to remove key opposition and strengthened his political power [iii].

These actions have raised the question as to whether the campaign is a deliberate attempt to domesticate social power and if so, to what extent and if its true purpose is more nefarious in nature. This is the predominant feeling among critics [iv] who doubt that the campaign was nothing more than a tool for Xi Jinping to remove any and all members of the administration whom he thought of as not aligned with his political philosophies and could be a threat to his rule in the long term. This shows Xi Jinping is keen to rule unopposed in order to secure his position at the top of all matters of governance.

This campaign has received a lukewarm response from the Chinese people.  Though the public is happy to see the corrupt officials being brought to justice, they are more interested to see if these changes in the government hierarchy will produce any tangible changes in their day to day life such as, a rise in the standards of living, better healthcare and housing facilities, etc. [v]

These are some of the several key issues that Xi’s leadership have failed to solve for the Chinese people. It can be argued that despite the government’s lofty ambitions, the reality is that many people of China are yet to see any major improvements in their day to day prospects.

In order for all this to happen, it is important for Xi Jinping to focus more on public policies rather than adopting other measures, such as the anti-corruption campaign, which helped him to firm his grip on the party and further cement his authority while neglecting the true needs of the people of China [vi].

Xi Jinping’s Relationship with China’s Provincial Leaders

After Xi came to power, he created more government bodies and groups in several critical areas such as cyber security reform, national security, etc. One aspect to note here is that, in all of these newly formed government bodies, it is Xi Jinping himself who serves as the top official who oversees matters with the help of his subordinate officials and loyal lieutenants. Moreover, he used his power to nominate and appoint preferred candidates to important administrative positions in order to have better control over the provinces [vii].

During his tenure, he made several changes/appointments to important provincial level posts. Out of the 31 provincial party secretaries, only 5 from Shanghai, Guangxi, Fujian, Guangdong and Sichuan survived Xi’s first term that took place between November 2012 and October 2017.

The reshuffling of the provincial leaders can be observed to have happened in three major waves, in the months of March (2013), August (2016), and April (2017), each of which saw the removal and replacement of 6 provincial leaders. Within Xi Jinping’s first five-year term, 15 provinces had at least 2 changes in leadership [viii]. Also, no provincial leader has served more than 5 years as well.

These changes serve as prime examples for Xi Jinping’s consolidation of both central and primary control over the many provinces. In comparison, Jiang Zemin’s and Hu Jintao’s political tenure had many long serving provincial party secretaries. They have been listed below in Table 1. This scenario is very different when compared to the current state of affairs today where Ningxia has seen a change of leadership 3 times under the first five years of Xi Jinping.TABLE 1: EXAMPLES OF LONG SERVING MEMBERS UNDER JIANG ZEMIN AND HU JINTAOS.NO.NAMELENGTH OF TENURE1.Huang Heng1989 – 1997 (8 years)2.Chen Jianguo2002 – 2010 (8 years)3.Wang Lequan (a.k.a. King of Xinjiang)16 years

Several long serving party secretaries who had the potential for becoming local leaders were categorised as anomalies and if left unchecked, were seen as a threat to Xi Jinping’s rule in the long term. Hence, several of these members (refer Table 2) were replaced and prepared to retire.TABLE 2: LIST OF POTENTIAL LOCAL LEADERS IN CHINA WHO WERE REPLACED/RETIREDS.NO.NAMEREGION/PROVINCELENGTH OF TENURE1.Zhu BoInner Mongolia2001 – 20092.Li JianguoShaanxi1997 – 20073.Cao BochunGuangxi1997 – 20064.Su RongJiangxi2007 – 20135.Huang JuShanghai1994 – 20026.Liu QiBeijing2002 – 20127.Wen ShizhenLiaoning1997 – 2004

Looking at the first full terms of both Jiang Zemin (1992-1997) and Hu Jintao (2002-2007), as much as 17 provincial party secretaries survived the former’s first term while 12 survived the latter. In comparison, only 5 survived Xi Jinping’s first term. When calculating the turnover rate of provincial leadership and the average service duration of each provincial party secretary under the first five years of Xi Jinping, it is very likely that these statistics are higher when compared to that of the first term of Jiang Zemin, and lesser in comparison to that of Hu Jintao.

Xi Jinping sees the reshuffling of the provincial leadership as crucial to his plans as he requires these positions to be occupied by those, he deems trustworthy and reliable in order to carry out his style and vision of governance. For example, those listed in Table 3 have all served directly or indirectly under Xi Jinping before he became the General Secretary.TABLE 3: CURRENT PARTY SECRETARIES WHO PREVIOUSLY SERVED UNDER XI JINPINGS.NO.NAMEREGION/PROVINCE1.Shi TaifengNingxia2.Chen YaoYunnan3.Chen Min’erChongqing4.Du JiahaoHunan5.Cai QiBeijing6.Peng QinghuaGuangxi7.Li QiangJiangsu8.Liu CiguiHainan9.Liu Jiayi*Shandong10.Jiang Chaoliang*Hubei11.Lou Qinjian*Shaanxi

Moreover, despite not being members of the Central Committee of the CCP, Chen Hao (Yunnan), Wu Yingjie (Xizang/Tibet) and Li Jinbin (Anhui) were all appointed as party secretaries by Xi Jinping. Such administrative actions are very rare within the CCP. However, they should be awarded a membership in the central committee, if not Politburo, following the 19th Party Congress. Xi also promoted several scientists and engineers such as, Ma Xingrui, Zhang Guoqing, Xu Dazhe and Zhang Qingwei, from the defence and aerospace industries to the position of provincial governors. Several of them are seen as “rising stars” and are thought to be in line for more provincial party secretary posts during Xi’s second term.

The usual norms of “unitary state” or “federalism” are defied by China’s central-provincial relations. Several policy areas subject to a combination of a high degree of provincial autonomy and strict central control. Semi-independent bases that have the potential to defy the centre, yet most unlikely to challenge it, have emerged due to the work of some provincial party chiefs, for example, Bo Xilai in Chongqing (2007-2012) and Cheng Liangyu in Shanghai (2002-2006). However, Xi Jinping would not allow this to happen again and this seems all but certain with him firmly commanding the loyalty of the government, party and military [ix].

Xi Jinping and the Amendment of the China’s Constitution

China amended its constitution for the first time in 14 years on March 11, 2018. This amendment overturned the legacy of Deng Xiaoping, abandoning some of the key constitutional reforms that he adopted.  Prior to 1982, there were no term limits on key leadership posts. However, while drafting the 1982 constitution, Deng Xiaoping and his allies imposed a two-term limit for the President [x]. This was enacted because, following the death of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues wanted to avoid “the overconcentration of power” in the hands of another dictator. In order to do so, they introduced fixed terms of office, term limits and a mandatory retirement age. They also assigned authority from the CCP to government agencies and encouraged regular meetings of Party institutions.  These practices were introduced to decentralize authority, regularize political life and most importantly to keep a check on dictatorial power [xi].

The presidential term limit was set to 10 years (as a maximum). While this ensured a stable governance and also a smooth transition of power between leaders, it also prevented the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual [xii]. However, the 2018 amendments challenge this very notion and have created a scenario which could see Xi Jinping remain as China’s supreme leader for an indefinite period of time.

Although submitted initially as minor changes, these amendments have repudiated the collective leadership orientation of the “Deng Xiaoping constitution” of 1982 and replaced it with the “Xi Jinping constitution” of 2018 which bears all the traits of a return to individual autocracy.

Many of the political values adopted by Xi Jinping greatly resemble that of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. When Putin rose to power, he promised to clean up Russia’s politics, battle corruption and the control of power by oligarchs. This process resulted in the systematic and rapid consolidation of power. While corruption was not completely eliminated, anyone in Russia who wanted their hold onto their influence had to pledge their allegiance to Putin [xiii]. Similarly, when Xi Jinping came into power, he promised to strengthen the Party and reinstate order. He adopted a strong stance against corruption. According to him, corruption would “doom the Party and the country” [xiv]. In order to execute these plans, a series of plans were set in motion, all of which are resulting in a consolidation of power by Xi Jinping. Those who wanted to hold onto their political influence were required to swear allegiance to him. Moreover, the growing speculation that Xi Jinping will not name a successor in order to stay in power for the coming decades is very much comparable to Putin’s endless reign in Russia.

These parallels have to be drawn in order to show that China and the CCP under Xi has sought to rationalize authoritarian rule and that popular nationalistic politics have resulted in Xi Jinping’s shaping the party’s contours in order to consolidate power, making him a leader who is supreme to the party itself.

With regards to his political motives, Xi Jinping was certain that he needed loyalty among the Party’s hierarchy in order to execute his plans. Hence if he was not satisfied with certain members, he was quick to remove them and replace them with his trusted confidants.  This ensured that he does not face any resistance from his subordinates and hence his authority is never questioned.

According to British political scientist Steve Tsang, Xi may feel that “he needs to exert a high level of control over the party in order to make the reforms that China needs.” [xv]. This ensures that, on paper, his targets would be achieved more easily without any internal hurdles about its execution. In order to do so, he seeks to amend the constitution so that he will continue to remain in power (longer than the stipulated time) and carry on his work for the Chinese Dream. He believes that he is the right man for the job. Having made several changes to the administration of the CCP, President Xi Jinping may hold the perception that he now has the complete support and loyalty of his party to execute his plans in order to make China a supreme global power.

China’s rise has both strategic and economic concerns for the rest of the world which is attracted to China due to its economic success. The country’s communist model is attractive not for its dialectics and politburos but for its trade surpluses and fast trains.

Xi Jinping has not made any clear claims as to what China’s preferred role will be in the global stage other than generically stating that the nation would assume a responsible and major role. However, judging by his past actions the world can expect China to be less inclined to compromising on disputes and will be willing to contribute only when it sees an opportunity to impose its own authority on the countries involved.

With Xi Jinping keen to achieve a new world order with Chinese characteristics, an assertive foreign policy will be the norm under his banner of promise for national “rejuvenation”. [xvi]

Foreign Policy as a tool of Power

President of the People’s Republic of China, H.E. Mr. Xi Jinping and Prime Minister of India, H.E. Shri Narendra Modi met in Wuhan on April 27-28, 2018 for an informal summit where they exchanged views on issues of bilateral and global interests in order to discuss their respective visions and priorities for national development.

They acknowledge the fact that the emergence of India and China as two large economies and major powers with decisional and strategic autonomy has implications of regional and global significance. The understanding between the two leaders was that the balanced relations between China and India will be a big positive given current global uncertainty. [xvii] The upcoming Modi-Xi Informal Summit at Mahabalipuram is also another platform for enhancing bilateral relations.

These informal dialogues are of great importance as India-China ties cannot be characterised as completely stable since Xi Jinping took office in 2013. It is important to watch if Xi Jinping will retain the far more important positions of Communist Party general secretary and head of the powerful Central Military Commission (that controls the People Liberation Army) beyond 2023.

Former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal opines that, “Xi has said that by 2035, he intends to make China a first-rate military power capable of winning wars. He has also said that by 2049, he wants to see China at the centre stage of international relations.” He also worries that this could be “pressure on India—in its periphery, in the region and beyond”. There are other aspects with regard to India-China relations which need to be analysed to ground the perspective in the context of President Xi Jinping’s urge to consolidate power:

India-China Border Issue

In 1962, India and China fought a war whose outcome was in China’s favour. The result of this is an unsettled border between the two countries. The armies face off against each other last year in Dokhlam as a result of this common un-demarcated boundary. Unfortunately, several rounds of talks since 2003 by representatives of both sides have not been positive. This bodes ill for India as analysts say that with a stronger Xi in power, the chances of China giving India any concessions on the border dispute will be very less. It remains to be seen if the 2019 Modi-Xi Informal Summit will show progress on this front.

Xi Jinping is most likely to press on with his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that India is opposed to due to the fact that a section of it – the China Pakistan Economic Corridor runs through the region of Kashmir, which India considers as its sovereign territory. The corridor would mean greater inroads into countries along India’s periphery. This could be a driver for India and Japan to look into an alternative to the BRI, namely via the Asia Africa Growth Corridor. This in turn can lead to Xi Jinping attempting to further solidify ties with Pakistan, that could escalate India’s concerns. [xviii]

Conclusion

In conclusion, the government policies on anti-corruption and staffing of key posts coupled with the 2018 constitution amendments are testament to Xi Jinping’s autocratic ambitions. The amended constitution of China is tailor made for a dictatorship as the removal of the stipulated presidential tenure enables the return of authoritarian rule that was seen under Mao Zedong.

With such power concentrated in the hands of Xi Jinping, the law is reduced to a tool, something that could potentially be used to satisfy the interests of the individual who wields it in the name of efficient governance. As a result, the 2018 amendment has moved China farther away from the fundamental ideals of a modern constitutional government and closer to a path that could lead to absolute monarchy with Xi Jinping at the helm [xix].

However, placing all this power in the hands of one man will give rise to scepticism, regardless of how qualified that leader is. This is because, his actions to prolong his term, show that he is going against the very foundation of the Chinese constitution which was created in such a manner as to avoid the negative aspects of a dictatorship and put the welfare of the people first thereby ensuring that the government will work for the collective good as opposed to becoming a tool of one man to satisfy his own interests. Hence, his actions to consolidate central power can have much more of a negative impact on China if left unchecked as such a powerful politician, who if not held accountable to his actions by the Chinese people, could misuse the powers of office and in the long term severely damage China’s growth prospects.

To conclude with, Xi emphasized that the Chinese Dream is a dream for peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit for all, that will not only benefit the Chinese people, but also people of all countries in the world. His mission, through the Chinese Dream, is to elevate the standard of living of Chinese citizens. However, these motivations may have negative impacts in the long term.

Western anxiety is rooted in the fear that in order for China to fulfil the Chinese Dream, China will become more assertive, more aggressive and more expansionist in matters of foreign affairs, especially when dealing with smaller neighbours. This could mean that when leaders meet with Xi Jinping or other representatives of China, they could be subjected to China’s dominance, in several matters, due to its status of a strong global superpower. China’s leaders seek to assure other countries that no matter how strong China becomes, China will never seek hegemony. However, in global politics, old promises can be easily forgotten when the circumstances are deemed unfavourable.  It is also about a stronger China that is to pursue an independent foreign policy and resolutely follow its own road, while at the same time increasing mutual cooperation with other countries, dealing with global challenges and working hard to make a contribution to global development. While the benefits and potential downfalls of China being a global superpower is debatable, its leaders continue to back the idea that positive changes can be brought about by supporting Xi Jinping and his ideas, rather than implementing new reforms such as the reduction of governmental interference in the market, social stability, changes to the nation’s politics etc. The celebrations in Beijing which marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of People’s Republic of China showed how Xi Jinping projected his power and the country’s might. Hence, the question remains as to whether Xi Jinping’s political endeavours are completely aimed at achieving his Chinese Dream, or whether there is an agenda to consolidate his power in China.

References

[i] Shirk, Susan L. “China in Xi’s “New Era”: The Return to Personalistic Rule.” Journal of Democracy, no. 2 (2018): 22-36, https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/china-in-xis-new-era-the-return-to-personalistic-rule/

[ii]Nagai, Oki, “Xi renews call for party discipline as risk of dissent grows”, Nikkei Asian Review, January 14 2019, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Xi-renews-call-for-party-discipline-as-risk-of-dissent-grows

[iii] Alexandra Fiol-Mahon, “Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign: The Hidden Motives of a Modern-Day…”, FPRI, August 17, 2018, https://www.fpri.org/article/2018/08/xi-jinpings-anti-corruption-campaign-the-hidden-motives-of-a-modern-day-mao/

[iv] John Ruwitch, “Timeline – The rise of Chinese leader Xi Jinping”, Reuters, March 16, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-parliament-xi-timeline/timeline-the-rise-of-chinese-leader-xi-jinping-idUSKCN1GS0ZA

[v] China Power Team. “Can Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign succeed?” China Power. June 13, 2016. Updated May 21, 2019. Accessed October 3, 2019. https://chinapower.csis.org/can-xi-jinpings-anti-corruption-campaign-succeed/ https://chinapower.csis.org/can-xi-jinpings-anti-corruption-campaign-succeed/

[vi] Ibid note [v]

[vii] Chow-Bing, Ngeow, “Xi’s Command of the Provinces” The Asia Dialogue, October 17 2017, https://theasiadialogue.com/2017/10/17/xis-command-of-the-provinces/

[viii] Ibid note [vii]

[ix] Ibid note [vii]

[x] Suzuki Ken, “China’s New “Xi Jinping Constitution”: The Road to Totalitarianism”, November 27 2018, https://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/a05803/china%E2%80%99s-new-xi-jinping-constitution-the-road-to-totalitarianism.html

[xi] Ibid note [i]

[xii] Ibid note [i]

[xiii] Kevin Carrico, “Putinism with Chinese Characteristics: the Foreign Origins of Xi Jinping’s Cult of Personality”, December 22, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/putinism-chinese-characteristics-foreign-origins-xi-jinpings-cult-personality/

[xiv] Ibid note [xiii]

[xv] Cheng Li, “Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era: Reassessing Collective Leadership”, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/bip_2016_chinese_politics_in_the_xi_jinping_era_chapter_one.pdf

[xvi] Chanakya, “What Chinese president Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power means for India and the world”, October 28, 2017, https://www.hindustantimes.com/opinion/what-chinese-president-xi-jinping-s-consolidation-of-power-means-for-india-and-the-world/story-hvD5hJDYKxtzKqPqDSGz7I.html

[xvii] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “India-China Informal Summit at Wuhan”, April 28, 2018, https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/29853/IndiaChina_Informal_Summit_at_Wuhan

[xviii] Elizabeth Roche, “Why India should worry about Xi Jinping’s continuation as China President”, March 12, 2018, https://www.livemint.com/Politics/ObSDedXeJWbnSH06RmibfK/Why-India-should-worry-about-Xi-Jinpings-continuation-as-Ch.html

[xix] Ibid note [x]

(Shivani Shankar is a Research Intern, C3S and is a student of 2nd year M.A International Studies, Stella Maris College, Chennai. She has carried out research on identified issues on China under the guidance of the members of C3S. Her area of interest is China’s foreign policy and international politics. The views expressed in this article however are of the author.)

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