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China: Imminent Grant of “Core” Leader Status to Xi Jinping?; By D. S. Rajan

C3S Paper No. 0021/2016


Abstract

On the basis of latest indicators, particularly taking into account the chances of Xi Jinping emerging as the “Core” fifth generation leader, the ongoing consolidation of political power in China by the leader can be termed as one which is almost nearing completion. At the same time, it cannot be denied that there are  problems for Xi;  in the main, there is a  growing requirement for him   to address   the apparent  disunity among the cadres ; the repeated calls to all party, government and military personnel to display loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP),  albeit in real terms to Xi, give rise to suspicions that there could be  divisions in the party over the Xi leadership. Also, the leader may have to reckon with potential challengers   in future; his latest public denouncement of Bo Xilai’s political ambition can be considered as a subtle warning to such challengers.  In consolidating power, Xi seems to have come under compulsions arising from another challenge, i.e. in the economic realm; China’s economic growth has slowed to a 25-year low of 6.9 per cent in 2015. Coming to the military side, the position of the leader may also not be comfortable; his launch of massive military reforms could be met with some resistance from vested interests in the army, which are to lose out of the reforms. Xi may also have to deal with opinions in the country in favor of bringing the military under the State control, instead of being under the party command.  Overall, as the present domestic  climate centering round over-concentration of power in the hands of Xi Jinping  further develops,  there could be repercussions for  the intra-party  power equations ahead of the next  CCP Congress in 2017;  one thing is however clear : Xi  seems to be  well on his way to get reelected as the party chief in that congress.

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Three developments of high political significance have been noticed in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the month of January 2016.

Firstly,  the  heads of  several provincial/city  party units  ( for e.g the party chiefs  in Sichuan, Hubei,  Anhui, Guangxi and in the cities of  Tianjin and  Xian ) have begun to describe[1]  Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China,  as the “Core” of the CCP  leadership.  The exact remarks  made by these units  in their party gatherings held  to sensitize the cadres  under them on a Politburo speech[2] delivered by Xi  in  December 2015, have been that party members  should  “resolutely support General Secretary Xi Jinping, this  core” (坚决维护习近平总书记这个核心).

Secondly,   a   new book[3] captioned “Edited Excerpts From Discussions by Xi Jinping on Tightening Party Discipline and Rules,” compiled by the CCP’s Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC) and the Party Literature Research Center, containing extracts of the leader’s 200 pieces of hitherto undisclosed remarks, selected out of his 40 speeches and articles,    pertaining to the period November 16, 2012 to October 29, 2015, has been published. In the remarks, the party organizations at all levels have been asked to organize CCP members to study Xi’s sayings during the period.

Thirdly, Li Zhanshu, a CCP Politburo member, has stressed[4]  at a meeting on the work of authorities affiliated to the CCP Central Committee that “all party organizations and members should take absolute loyalty to the Party as their fundamental political requirement and foremost political discipline, achieve a high degree of conformity with the central committee and strengthen awareness of the party theories and policies”.

A closer look at the three developments mentioned above may be necessary in order to find out what they really convey. Most important politically is the first which signals that very soon the status of Xi Jinping could be formally elevated to that of “Core” of the fifth generation leadership. As the CCP sees, Mao had occupied the “Core” position with respect to first generation leadership, Deng Xiaoping to the second, and Jiang Zemin to the third; the party  though  placed  Hu Jintao in the category of fourth generation leaders, did  not accord  him the position of  the leadership  “Core”. The same type of visualization has so far continued in the case of Xi Jinping who heads the CCP since 2012;   in the party hierarchy, he is still being addressed only as the party General Secretary not as the ‘Core’ of the leadership, implying thereby that he as a leader is only primus inter pares and that a collective leadership is working in the country.

In such circumstances, trends towards Xi Jinping assuming the “Core” leadership position are emerging. If they become factual, the arising implications for the current collective leadership system in China will be profound. The system is already being impacted by the over-concentration of power in the hands of Xi.  He holds so many high posts; he is the General Secretary of the ruling CCP, President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Chairman of the CCP and State Central Military Commissions and the head of the newly created National Security Council. He leads the CCP’s many ‘leading small groups’, dealing with important areas such as foreign affairs, financial and economic work, cyber security and information technology, and military reforms. Altogether, Xi occupies a total of 11 top posts in the country’s most powerful leadership bodies. This would mean that all institutions of the party, state council and military are now directly reporting to Xi. As the authoritative journal “Caixin” puts it[5] , Xi Jinping has become the de facto CCP Chairman. This is being so, according of a  “Core “ status for Xi at this juncture, would  go to strengthen his hands in the next 2017 CCP Congress, especially  in the matter of his election  as the   party chief  for another five years till 2022 under the existing 10-year-tenure rule ; speculations are rife that the leader desires  to rule for longer than a decade  till 2027 ,which  is best evidenced[6] by his hesitation so far to  publicly promote his potential successors . In any case, worth noting is that Xi might continue longer as the supreme leader in China, dominating the entire political, economic and military spectrum in that country.

The second development  i.e. publication of  a book containing Xi’s so far undisclosed remarks needs paying attention  from the point of view of answering the question as  to how the leader has been viewing the political opposition to him. Xi had identified [7] such opposition without naming anybody as those   “forming factions, cabals and mountain strongholds within the party”; “having vacillations regarding matters of principle and issues of right and wrong;” “openly expressing views that are opposed to major political questions regarding the party’s theory, guidelines and policies;” and “feigning compliance with but actually going against the party’s goals and policies.” To be seen in the same light is a signed commentary in the People’s Daily (Chinese language edition,  August 10, 2015) alleging  that “some retired leading cadres  , while they were in  office,   put  their cronies  in  key positions, so that they can interfere in the work of their original organizations and wield influence in the  future. This is making new leaders feel that unnecessary concerns affect their work as their hands and feet are being fettered”. Analysts abroad thought that Xi in this way is targeting former party supremo Jiang Zemin.

A point of surprise is Xi’s choice now to name and attack his political opponents openly through the book. Such treatment has a political meaning in the current context. The book puts the following observations [8]  of Xi, in public domain for first time, with regard to the following purged senior officials – Zhou Yongkang, former security chief , Bo Xilai,  former Chongqing party boss, Xu Caihou,  former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Ling Jihua, former advisor to Hu Jintao and Su Rong , former  Party Secretary of Qinghai, Gansu, and Jiangxi provinces.   Xi says in the book, “From cases investigated over the past few years that involved serious violations of party discipline and the law by senior cadres, especially those of Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Xu Caihou, Ling Jihua and Su Rong, it can be seen that the problem of damaging party political discipline and rules was very serious and merited serious attention. The greater these people’s power, the more important their position, the less seriously they took party discipline and political rules, to the point of recklessness and audaciousness. Some had inflated political ambitions and for their personal gain or the gain of their clique carried out political plot activities behind the party’s back, carried out politically shady business to wreck and split the party”.

The “political plots” charges against “some”, made by Xi are indeed very serious. Who are the “some”? Judging by official accusations already seen, they include Zhou and Bo.   It was acknowledged during the court trials, that the two in addition to being corrupt, indulged in “Non-organizational political activities.”[9] Experts[10] have interpreted such activities as attempts to set up a power base in China, alternate to that of Xi jinping. It  was also reported that  Zhou and Bo  once held a secret meeting in Chongqing during which they advocated “adjusting” the reform and opening-up policy initiated in the late 1970s by former leader Deng Xiaoping, bringing it back in line with Maoist ideas.[11]   In any case, such open revelations by Xi could be indicative of his confidence now that he considers political challenges to him are over; they could also be seen as a warning by Xi to his potential rivals in the coming years.

The third development, i.e. the demands coming from a senior leader on the need for cadres to display “absolute loyalty” to the CCP and show “conformity” with the party central committee, is not new, but their repetition without interruption at different levels makes one suspicious of existence of disunity in the party. Xi said at the Fifth CDIC Plenary Session (Beijing, January 13, 2015) that “party members should follow the constitution as well as political discipline and rules. The campaign against corruption will be arduous and complicated. The cadres should align with the authority of the CCP Central Committee in deed and thought, at all times and in any situation and ensure unity in the party”.[12] The CDIC chief Wang Qishan in his lead article (People’s Daily, October 23, 2015) [13]  asked all party organizations and members to follow the regulations which “embody the spirit of” key Party meetings and comments of the CCP General Secretary and are crucial in ensuring Party strength. Subsequently, the CCP chief   told at a politburo meeting (November 23, 2015) that “absolute loyalty is the most important to the party’s political discipline and   most fundamental to its political responsibility”. [14] Then came  publication of  two articles-  a signed one in the Liberation Army Daily on November 30, 2015 and the other contributed by the PLA General Political Department (GPD) on December 7, 2015, which sharply focused  on the need for the military  to follow the “CMC Chairman Responsibility” system, in other words to obey Xi’s orders.

As the year 2015 was ending, the CCP chief chose again to reiterate the theme of “loyalty to the party”; he asked[15] the politburo members at what is called “Democratic Life meeting” (Beijing, December 30, 2015), for the first time at this level, that they “should stick to the correct political direction, be “in accord with the party central” and “consciously and actively follow the party leaders’ instructions”. Xi wanted the party men   to exercise caution when speaking about key policies and warned them against creating factions. He complained that “some have been keen to poke around and … ask the things they should not ask … and run after the so-called internal information and spread it in private. Such actions had been rotting and decaying the party”. Loyalty to the Party is also Xi’s urge to the army. During a meeting with the new heads of the reorganized organs of the CMC (Beijing,  January  11, 2016) , he laid emphasis on  the armed forces  “unswervingly following  the CCP’s  absolute leadership, adhering to the  Party spirit, obeying  political discipline, and being  politically intelligent, with firm political faith and right political stance”. [16]  Xi’s speech can be said as reflecting his effort to secure the political loyalty of top level leaders,  both in the  Politburo and its  Standing Committee.

In a rare measure, Xinhua carried a formal statement[17] (January 7, 2016) on Xi’s December 30, 2015 politburo speech. It stipulated that “the leaders should be aligned with the central leadership of the party led by Xi in actions and thoughts. For the party, the government, the army, the people, academics, east, west, south, north, centre, the CCP leads everything”.

What do the indicators above convey? In the main, the message is that the ongoing consolidation of political power by Xi Jinping seems almost nearing completion. At the same time, there are challenges to Xi. There is a growing requirement for the   leader to successfully tackle the problem of apparent disunity within the CCP; the repeated calls to all party, government and military personnel to display loyalty to the party, albeit in real terms to Xi, give rise to suspicions that there could be divisions in the party over the Xi leadership. The leader may perhaps feel that there could be rivals  who have the potentials to challenge him in future; his publicly charging Bo Xilai of late for the latter’s political ambition, can be considered as a subtle warning such people. Xi may also have to look into the CCP’s standing among the public; for the first time, Wang Qishan, the powerful leader in charge of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, has touched upon the need for the CCP to acquire legitimacy through winning trust of the people “in the present complex situation”. Another big challenge to Xi is in the economic realm; China’s economic growth has slowed to a 25-year low of 6.9 per cent in 2015. Also, the position of the leader with respect to the military may not be comfortable; his launch of massive military reforms could be met with some resistance from vested interests in the army, which are to lose out of the reforms. Xi may also have to deal with opinions in the country in favor of bringing the military under the State control, instead of being under the party command.

The dangers confronting Xi are being identified by influential people within China. Meriting attention in this connection are the remarks of a   Beijing-based political commentator Zhang Lifan; he has said that “a regime of highly concentrated power has been formed, but the danger is, once wrong decisions are made, there could be thorny consequences. Liberal economist Mao Yushi has said that “Xi controls all, he takes all the power for himself – so there is no check and balance in the political system, and his wrong policy will go further and further”.

To sum up, it looks very much possible that further development of the present political climate centering round over-concentration of power in the hands of Xi Jinping , would  impact on the intra-party  power equations likely to emerge ahead of  the CCP Congress next year. In the months to come, it would therefore be necessary for Xi to ensure that his loyalists get elected to key positions in the Congress. The leader may also have to pay attention to complete the ongoing military reforms and tackle the economic downturn prior to the Congress. In any case, one thing is clear:  there is nothing so far to stop Xi  from getting  reelected as the party chief in that landmark party conclave.

References: 

[1]http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/searchq=cache:1_zP8fxYjsIJ:m.guancha.cn/gczhengjing/2016_01_31_  349857.shtml+&cd=         This gives  provinces or cities / the dates of meetings/ reporting dailies as follows: Sichuan –  January 11,2016- Sichuan daily of January 12,2016; Tianjin-January 12,2016- Tianjin daily of January 12,2016; Anhui-January 13,2016- Anhui daily of January 14,2016; Guangxi-January 13,2016- Guangxi daily of January 14,2016; Hubei- January 15,2016- Hubei daily of January 17,2016; Inner Mongolia- January 29,2016- Inner  Mongolia daily of January 30,2016 and Xi An city- January 14,2016- Xi An daily of January 15,2016. It should be noted that the original URL of guancha.cn is no longer available; only Google web cache is available.

[2] Xi in his politburo speech warned  Communist Party leaders  against not toeing the party line and asked them to ensure their family members steer clear of ­corruption,  “China’s       President Xi Jinping calls on Politburo to follow his lead”, South China Morning Post,  December, 30, 2015; http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1896668/chinas-president-xi-jinping-calls-politburo-follow-his

[3]  Book of Xi Jinping’s remarks on Party discipline published, Xinhua, January 1, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-01/01/c_134970519.htm

[4] Senior CPC official demands Party loyalty,  Xinhua, January 27, 2016; http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-01/27/c_135050732.htm

[5]Xi Has Vision to Guide Party to 2049, Yang Guangbin, March 16, 2015 hoenix TV, July 25; People’s Daily, January 11

[6] Willy Lam , Xi Jinping forever ,  http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/04/01/xi-jinping-forever-china-president-term-limits/

[7] Willy Lam, President Xi Lays Down His Own “Political Rules”,  China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 16 ,     http://www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=44297&cHash=1650aba599b311286f34f32778279dae#.V

[8] DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW, In Book, Xi Jinping Taints Ousted Rivals With Talk of Plots ,    ttp://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/28/world/asia/china-xi-jinping-plot.html?_r=0

[9] 2014 Annual Report of the Supreme Court, “China’s Supreme Court  uses novel rhetoric in new corruption allegations”, China Daily, USA, quoting Xinhua, 19.3.2015

[10]  Liu Dawen, former editor of Hongkong-based political magazine Outpost, Radio Free Asia, 19.3.2015).

[12] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2015-01/13/c_133916942.htm

[13] http://en.people.cn/n/2015/1023/c90000-8966343.html http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/23/us-china-corruption-       idUSKCN0SH08I20151023

[14] http://www.hubgold.com/2015/11/23/politburo-meeting-heard-55-visits-key-business-special-reports

[15] Xinhua Insight: How a time-honored tradition helps CPC make self-improvement, December 30, 2015http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2015-    12/30/c_134965642.htm

[16] China reshuffles military headquarters jan 11 2016 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-01/11/c_134999061.htm

[17] All the President’s Men: Xi Jinping tells Communist Party’s top echelon to unite behind him in thought and action, January 9, 2016; http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/1899546/all-fall-chinas-president-tells-communist-partys-top?page=all

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Contributing date – February 2, 2016. Email: dsrajan@gmail.com)

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