How Xi Jinping is scheming for one-man rule

May 19, 2016 09:51
A file photo shows Xi Jinping and other members of the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee prior to a press conference in Beijing. There have been rumors that Xi plans to abolish the Standing Committee to cement his power. Photo: CNS

The Communist Party's refusal to reflect on Maoism and rectify Mao Zedong's (毛澤東) wrongs during the Cultural Revolution have made the shadow of the decade-long calamity linger on in China. Now, 50 years later, we are seeing the reemergence of a new sociopolitical struggle.

Signs that surfaced in the past two months are particularly worrying.

In a speech earlier this month, Chinese President-cum-Party General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) warned that there are "arrivistes" and "conspirators" within the party and that such people must be weeded out.

That was the exact excuse Mao used half a century ago when he kick-started the Cultural Revolution.

"There are careerists and conspirators existing in our party and undermining the party’s governance. We should not bury our heads in the sand and spare these members, but must instead make a resolute response to eliminate the problem and deter further violations," Xi said in the speech that was carried by party mouthpiece People's Daily.

Mao's death in 1976 marked the end of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), who had been purged but was vindicated afterwards, pronounced the end of the inexorable proletariat struggle against the bourgeoisie. Words like "arrivistes" or "conspirators" never appeared in the official discourse since then, until Xi's speech this month.

The Chinese Communist Party has never been able to put in place institutional mechanism for leadership transition. Mao's handpicked successor Hua Guofeng (華國鋒) was toppled.

Later, though Deng made Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) the party chief-in-waiting when Jiang Zemin (江澤民) was still the top leader, such "crown prince" arrangement didn't continue at the end of Hu's tenure. Xi faced thinly-veiled opposition from from Bo Xilai (薄熙來) before taking power, followed by a fight among different factions, which subsequently led to Bo's downfall and imprisonment.

The party's totalitarianism is the reason why peaceful, transparent power handover is never possible, which in turn produces "arrivistes", "conspirators" and triggers factional infighting whenever a new supreme leader is to be selected.

Now, why has Xi, with all his immeasurable power, dredged up Cultural Revolution-style platitudes?

Fifty years ago Mao wanted to get rid of President Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇), an arch foe, in order to cement his power. Today, Xi has a similar objective.

There have already been some pointers.

The May issue of Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly) has revealed that Xi is looking to abolish the standing committee of the politburo, the paramount ruling body of the party.

Other than Xi, there are currently six other members in the politburo, including the premier, deputy premier, National People’s Congress chairman, Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference chairman and the party's discipline inspection chief.

A source told the magazine that the party may soon unleash an organizational overhaul that would surprise many, if Xi can push his initiatives through when party patriarchs and senior cadres meet in the summer retreat of Beidaihe (北戴河) in two months’ time.

The source, who is said to have a reliable track record of forecasting the party’s personnel changes, was quoted as saying that there is a feeling that other standing members of the politburo may hamper the general secretary from discharging his power.

The current hierarchy is also seen as an underlying cause of factional strife. The supreme party leader's authority will be best guaranteed when the politburo's standing committee is dismantled.

Amid such thinking, it seems the politburo revamp is Xi's last step aimed at seizing the "mandate of heaven" for a one-man rule.

Xi's well-thought-out plan would mark a breach of the party's own constitution as well as the consensus reached in the wake of the Cultural Revolution that collective leadership must not be surmounted by one strongman.

The party has admitted in a document that centralization of power and personality cult will raise the risk of grave mistakes being committed like those seen during the Cultural Revolution.

The CPC's existing collective leadership means all standing members of the politburo vote to decide on vital issues. Xi, like his fellow members, has only one vote.

But now he is looking to eliminate the last remaining checks and balances within the party.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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The CPC's existing collective leadership means all seven standing committee members of the politburo vote to decide on vital issues. Xi (center), like his fellow members, has only one vote. Photo: Xinhua

Senior journalist with The Straits Times and political commentator