All eyes are on Xi to see what he does with all that power

October 31, 2016 15:43
While the title of “core” leader is not defined in the party’s constitution, it puts Xi Jinping on a higher level than any other leader. Photo: Reuters

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been given an important new title that has been unused for the past 14 years in an elevation of his status so that he is now clearly on a higher level than that occupied by his predecessor, Hu Jintao.

Xi is now China’s “core” leader.

As a communiqué issued at the end of a four-day session of several hundred party leaders last week said, all party members should “closely unite around the Communist Party of China Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core”.

The concept of a “core” leader was not used in the first 40 years of the People’s Republic of China.

It was introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1989 in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square military crackdown when he anointed Jiang Zemin as new party leader.

To shore up the little known Jiang’s position as the new leader, Deng tried to put the new man on the same level as Mao Zedong and Deng himself.

Deng said that Mao was the core of the first generation of Communist leaders while Deng was the core of the second generation.

Jiang, he declared, was the core of the third generation of leaders. However, this title of “core” was not passed on by Jiang to his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2002.

When Xi Jinping took over as party leader from Hu in 2012, he also did not receive the title of “core” leader.

But, as a result of the sixth plenary meeting of the party’s central committee last week, Xi has been elevated to this status.

While the position is not defined in the party’s constitution, it puts him on a higher level than any other leader.

It should give him more authority to deal with the country’s myriad problems, from the economic slowdown to corruption to internal security to the South China Sea.

Ever since he became party leader in 2012 and head of state in 2013, Xi has been concentrating power in his own hands, creating and heading institutions responsible for national security and economic reform, among others.

This is in stark contrast with Deng, who spurned titles such as president, premier or party leader and yet was universally acclaimed as “China’s paramount leader”.

It suggests that Xi, although powerful, still is not in the league of Mao or Deng.

Instead, the most appropriate personality to compare him with is Jiang, the only leader to govern as “core” leader in the party’s 95-year-history.

It can be seen that Jiang, even after Deng’s death in 1997, was able to push through reform, such as on state-owned enterprises, transforming the party’s role into that of a governing party and no longer a revolutionary party and developing his own theory of “three represents,” which significantly widened the base of the party.

In 2013, at the first plenum under Xi’s watch, the party rolled out impressive reform plans that included allowing the market to play a “decisive role” in allocation of resources, safeguarding the authority of the constitution and law; improving protection of human rights, and allowing farmers the same benefits as city dwellers.

The non-implementation of many reforms was attributed to opposition by vested interests and Xi’s power grabs has been explained as necessary for realization of such reforms.

Now, as “core” leader, it would be difficult for Xi to explain further delay in reforms.

At last week’s party meeting, it was disclosed that the anti-corruption campaign, which has been a hallmark of the Xi administration for four years, will not be wound down after the party has been purified but will become a permanent feature.

However, the emphasis of the meeting was on strengthening party discipline.

This move is, at least in part, to remove remaining obstacles to Xi. After all, there isn’t much point in creating a “core” leader if party members -- especially other party leaders -- can flout his decisions at will.

Further action is likely next year, when, according to convention, the leader will unveil who will govern with him in his second five-year term and who his successor will be.

He may well bend the retirement rules to allow certain allies to remain in power. It also won’t be surprising if he doesn’t unveil a successor at all so as not to turn himself into a lame duck.

The question then will be: what will he do with all that power? Is he into power for its own sake or will he use it to reform the country?

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.