How strong is Xi Jinping really?

July 15, 2019 15:05
After taking the reins of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, Xi Jinping has steadily consolidated his power through various means, including by rewriting party rules. Photo: Bloomberg

China's leader Xi Jinping appears to be in an unassailable position, with his name and his "thought" having been enshrined in the Communist Party constitution in October 2017 and the state constitution in 2018. Term limits for president were also removed last year. Xi concurrently holds the three top positions in China: head of the party, head of state and head of the military. Yet, there is constant speculation that he might be the target of political plots.

In July last year, for example, months after the western media reported that Xi had, in effect, become president for life, a story about “shifting political undercurrents” among the party leadership suddenly appeared. The article was based on the fact that the Chinese leader’s name had not appeared on the front page of the People’s Daily, the official party newspaper, on two days in one week.

Not only that but, during that same week, the official Xinhua news agency reposted an old article criticizing Hua Guofeng, a disgraced party leader who had died in 2008. Immediately, there was speculation that Xi was the real target.

Then, suddenly, things changed again. Xinhua withdrew the old article and Xi’s name again appeared multiple times in every issue of the People’s Daily. In fact, according to Guoguang Wu of the University of Victoria, in the Sept. 2, 2018 issue of the People’s Daily, Xi’s name appeared 103 times, including 45 times on the front page.

So, despite Xi’s deeply entrenched leadership position, it appears that there is opposition to him in the party. But since he became the party’s general secretary in 2012, Xi has steadily consolidated his power through various means, including by rewriting party rules, undermining the system of collective leadership put in place by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, and replacing it with a centralized leadership centered on Xi himself.

To prevent the emergence of another figure like Mao Zedong, the dictatorial founding leader of the People’s Republic of China, Deng decreed in August 1980 that party committees at all levels were “genuinely to apply the principle of combining collective leadership and division of labor with individual responsibility.”

However, Xi has been chipping away at the collective leadership system built by Deng and his successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

The 19th party congress in October 2017, when Xi gained a second term as general secretary, marked a turning point.

At the congress, he did not unveil his own successor, which had been the institutional practice for the previous two decades, which saw Hu succeed Jiang and, 10 years later, Hu himself succeeded by Xi. But Xi did not continue this tradition.

Subsequently, Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University wrote in China Leadership Monitor, a China-watching journal: “The congress made clear that the party is in charge of China and Xi Jinping is in charge of the party. Xi Jinping’s name and “thought” were written into the party’s constitution, and Xi Jinping made clear that his ‘new age’ was to be demarcated from Deng Xiaoping’s ‘new period’.”

Actually, in 2016, to pave the way for the coming era, Xi was accorded the title of “core” leader and a key political document, “Several Principles on Political Life in the Party,” was drastically revised, according to an analysis by Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College, editor of the Monitor.

The revisions were drastic. The original document had "established the principles of collective leadership, inner-party democracy, the rights of CCP [Chinese Communist Party] members, a prohibition against personality cult, the encouragement of speaking truth,” the article said. The concept of collective leadership was played down and replaced with an emphasis on “democratic centralism.”

The new rules not only enhanced centralized authority but also formalized the personalization of power through the establishment of loyalty to Xi as an important political principle guiding actions by members of the party-state.

But the article by Pei concluded: “Even though Xi has achieved indisputable success in revising and promulgating nearly all important CCP rules, it remains unclear whether such changes in the rules have been fully accepted as legitimate and binding by the CCP’s rank-and-file.”

So, despite Xi's apparently strong grip on all the levers of power in the Communist Party and the Chinese state, it may still be useful to check the front page of the People’s Daily to see if his name is appearing every day and to confirm that he is indeed still in charge.

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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.