Is China One Step Closer to Having a Supreme Leader?
The coalescing of power around Xi Jinping is something we haven’t seen for over 30 years.
In a Beijing hotel last week, a few hundred men — and a few women — met to debate the rules that govern the world’s most powerful political party. The Chinese Communist Party’s annual plenum, like everything else about the party’s leadership, is tightly sealed; all that’s revealed to outsiders is the announcements afterward, not the squabbles and intrigues during the meeting. Big decisions come at plenums, but this one is particularly important because it’s the last one before the upcoming Party Congress in 2017, an even bigger meeting that will determine the course of China’s leadership for the following five years.
Two things stand out about the Sixth Plenum. The first is that after a set of annual meetings in 2013 on the importance of the economy, rule of law, and social development, the real story over this period, which has become clear only now, turns out to have actually been about the party itself all along. It’s the party that has been incrementally strengthened by each of the previous years’ initiatives. And the second is that in the march toward the crucial date of 2021, the party’s authority, for good or bad, is inextricably linked with Xi Jinping, China’s president, as the new “core” of its leadership. In 2021, Xi has promised that China will be a “moderately prosperous society” — guided by the party under Xi’s tutelage. We can be certain of one thing: Xi and the party come as one package, as the announcements confirming him as the “core leader” show.
Xi Jinping’s China is one of grand narratives — the “Chinese Dream”; the One Belt, One Road initiative; and the various foreign-policy stories that China has been telling the world since Xi came to power in 2012. The party is the hero of all these tales, retold at the gatherings of the elite for the plenum each year.
The Third Plenum in 2013 was memorable because of its oxymoronic statement that complete marketization was necessary for reform while at the same time vehemently asserting that the state would keep playing a decisive role in all economic matters. 2014 saw rule of law prioritized, but with the unspoken proviso that a stronger legal system could never be turned on its political creators. In 2015, attention turned to the prosaic 13th Five-Year Plan, full of nitty-gritty details like carbon emission savings, production levels for state enterprises, and price stability predictions, all contributing to the grand march toward the “moderate prosperity” that is meant to come at the end of all this.
The link between all these meetings is simple: the party. Strengthening the party, disciplining the party, building the party, and, above all, making the party sustainable through better economic policies (2013), better rule of law (2014), and better planning (2015) — that’s the shared story. And the 2016 gathering tackled this issue with a vengeance. Its communiqué simply asserted that only with a unified, loyal, well-disciplined, and resolute party could the country finally reach modernity “with Chinese characteristics.” Thus the earnest appeals this year to maintain fidelity to party unity, support party building, and — the really crucial piece — to stay faithful to the party leadership.
Hence the outcome that made all the headlines — the addition of the simple words “the core of the leadership” to Xi’s name. Xi already has every other moniker going: party secretary, president, chairman of the military, and chair of the most important leading small groups, right down to his appearance as commander in chief in fatigues last year to show his military credentials. Xi’s appetite for titles seems unlimited as a junta leader’s lust for medals. But this one carries particularly profound symbolic and ideological weight.
The idea of a leader at the core goes back to the era of Deng Xiaoping, as an acknowledgement of his uniquely powerful position in politics in post-1978 China, despite his having no formal role much of the time. It was passed on to then-President Jiang Zemin as a means of legitimizing his power after the upset caused by Tiananmen in 1989, when plenty were tempted to simply regard him as a stopgap. Despite all the noise about its use, “core” is honorific — it carries no institutional or real powers. Its import is wholly symbolic.
This means that the failure to confer the title on Hu Jintao, Xi’s immediate predecessor, never really had much impact. The more excitable interpret this as a sign that he was never fully empowered. Yet in the booming 2000s, when things were relatively stable, and because the succession had been relatively smooth (despite Jiang insistently hanging around), there was never really any need to refer to Hu as a “core leader.” It sounded old-fashioned. Even when Jiang used it in the 1990s, interpreters mocked it for its pompous sound, and although it was never formally taken from him as a description, it appeared less and less beside his name.
The formal comeback of the term in 2016 can be seen either as a sign that Xi is amassing powers unlike any of his previous predecessors or that he is shoring up his insecurities with yet another verbal trinket with no real political worth. The reality probably lies in between. The incessant hunt for new names and titles for Xi is starting to look desperate and insecure. Surely just being party secretary is enough — that is where the power is. All the other positions are subservient to this one.
But in the bigger narrative of party building developed since 2013, Xi being named the core of the leadership falls into place and makes sense — at least, as part of this story. It’s a recognition that the party vision, its view of its role in the building of a victoriously modern China, is intimately linked with a specific style of leadership — that practiced by Xi. Focusing on Xi in himself is to miss something crucially important. It’s the style of leadership he practices and that the party is collectively supporting that is important, not him and his personal ambition and networks. This style of leadership is strong on demanding loyalty, strong on centralization, and strong on placing the party at the heart of Chinese social and political development. And it’s strong on demanding that everyone around it recognize that it’s strong.
All of this sets up the mood music for next year’s Party Congress, where the ideas of party development, centrality, and unified leadership will be even further driven into the public consciousness. After that, the focus will move to how this leadership and political organization are going to deliver the promised moment of 2021-2022 when “moderate prosperity” rains from the sky. For all the talk of party issues this year, the public judgment in five years’ time will not be about how well the party has cleaned up its inner workings, reduced its jargon, and trained its cadres better. It’ll be about the promised end: clean air, prosperous and plentiful jobs, affordable housing, and a sense that things are getting better.
The Sixth Plenum has agreed on the fundamental tools needed for this goal — party unity and discipline. We’ll have to wait and see whether this is actually the most effective way to realize the immense objectives laid out for the next five years. If the party can’t produce these tangible goals, Xi’s “core” may turn out hollow.
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