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1.3 Billion People Are in One Man’s Grip

Why Xi Jinping will dominate this week's 19th Party Congress and what it means for China's future.

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves upon his arrival at Hamburg Airport for the G20 economic summit on July 6. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves upon his arrival at Hamburg Airport for the G20 economic summit on July 6. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

At the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao Zedong informed his colleagues, “Someone once said: Only an emperor would believe there were no parties outside the Party, and it would be exceedingly strange for there to be no factions inside the Party. Thus it is for our Communist Party.” Fifty years later, Xi Jinping, the current general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP) and president of China, is trying to prove Mao wrong.

Since assuming leadership of the party in 2012, Xi has used his first five-year term to prosecute a multi-pronged attack on rival party and government officials, patronage networks, and institutions within the party-state — all with the goal of eliminating competing centers of power and the much-maligned “vested interests.” New data show that this has, for Xi, been a massive success. And this week’s 19th National Party Congress will further Xi’s cause. But in the long term, the dominance of a single leader instead of the consensus rule of the past three decades may end up sabotaging China’s own grand ambitions.

At the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao Zedong informed his colleagues, “Someone once said: Only an emperor would believe there were no parties outside the Party, and it would be exceedingly strange for there to be no factions inside the Party. Thus it is for our Communist Party.” Fifty years later, Xi Jinping, the current general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP) and president of China, is trying to prove Mao wrong.

Since assuming leadership of the party in 2012, Xi has used his first five-year term to prosecute a multi-pronged attack on rival party and government officials, patronage networks, and institutions within the party-state — all with the goal of eliminating competing centers of power and the much-maligned “vested interests.” New data show that this has, for Xi, been a massive success. And this week’s 19th National Party Congress will further Xi’s cause. But in the long term, the dominance of a single leader instead of the consensus rule of the past three decades may end up sabotaging China’s own grand ambitions.

Xi’s goal is not to eliminate all competing individuals and ideas within the party — that would be impossible in an organization of 89 million members. Rather, the clear objective is to eradicate the organizational means to establish and sustain patronage networks that are not controlled by Xi or his clear close allies. The recent disassembling of the Communist Youth League, the strengthening of party committees within state-owned enterprises, and the “four consciousnesses campaign” of loyalty to the party and Xi are just some examples of Xi’s demand for all entities within China to be unified under his command.

The speed and ferocity with which Xi has achieved near-unrivaled dominance over the institutions of party control has provoked comparisons to the Great Helmsman himself, Mao Zedong. While these analogies are often overwrought, it is incontrovertible that Xi is no longer first among equals, as with his predecessors Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. Instead he is supreme leader and, as of late 2016, the “core” of the CCP central apparatus.

Yet Xi’s work is far from done. The upcoming 19th National Party Congress, which begins on Oct. 18, and where the top party leadership will be reshuffled, presents a crucial test for just how close Xi Jinping is to reaching his goal of a unified CCP under his unassailable command. If he gets his way at the Party Congress, and his key allies are installed in the Politburo and its all-powerful Standing Committee, as well as key leadership positions in the party, Xi’s position for the coming five-year term (2017-2022) will be strengthened immensely and he will have come very close to realizing the dream of a factionless party in the foreseeable future. If his followers control all the key organs of the party, potential rivals will find it difficult to build factions through any individual organs, as the Communist Youth League did during the Hu Jintao years.

Making definitive statements like these about Chinese politics is notoriously difficult. The great Simon Leys once called the analysis of communist politics “the art of interpreting nonexistent inscriptions written in invisible ink on a blank page.” And it’s true, in the black-box world of Chinese politics: Reliable data is virtually nonexistent. Yet there are measures we can turn to, however imperfect, to evaluate just how powerful Xi has become in the five years since assuming power, and how unrivaled his strength may soon become.

Party Planning

The first, and most obvious, measure of power in a Leninist political system such as China’s — where power over all institutions of governance is dominated by a single opaque and hierarchical party — is the ability to advance existing allies and create new ones through key, targeted promotions while isolating, and ideally overseeing the downfall of, potential enemies.

On this front, Xi has done immensely well, aided by the sword of his anti-corruption campaign, which has allowed him to eliminate powerful rivals — most famously former security czar Zhou Yongkang and People’s Liberation Army officers Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. More recently, Xi orchestrated the purge of Sun Zhengcai, who until this summer was seen as a possible future leader. Those with strong ties to previous party leaders have also been removed, the best-known of which was Ling Jihua, an ally of former president and CCP general secretary Hu who was sentenced to life imprisonment on corruption charges in 2016.

At the same time, Hu’s followers were blocked from obtaining any additional key positions after the 18th Party Congress in 2012, an imperative for Xi if he was to avoid replicating Hu’s inability to break free from the shadow of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. There are few impediments as frustrating to a current party leader as a retired one, a fate Xi was clearly determined to avoid.

The influence of the 91-year-old Jiang, however, has been harder to shake. Despite Jiang’s formal retirement in 2002 (after holding power from 1989), several of his senior allies remain in place. The proportion of Jiang followers in key positions remained stable through the post-2012 political maelstrom, largely because many of them were already entrenched in positions at the highest level, such as Politburo Standing Committee members Zhang Dejiang and Zhang Gaoli.

In what may be an effort to pick his battles wisely, Xi has turned his attention to the lower levels instead, where he has overseen a massive shake-up in the provincial leadership, with 23 of the 31 party secretaries being reassigned since 2016 alone. While every general secretary does his best to re-align the provinces in his favor, Xi’s reach here is unparalleled. For comparison, in the two years prior to the 17th Party Congress, Hu Jintao’s “mid-term” congress, 17 provincial party secretaries were moved, while Chen Liangyu was the only former or current Politburo member felled for corruption through Hu’s entire tenure as general secretary.

But this is only part of the story. For all the acumen Xi has shown in centralizing power, he has still not achieved complete mastery over the top leadership. Xi’s allies — officials with shared work experience prior to his elevation into the Politburo, as well as the “princelings” like himself who are the children of the founding generation of revolutionaries — still occupy only a small share of key positions in the regime. This should not be seen as an indication of weakness, but rather as a measure of the importance of this week’s 19th Party Congress as the crucial platform for Xi to assert his dominance of the regime by moving his followers into these key positions.

Utilizing new biographical data gathered by academics at the University of California, San Diego, we can measure the number of senior officials forced out of office by charges of corruption and the extent to which these arrests benefited Xi’s faction. This offers a way to gauge Xi’s progress so far and the extent of the task still ahead as he approaches his critical second term.

Since Xi took power, the number of arrests of senior Central Committee or provincial Standing Committee officials has increased dramatically — 28 officials in 2014 alone, which is nearly six times greater than the highest number of arrests during the second Hu term from 2007 to 2012.

Approval of these arrests undoubtedly came from the Politburo Standing Committee, which Xi leads, so we know they were either ordered by him or at least had his explicit consent. Also, given that officials at the Central Committee level all have high-level patrons, Xi’s purges signaled both the willingness and the ability to offend a large number of current and former senior officials in the party, something that Hu was either unwilling or, more likely, unable to do.

And yet, although the number of Xi followers holding key positions increased in the aftermath of the 18th Party Congress in 2012, the large-scale leadership turnover over the past four years has not led to a significant increase in Xi followers in key positions — the roughly 125 roles of the highest importance in the party-state apparatus.

Although Xi promoted a few followers into key positions, a proportion also retired from key positions in the same period. As we entered 2017, Xi very obviously packed a few more of his followers in key positions, including He Lifeng as the head of the National Development and Reform Commission and Cai Qi, who is still not even an alternate member of the Central Committee, as the party secretary of Beijing. Undoubtedly after the 19th Party Congress, a few more of his followers, such as Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong and Central Organization Department Vice Director Chen Xi, will be poised to take over key positions and enter the Politburo.

Making Headlines

In addition to personnel changes, there are other ways to measure a leader’s relative power within the Chinese political system. One is to track pronouncements in China’s flagship state media, which is tightly controlled by the CCP leadership and is a crucial tool for communicating political and economic priorities to the Chinese people, and especially to lower levels of the party-state bureaucracy. The previous two general secretaries of the CCP, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, initially heaped praise on their respective predecessors — Deng Xiaoping (in the case of Jiang) and Jiang (for Hu) — before trying to establish their own ideological brand identities in the media. As newly appointed CCP general secretaries, Jiang and Hu had to rely on the legacies of their predecessor to establish and protect their own legitimacy.

Clearly, this suggests that the new leader is beholden to his predecessor. After a few years of jockeying and learning, he (and thus far it has always been a “he”) can establish his own legacy, typically by launching an ideological campaign that bears his own stamp. For Jiang, it was the “Three Represents” campaign that came at the end of his term in office, while Hu gave the world his “Scientific View on Development” after serving for five years.

Xi Jinping, on the other hand, clearly has little time for his predecessors and launched his own propaganda blitz right from the start. The official People’s Daily began a massive Xi-themed propaganda campaign almost immediately after he assumed power in a manner that was quantitatively and qualitatively different from the campaigns of previous leaders (with exception of Mao Zedong, a comparison Xi would undoubtedly prefer to avoid).

On average, the People’s Daily under the Jiang administration carried roughly 3,000 stories per year mentioning him. For Hu, it was a little over 2,000 self-referential stories per year. With Xi, in stark contrast, mentions per year in the People’s Daily have already have reached 5,000, with little indication that this pace will slow down. Equally significantly, the People’s Daily reduced reporting on Hu Jintao to near zero almost as soon as Xi assumed power.

This stands in sharp contrast to the first few years of the Hu administration, when mentions of Jiang were common. In addition, whereas Xi’s predecessors made liberal use of their predecessors’ slogans in the first few years of their tenures — perhaps out of necessity to buy time until their own legitimacy would be burnished — Xi immediately launched his “China Dream” a mere few weeks after assuming office in November 2012, and he has scarcely mentioned Hu’s “Scientific View on Development.” More recently, we see new mega-projects such as the “Belt and Road Initiative” inextricably linked with Xi Jinping.

Xi has also ordered the People’s Daily to emphasize his own campaign slogans to the exclusion of those belonging to his predecessors. In 2014, for example, the People’s Daily mentioned slogans from Xi’s ideological campaigns with a frequency 12 times that of Hu Jintao’s, a level of audacity Hu himself dared not display while in office. At the very least, these metrics suggest that Xi’s new administration has not relied on the legacy and legitimacy of his predecessors.

Given Xi’s boldness and clear ambition, which has only increased since his designation of the “core” of the Central Committee at the 6th Plenum in late 2016, the 19th Party Congress will be a crucial event for Xi as he works toward fully consolidating his control over the party, and thus the government and military. With additional purges and normal retirements, many key positions in the regime will be freed up, allowing Xi to appoint his lieutenants to those positions. Besides Cai Qi, the newly installed Beijing party secretary who almost certainly will enter the Politburo, Xi followers Ying Yong, Chen Xi, and Fu Zhenghua are also poised to take positions that typically come with Politburo seats. On the other hand, Qin Yizhi, a formerly high-flying cadre in Hu’s faction, recently found himself excluded from the delegate list for the 19th Party Congress, making it impossible for him to enter the Central Committee.

New Ambitions

Not everyone will take this lying down. There will undoubtedly be internal pushback, including from those advocating the principle of the “five lakes and four seas” first put forth by Mao Zedong in 1944, which calls for appointing cadres from different factions. Thus, there remain opportunities for Xi’s 19th Party Congress plans to be impeded or outright thwarted. Rumors abound that Han Zheng, who rose out of the Jiang-controlled Shanghai bureaucracy, may get a seat in the new Politburo Standing Committee, signaling Jiang’s residual influence.

Interestingly, the person entrusted by Xi with the anti-corruption drive, Wang Qishan, seems to have taken advantage of the campaign to maneuver his own allies into key positions, including Lin Duo, Jiang Chaoliang, and Lu Hao. The number of Wang Qishan followers (again, those with shared work experience) has risen sharply since 2012. More recently, there are rumors that Wang’s former colleague, Yang Xiaochao, is in the running to head the China Insurance Regulatory Commission, the country’s top insurance regulator. If so, this would be a clear sign that Wang Qishan has established his own powerful faction since 2012, clearly a potential threat to Xi’s “factionless party” agenda. Wang Qishan might also be able to advance more followers into key positions at the 19th Party Congress.

Regional geopolitical events, such as a possible conflagration with North Korea, or any further deterioration in the domestic economy, might also feed discontent with Xi’s leadership. As he lays claim to — and takes credit for — virtually all areas of governance (economic, social, or foreign), this means the buck also stops with him, making it hard to shift blame for perceived policy failures elsewhere.

Despite these potential complications, Xi Jinping is almost certain to dominate the stretch of time until the next Party Congress in 2022. This will have serious implications for policymakers around the world.

First, domestic policymaking pre- and post-19th Party Congress will be owned by Xi, and thus we should expect an echo chamber for the foreseeable future, a dynamic already at play. Chen Min’er, the current party secretary of Chongqing and a possible successor to Xi, recently took to the People’s Daily to proclaim, “The most important achievement [of the past five years] is that we have made clear Xi Jinping’s status as core of the Party.” Under Xi, China has reached a point where there is little dissent on major policy agendas in official circles.

This might be positive in terms of the metric of demonstrating personal power, but it brings with it real risks.

Certainly, the political system has always been tightly controlled, even during the heady days of “reform and opening” under Deng Xiaoping, but for much of that time there was space for key policy stakeholders to air differing policy perspectives. No more. There is now only one public source for China’s policy agenda. For a country confronting so many social, economic, and diplomatic challenges, complete dominance by a single leader may exacerbate any policy blunders by making the system more top-heavy. That is, if the leader endorses the wrong policy, few below him will dare to voice dissent or even sound a warning, especially when the current propaganda drive urges all cadres to “consciously maintain the unity of outlook” (baochi kanqi yishi) with Xi. Any mistake at the top will be made worse by the lack of accurate information flowing to the top and by the difficulty of changing course. “Garbage in, garbage out” is another way of putting this.

Some have speculated that Xi has used his first five-year term to focus on “politics” in order to turn to “economics” in his second term (i.e. to use his newly acquired political authority to impose liberalizing and marketizing economic reforms on an intransigent bureaucracy). Driving much of this optimism that Xi will soon unveil himself as a committed economic reformer is the notion that China must reform, therefore it will reform. Declining productivity, an over-dependence on investment for growth, and a bloated state-owned sector are clearly dragging on the Chinese economy, so it would seem obvious, indeed necessary, that these are the areas to be tackled by a more reformist Xi. But what actual evidence do we have that Xi believes in the rules- and market-based economy? Looking back over the past five years, the preponderance of evidence points toward a leader with a vision altogether at odds with the “reformer-in-waiting” narrative.

At the core of Xi’s vision is a country that is firmly led by an invigorated Communist Party, with national security concerns as paramount, and with a “caged” market economy that is heavily managed and manipulated by the party-state to achieve “wealth and power” for the nation. Reforms to the economy will happen when and if they don’t threaten party dominance and domestic stability, or if they are needed to stave off existential threats.

We see this vision at play in China today, where since 2012, the party has exerted more and more control over the economy in order to achieve the planned economic outcomes of stability and growth. In the past three years, we have seen heavy state intervention in the stock market, the foreign exchange market, the real estate market, and most recently the commodities market through the so-called “supply-side structural reform,” which entailed forcefully shutting down coal and steel production against the wishes of producers.

Second, policymakers in the United States and in European capitals needn’t believe that Xi’s “hands are tied” when negotiating within China. For decades, China’s leaders have pointed to vested interests and intransigent bureaucrats when explaining why painful reforms or concessions were impossible. Anyone who has spent time in a large bureaucracy understands the challenges of pushing for change within a system of entrenched interests, but for Xi Jinping, the excuse of foot-dragging cadres has also proved a devilishly clever way of amassing more power, under the guise of “breaking through bottle necks.” The level of power and authority Xi now wields over the system renders these excuses moot. If you can restructure the PLA and purge current and former Politburo members, an intransigent official from Hubei shouldn’t pose much of a challenge. If China does not meet a demand, it is because Xi does not find it worthwhile to do so.

Finally, and more starkly, we need to recalibrate the way we talk about China under Xi, specifically the notion that the country is still on a meta-trajectory of “reform and opening.” Beginning with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, and the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping two years later, economic development was seen as the key driver of political stability for the CCP. No longer. Xi Jinping has overseen a paradigm shift, and while economics still matters, pure national security concerns occupy the high-ground national decisionmaking. Market reform will still be on the agenda, but these will be tweaks rather than overhauls to the model itself.

Thus, industrial plans like “Made in China 2025,” a techno-nationalist blueprint for domestic dominance in high-tech sectors such as artificial intelligence and robotics, are far worthier of our attention than defunct documents like the 2013 3rd Plenum Decision and its pledge to allow markets to play a “decisive role” in the economy. Likewise, the prohibition on the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) in China should receive more attention than any official calls for “friendship” or connections with the outside world.

We might call this “China Inc. 2.0,” or we may find a better description, but it is inaccurate and unhelpful to claim that China holds “reform and opening” as the lodestar of its policy agenda — national security and geostrategic concerns now occupy that position.

“One mountain cannot contain two tigers,” so the Chinese saying goes, and Xi Jinping clearly agrees. Whether he is ultimately able to achieve the elusive goal of a factionless party remains to be seen, but for now, this is Xi’s party, and we had better get used to it.

Research for this piece was made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation to the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.

Victor Shih and Susan Shirk are political science professors in the 21st Century China Program of the University of California, San Diego's School of International Relations and Pacific Studies.

Jude Blanchette holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

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