The Changing Nature of ‘Collective Leadership’ in Xi’s China Part II
Anushka Saxena
Return to Mao-era Politics: Death of Collective Leadership under Xi?

Loyalty, personal connections and familial ties (guanxi, 关系) are perhaps the defining element of Chinese elite politics. Some analysts[1] attribute the rise of Xi Jinping himself, from the county Party Chief in Hebei to the Vice-President of PRC and Vice-Chairman of CMC, and from getting the lowest number of votes during the 1997 Central Committee elections to potentially securing an unconventional third term at the helm of affairs, to the prestige and loyalty associated with his revolutionary father, Xi Zhongxun. Similarly, Xi has cultivated his own base of loyalists, known often as “protégés,” to supplant top leadership positions in the Chinese political system with those happy to follow his ideological message. This is important because if one is to find evidence for a move away from Collective Leadership, one must look at the dismantling of bi-factionalism by means of dilution of the number of top leadership positions held by members of the Hu-Li gang after the 19th Party Congress, as compared to that after the 18th one. Of the 25 members in the current Politburo, for example, only 5 (namely, Li Keqiang, Wang Yang, Sun Chunlan, Hu Chunhua and Chen Quanguo) belong to the CYL faction. The rest of the twenty members owe their factional loyalty to the Jiang-Xi faction. This is a stark difference from the numbers after the 18th Party Congress, when the factional loyalty of fifteen members of the Politburo was owed to the Jiang-Xi camp, while a closer number, ten, owed theirs to the Hu-Li camp.

Another interesting aspect is the formal addition of ‘Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era’ into the Party Constitution[2] in 2017. The last leader to have both, a ‘Thought’ attributed to his name, and witness its addition to the Constitution during his own tenure, was Mao. With a party as inherently ideological as the CPC at the leadership core, the official ideology of the leadership becomes essential to understanding Chinese politics. In this case, Deng Xiaoping ‘Theory’, Jiang’s ‘Theory’ on Three Represents, and Hu’s Scientific ‘Outlook’, all represent ideological dictums that party cadres have the flexibility to interpret and use innovatively. That is not the case with Mao or Xi Thoughts, which had/must be followed down to the dot. The Theory of Three Represents and the Scientific Outlook, though enshrined in the Party and State Constitutions, do not even carry the name of the leaders who articulated them.

While studying trends in Chinese elite politics, vernacular matters significantly. Under all past governments after Mao and before Xi, the norm has been that the administration in charge is referred to by means of hyphenating the family names of the President and the Premier, such as “Hu-Wen” or “Jiang-Zhu”. However, no such practice has been observed under Xi, with his administration being referred to as his own, and not as the “Xi-Li” administration – like how Mao’s administration was never referred to as “Mao-Zhou”. Great emphasis is also laid on following sincerely the ‘Two Establishes’,[3] a concept based on an understanding of developments from the sixth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress. This concept, in effect, establishes Xi as the party’s “core” leader, and establishes the Xi Thought as foundational to the present and future of China’s ‘New Era’ (Xīn shídài, 新时代). Since the sixth Plenum, ‘Two Establishes’ has been discussed the greatest number of times in articles published by the People’s Daily,[4] the CPC Central Committee’s newspaper. The same Plenum passed the ‘History Resolution’,[5] which itself reiterates amply the need to “resolutely uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole,” and “uphold the Central Committee’s authority and its centralized, unified leadership to ensure that all Party members act in unison.”

Moving towards Unified Leadership

The idea of doing away with the collective form of leadership also entails giving up on the separation of party and state. This explains why there is an emphasis on the leadership being centralized and unified under Xi – the more the party and the state become virtually indistinguishable, the easier it shall become for Xi to become the “core” of Chinese politics, and for the CPC to become the sole legitimate governing institution of the country. To this end, Xi has increasingly sidelined Li Keqiang, the Premier (who heads the State Council of PRC), by rapidly taking over economic profiles conventionally managed by the Premier since 2013. These include the Director of the Central Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Commission (known before 2018 as the Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reforms), the main purpose of which was to expand on Deng’s comprehensive economic reforms (launched in the late 1970s) while bringing them into the “New Era”,[6] as well as the Head of the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission (known before 2018 as the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs).

Xi has also taken firm measures to unify the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army, the military force of the CPC, as well as the People’s Armed Police, China’s paramilitary force, within a centralized structure. Xi assumed the post of Chairman of the Central Military Commission of the CPC immediately after he came to power, something which Jiang and Hu were unable to pursue even after five months and two years of coming to power as GS, respectively. Xi also crowned himself as Commander-in-Chief[7] of the CMC Joint Battle Commander Center to be able to personally oversee planning and implementation as part of the elaborate PLA reforms initiated by Xi in 2015. To demonstrate absolute leadership of the CPC over the army, as part of extended reforms[8] in 2020, he also downsized the army, reorganized military headquarters, and pushed for overall disciplinary reform and innovation in the PLA. Over time, Xi has also expanded his protégé network in the PLA, rapidly promoting “Young Guards”[9] who would owe their loyalty to Xi.

Xi’s aversion to “bureaucratism” and “formalism” has manifested itself in the release of a 2019 circular by the CPC General Office[10] on rectifying formalism and bureaucracy to end the "burden" at the grassroots level of party cadres. Even in an article published on the front page of the People’s Daily on 11 October, 2022, Xi's efforts to rectify formalism, especially through the establishment of a Special Working Mechanism to rectify formalism, have been praised as successful in “relieving the unnecessary burden on the grass-roots level.”[11] This is important for the messaging on unified leadership, because it further affirms Xi’s focus on dissociating governmental entities, represented in this case by bureaus and offices, from provincial and village-level party cadres. In freeing grassroots cadres from the “shackles of formalism,” Xi is also eliminating middlemen[12] who would be able to give orders to these local officials and make them work with a slew of forms. Through such measures, Xi aims to promote “comprehensive and strict management of the Party,”[13] so that all work conducted at the most local levels of governance is strictly in line with the Party and its core.

A Third Term for Xi?

Xi Jinping is not alone in giving impetus to the move away from a collective form of leadership to a unified one, guided by a personalistic form of rule. The vote called in the 2018 National People’s Congress on the constitutional amendment that does away with the two-term limit on the Presidency, saw an overwhelming majority approve its passing, with 2,258 delegates[14] in favour and only two against. His forceful and aggressive domestic and foreign policies received widespread praise in the early years of his tenure because it was widely appreciated and understood that in the aftermath of an “authority crisis” [15] at the apex leadership, Xi had no option but to exercise a more top-down approach. It is, however, also ironic that one of the very methods of consensus-building, i.e., the straw polls[16] that led to the selection of members of the 18th Politburo and the PSC, and the appointment of Xi as GS, were discarded[17] by him before the 19th Party Congress. Similarly, the very party elders who in 2012 endorsed Xi’s appointment as opposed to Li Keqiang’s, have now been asked to follow the party line by word through the recently issued regulations on “Strengthening Party Building among Retired Cadres in the New Era”.[18]Party elders, a term used colloquially to represent senior, retired cadres that still yield significant influence in party decisions and appointments, is indeed another class Xi has sidelined in his quest for centralization – to the point where before the 20th Party Congress, these cadres have been asked[19] to "refrain from any influence-peddling" or making “politically negative remarks” about Xi or the Party.

Centralization of power in Xi’s hands, however, evidently does not account for freedom from accountability. In fact, it places all the blame, as much as all the praise, on Xi. Because he has insisted on the sustained implementation of the Dynamic Zero COVID policy, cities in lockdown have experienced a significant deterioration in the quality of lives and livelihoods. This is evident from Li Keqiang’s statement[20] at a 2020 Annual Press Conference, where he stated that about 40% of the Chinese population (i.e., 600 million people), still earned only US $140 or less per month. Noteworthy is that for all the emphasis the Xi-controlled popular narrative has placed on China being a strong and resistant economy,[21] Li’s honesty has been sobering and almost challenging to Xi. April 2022 saw bank lending in China hit the lowest[22] in more than four years, because of a shortage in credit demand. Therefore, the housing sector is facing a crisis, and the manufacture of automobiles and digital devices has faced impediments, thereby reducing the global demand for Chinese exports.[23] The extensive crackdown[24] on tech companies and private education corporates in China has even led to a reduction in both the support and influence of elites in the Party. As a result of the overall slowing of economic growth, believes Cai Xia,[25] a former Party insider, “China’s leader is facing not only internal dissent but also an intense popular backlash and a real risk of social unrest.”

As Xi enters his “unprecedented”[26] third term at the 20th Party Congress being held for a week starting 16 October, 2022, his non-appointment of a potential successor and unilateral usurpation of power have made the shift to centralization and unification of Party leadership clear. But in the face of a dwindling economy and muffled criticism[27] from Party elders like Song Ping (who recently called for Xi to pursue more ‘reform’ and ‘opening up’ like Deng and Jiang), and taunts from[28] Xi’s long-time allies like Wang Qishan (who apparently compared the relationship between Xi and other party members to that of an emperor and his ministers), Xi may not be as popular as he was when he first came to power in 2012. As a result, even though collective leadership may be diminishing, it is not yet declared dead.

Endnotes

[1]Cai Xia, “The Weakness of Xi Jinping,” Foreign Affairs, September 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china/xi-jinping-china-weakness-hubris-paranoia-threaten-future.
[2] “CONSTITUTION OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CHINA,” Xinhuanet, 24 October 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com//english/download/Constitution_of_the_Communist_Party_of_China.pdf.
[3] “Changes at the Core,” China Media Project, 30 August 2022, https://chinamediaproject.org/2022/08/30/changes-at-the-core/.
[4] “Build a team of high-quality public servants and forge the backbone of state governance in the new era,” People’s Daily, 30 August 2022, http://politics.people.com.cn/n1/2022/0830/c1001-32514426.html.
[5] “Full Text: Resolution of the CPC Central Committee on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century,” Xinhuanet, 16 November 2021, http://www.news.cn/english/2021-11/16/c_1310314611.htm.
[6]Amit Kumar, “Xi’s legacy in the ‘New Era’,” Observer Research Foundation, 12 October 2012, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/xis-legacy-in-the-new-era/.
[7]Tyler Rogoway, “Take A Rare Peek Inside China’s Expansive Joint Battle Command Center,” The Warzone, 7 November 2017, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/15866/take-a-rare-peek-inside-chinas-expansive-joint-battle-command-center.
[8]Minnie Chan, “China vows military reform by 2020, with plans for new anti-corruption watchdog in PLA,” South China Morning Post, 26 November 2015, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1883606/china-vows-breakthrough-long-awaited-military-reform.
[9]Cheng Li, “Promoting “Young Guards”: The Recent High Turnover in the PLA Leadership (Part II: Expansion and Escalation),” China Leadership Monitor, Issue 49, Brookings, July 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Promoting-Young-Guards-The-Recent-High-Turnover-in-the-PLA-Leadership-Part-II-Expansion-and-Escalation.pdf.
[10]Zhang Yi, “CPC solving problems of formalism,” China Daily, 13 October 2022, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202210/13/WS6347636ca310fd2b29e7c292.html.
[11] “Reduce burden and increase efficiency: A summary of the rectification formalism of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core since the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China has reduced the burden on the grassroots,” People’s Daily, 11 October 2022, http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2022-10/11/nw.D110000renmrb_20221011_1-01.htm?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email.
[12]Chun Han Wong, “Xi Jinping’s Eager-to-Please Bureaucrats Snarl His China Plans,” Wall Street Journal, 7 March 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/xi-jinpings-eager-to-please-minions-snarl-his-china-plans-11615141195.
[13] “Reduce burden and increase efficiency: A summary of the rectification formalism of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core since the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China has reduced the burden on the grassroots,” People’s Daily, 11 October 2022, http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2022-10/11/nw.D110000renmrb_20221011_1-01.htm?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email.
[14]Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers, “China’s Legislature Blesses Xi’s Indefinite Rule. It Was 2,958 to 2.,” New York Times, 11 March 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/11/world/asia/china-xi-constitution-term-limits.html.
[15]Amit Kumar, “Understanding the Rejuvenation of China’s Revolutionary Impulse,” Observer Research Foundation, 15 September 2022, https://www.orfonline.org/research/understanding-the-rejuvenation-of-chinas-revolutionary-impulse/.
[16] “China held landmark straw poll to choose top leaders: Xinhua,” Reuters, 27 October 2017, https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/government-economy/xi-discarded-straw-polls-in-picking-china-leaders-xinhua.
[17] “Xi discarded straw polls in picking China leaders: Xinhua,” Business Times, 27 October 2017, https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/government-economy/xi-discarded-straw-polls-in-picking-china-leaders-xinhua.
[18]Xinhua, “China to strengthen Party building among retired officials,” China Daily, 15 May 2022, https://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202205/15/WS62810810a310fd2b29e5ccd1.html.
[19]Cai Xia, “The Weakness of Xi Jinping,” Foreign Affairs, September 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china/xi-jinping-china-weakness-hubris-paranoia-threaten-future.
[20]Li Qiaoyi, “600m with $140 monthly income worries top,” Global Times, 29 May 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1189968.shtml.
[21]Du Haitao, Liu Zhiqiang, Wu Qiuyu, and Ouyang Jie, “High-quality development has taken solid steps,” People’s Daily, 12 October, 2022, http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2022-10/12/nw.D110000renmrb_20221012_1-01.htm?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email.
[22] Judy Hua and Kevin Yao, “China April new bank loans tumble as COVID jolts economy,” Reuters, 13 May 2022, https://www.reuters.com/article/china-economy-loans/china-april-new-bank-loans-tumble-as-covid-jolts-economy-idINKCN2MZ0O5.
[23]Jason Douglas and David Harrington, “China’s Economic Slowdown Is Rippling All Around the World,” Wall Street Journal, 12 May 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-economic-slowdown-is-rippling-all-around-the-world-11652347800.
[24]Manoj Kewalramani, “Eye on China,” Substack, 8 August 2021, https://eyeonchina.substack.com/p/gogra-disengagement-south-china-sea.
[25]Cai Xia, “The Weakness of Xi Jinping,” Foreign Affairs, September 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china/xi-jinping-china-weakness-hubris-paranoia-threaten-future.
[26]Charlie Campbell, “The World's Future Is in the Hands of Chinese President Xi Jinping,” Time, 10 October 2022, https://time.com/6220661/xi-jinping-third-term-china-ccp/.
[27]PR Shankar, “Understanding China’s 20th Party Congress,” Financial Express, 5 October 2022, https://www.financialexpress.com/defence/understanding-chinas-20th-party-congress/2701199/.
[28]Cai Xia, “The Weakness of Xi Jinping,” Foreign Affairs, September 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china/xi-jinping-china-weakness-hubris-paranoia-threaten-future.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

This article is the second in a three-part article series on 'The Changing Nature of ‘Collective Leadership’ in Xi’s China'. The first part is available at : https://www.vifindia.org/article/2022/october/19/the-changing-nature-of-collective-leadership-in-xi-s-china.

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