November 4, 2016 5:00 pm JST
China up close

Xi Jinping becomes 'core leader' -- at a cost

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping was awarded the title of "core leader" at the recent sixth plenary session of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee, putting him on par with Mao Zedong and a very limited number of other past leaders.

The elevation of Xi to this special leadership position, which was mentioned in a communique released after the session, is similar to what happened in 1945, when Mao gained absolute authority over the party, one observer said. The promotion is an important decision that will end the collective leadership of the party, said another.

It may be a stretch to say Xi will surpass former President Jiang Zemin and strongman Deng Xiaoping, approaching Mao in stature, but the idea is plausible.

At the seventh plenary session of the sixth CPC Central Committee, which ended in Yanan, Shaanxi Province, in April 1945, Mao solidified his position as leader over the entire party, stressing the achievements of the Rectification Movement, an ideological campaign. It was a hugely important event in the history of the party.

Xi's own anti-corruption drive, dubbed "strict governance by the party," is remarkably similar to the earlier campaign.

After Mao, Deng and Jiang were called the "core" of "the second generation" and "the third generation," respectively. Jiang was promoted to the position with Deng's support.

Magic wand

Following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, Deng placed the little-known Jiang in China's top post. With few notable achievements to recommend Jiang, Deng dusted off the title of "core leader" to give him luster. Deng called himself the core of the second generation and positioned Jiang as his successor.

While Jiang did not achieve the title on his own, Xi has done so a mere four years after assuming the top post.

The communique denied that any member was exempt from party rules, suggesting that all are subject to discipline and monitoring under the anti-corruption drive. The communique aimed to remove any ambiguity on the subject and ordered members to strictly follow the policies set by the Central Committee.

The communique had an air of totalitarianism about it, under which everyone is supposed to follow Xi.

Although the communique stressed the importance of collective leadership, that appears to be a pose. The core leader title confers to Xi more power than is apparent at first glance. He can have anyone arrested and subjected to a corruption probe: from the Central Committee, to the Politburo, to the supreme body -- the Politburo Standing Committee.

People close to Xi say he has gained a magic wand ahead of the leadership reshuffle scheduled for the party convention next year. But to solidify his position, Xi made a compromise. This is seen in the decision, made at the urging of leaders such as Premier Li Keqiang, to effectively limit the stricter discipline to high-ranking officials.

The fear is that a harsh clampdown on the party rank and file and among the local bureaucrats who implement policy could lead to paralysis. This would be fatal to the central government's efforts to manage the economy. Calls to give turning the economy around priority over political campaigns began to grow earlier this year, touching off a debate among party veterans. The communique did not refer to that debate, as the matter appears to have been settled.

But the agreement to limit the strict monitoring to high-level officials is no obstacle to Xi's main reason for wanting to become a core leader: eliminating his political foes.

Xi needs to exert pressure on top officials as he seeks to place allies in key positions ahead of the reshuffle. He has already started, expelling the mayor of Beijing, who belonged to the Jiang faction, and appointing Cai Qi, who worked for Xi in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, as acting mayor. The change took place only four days after the end of the Central Committee session.

Senior officials will follow Xi if they think it will be good for their careers. This is a characteristic of the bureaucracy under China's one-party rule. All bureaucrats are party members and have no choice but to follow the new core leader. Because the name of the game is to "find a big tree if you want shelter," bureaucrats will feign loyalty to the leader even if they are unhappy with him.

Party tensions

Tensions in the party are widespread in the wake of the decision to designate Xi as core leader. Speculation on the significance of the decision that differs from the official explanation published by the state-run Xinhua News Agency and the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the party, are routinely scrubbed from the internet. Accounts on the Weibo microblogging site and WeChat messaging app are also monitored extremely closely.

However, people involved in politics in China say there must have been bitter arguments and confrontations within the party over whether Xi deserved to be named among the country's core leaders.

Tens of millions died in Mao's Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. In its aftermath the party worked to stamp out what it called the "cult of personality." It is ironic that Xi has been named core leader, which carries a whiff Mao's of dictatorship, in 2016 -- the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution.

Xi's allies justify his new title, saying that the party needs a strong leader, given the difficulties China faces at home and abroad. His opponents, who above all want to keep the Communist Party in power, acquiesced.

The communique did not mention earlier optimistic slogans --  the "Chinese dream" or the "dream of revival of the Chinese people," suggesting a crisis within the party.

At the same time, the party failed to offer concrete measures to shore up its legitimacy, merely stressing self-purification. In the absence of outside supervision and democratic elections, it can only impose its will on members with the threat of punishment. China is thus a prime example of the rule of man, rather than the rule of law.

Xi is likely to make writing his guiding principles, known as the "four comprehensives," into the party rules. These are inseparable from the changes in the higher echelons at the party convention next fall. Next year looks likely to see the bitter struggle continue.

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