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Editorial: Xi Jinping's efforts to change the rules are sparking concerns about China's economic management

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Workers rest outside a construction site in Beijing's central business district.   © Reuters

The Chinese Communist Party has made a historic change to its rules, declaring its General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping as the "core" of the party leadership, who stands above all other party executives. The party announced the move in a communique adopted at the sixth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee on Oct. 24-27.

While the move has confirmed the concentration of power in Xi's hands, there is smoldering dissent among party circles. In-fighting between the camp led by Xi and rival groups is certain to intensify in the run-up to the ruling party's five-yearly National Congress next year, which will select China's next leadership team. So Xi's centralized political regime is still somewhat precarious.

The designation "core" has in the past been applied only to three of China's successive supreme leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Since the start of this year, Xi has pushed for his "Four Consciousnesses" campaign, calling on party members to have a solid awareness of the importance of the "core" of the central leadership, among other things, in an apparent effort to prepare the ground for centralizing power. This hasty shift away from the consensus-based, collective leadership is drawing strong opposition from within the CCP. At the sixth plenum, however, Xi managed to override the backlash by projecting the results of his signature anti-corruption drive.

An issue that could spark a standoff between Xi and competing factions is the way the government manages the economy. Some observers believe the excessive consolidation of power in Xi is impairing the smooth implementation of policy measures.

For instance, Xi's rigorous anti-corruption campaign has had at least one serious side effect. Some officials at the central and local governments and executives at major state-owned enterprises are intimidated to such an extent that some of them even loaf on the job to avoid being suspected of bribery. Solving this and other problems is essential for the slowing Chinese economy to regain momentum.

After obtaining the status of China's "core" leader, many experts believe, Xi is setting his sights on an extension of his tenure as paramount leader. Under China's current constitution, the president, who is the head of state, is limited to only two terms of five years each.

The CCP's conventional rule is that members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's most powerful body, cannot serve another term if they are aged 68 or older in the year of a party congress.

POTENTIAL CONFLICT Under the convention, Xi is supposed to step down as general secretary at the party's national congress in 2022, when he will turn 69, and retire as president in 2023. His likely bid to defy the age 68 retirement rule resembles the emerging initiative within Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party to extend the mandatory maximum term of service as party president for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In China, the conflict between opposing groups in the party over the retirement rule change is a potential source of trouble for Xi's administration.

China is entering the "season of domestic politics" ahead of the CCP's next national congress, which is likely to be held in or after the fall of 2017. Early skirmishes between party circles over their respective bids to promote members for key party or government posts before the congress show up in various ways. Diplomatic and security issues are known to be vulnerable to the repercussions of what happens in domestic politics.

The same goes for Sino-Japanese relations. The memory is still fresh that immediately before the national congress in 2012, which focused on the selection of the party's new leadership team including Xi, massive anti-Japanese demonstrations happened in China in protest of Japan's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands -- which China claims and calls the Diaoyu -- inflicting a great deal of damage to Japanese factories and retailers in China. This and other events show that Japan needs to pay better attention to China's domestic political scene if it wants to properly manage its diplomatic relations with Beijing.

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