Chinese President Xi Jinping has been given the rare honour of being called the ‘core’ of his party’s leadership. Jinghan Zeng takes a look at what that might mean for the country’s political future.
On 27 October 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping was named the ‘core’ of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) leadership. The term has not been used for 14 years – and was not used for Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao. The title has significant symbolic meaning. In the history of the People’s Republic of China, only Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin were given this designation.
More importantly, this title may be attached with life tenure and limited (if not zero) restriction on retirement age limit. The timing of receiving this title is particularly sensitive as the CCP is about to have its leadership transition during the 19th Party Congress in late 2017. As Zhengxu Wang and I argued in a previous article, one of the most important issues during the 19th Party Congress is the appointment of heir apparent.
Xi will start his second term in 2017. According to the current succession rule, the top leader can only serve for two terms. This is to say, Xi should retire in 2022 at the 20th Party Congress. As such, an important task for Xi in 2017 at the 19th Party Congress is to pick his successor who will replace him in 2022. Hu Chunhua and Sun Zheng, who are the youngest Politburo members, were top candidates – at least in 2012 and 2013.
Yet, all those certainties have now become uncertain. The biggest question is whether Xi will pick his successor in 2017 (19th Party Congress) and then hand over his power in 2022 (20th Party Congress). Rumours abound that Xi plans to stay in power and enjoy a third term. Having the status of “the core of the CCP’s leadership” will no doubt make him more capable of doing so. If Xi does stay in power after 2022, this might make him become somewhat of a Chinese Putin – or perhaps even stronger than Putin, as Xi might not have to give up the presidency as Putin did for one term.
Ironically, back in 2012 before Xi took power, many China experts predicted that he would be the weakest leader in the history of the People’s Republic. It was argued that his power would be checked by his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, as well as by his colleague Li Keqiang, who was supposed to be equal in power to Xi.
This was a long way from what happened, as Xi managed to consolidate his power in a very short period and demonstrated a much stronger leadership style than his predecessor Hu Jintao.
In contrast to Xi, Hu’s leadership style involved more consensus-building. Hu promised a more listening, consultative, open, predictable and law-bound authoritarianism – which some might go so far as to call a form of democratisation. However, Hu’s project of consultative leadership was insufficiently consolidated to prevent a strong leader like Xi reversing the agenda – indeed, the only aspect of Hu’s leadership style that Xi could be said to have retained is an emphasis on “rule of law”. Xi has launched a campaign to build rule of law – although the rule of law may deteriorate under the regime’s crackdown on human rights lawyers and dissent. In this regard, Xi’s stress on a Leninist style of command and control contrasts with Hu’s tolerance for a pluralisation of interests within the system. To some extent, Xi has moved from “first among equal” to “first above equal.”
Unsurprisingly, after Xi was named the ‘core’, the CCP’s propaganda machine has been busy promoting the benefits of letting power concentrate in the hands of a strong leader so that he can cope with tough reforms. Yet it is not hard to remember the negative consequences of power concentration in the country – Mao Zedong’s China provides plenty of examples for reference.
Mao’s legacy is what prompted Deng Xiaoping to promote various rules and regulations to develop China’s succession system. It has taken the CCP more than three decades to reach a relatively stable power succession system. But it might only take a couple of years to destroy it.