East Asia and Pacific // Analysis

14 october 2016

The Present and Future of the Chinese Authorities under Xi Jinping

Ivan Zuenko Research Fellow at the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography of the Peoples of Far East, RAS Far Eastern Branch
Photo:
REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Review of: China’s Core Executive: Leadership Styles, Structures and Processes under Xi Jinping. Edited by S. Heilmann and M. Stepan // MERICS Papers on China. No. 1. June, 2016.

In June 2016, experts from the Mercator Institute of Chinese Studies (MERICS) in Berlin presented a collection of analytical essays titled China’s Core Executives: Leadership Styles, Structures and Processes under Xi Jinping. This collection is interesting both as the debut of MERICS’s Papers on China series (it should be kept in mind that the Institute was founded only in 2013) and as an original comprehensive research into the topical issues related to China: the current Chinese leadership’s view of the country’s future, the goals posited, the methods adopted, what the outcome of the process of power centralization initiated by China’s current leader would be, and the significance of all these developments for the rest of the world.

The collection, edited by Sebastian Heilmann, President of the Berlin research center, and Matthias Stepan, the course leader of the program on China’s domestic policies, is an impressive 100-page work with individual chapters written by both MERICS staffers and guest experts, including such celebrities as Roderick MacFarquhar from Harvard, former director of Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, the leading academic institution studying contemporary China, and Joseph Fewsmith from Boston University.

The experts have discovered an overall trend toward strengthening the CPC’s power and overcoming the “erosion” within the ruling party itself.

The text is accompanied by infographics that is informative and easy to understand, ending with the description of several possible scenarios for the future. Even the form chosen to present the materials should be of considerable interest for Russian experts, yet of even greater interest are the analytical predictions made a little over a year before the next, 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (scheduled for the fall of 2017). More about them will be provided below. The statements quoted from the book are followed by a page reference. Other statements are my own marginalia.

Berlin’s conclusions

To ensure dominance in adopting the key decisions, Xi’s team banks on creating various “small leading groups” which siphon powers off other top party bodies.

The authors proceed from the premise that the accession of Xi Jinping to power has radically changed the dynamics of the political process in China (in 2012, he became Secretary General of the CPC, and in 2013, he became China’s Chairman). The experts have discovered an overall trend toward strengthening the CPC’s power and overcoming the “erosion” within the ruling party itself (p. 8). The first task is solved by concentrating powers within the party bodies even in those areas where it had previously been delegated to the executive or local bodies. The second task is dealt with through the campaigns aimed against corruption and at “strengthening the party discipline”; these campaigns are conducted at an unprecedented scale (p. 8).

At the same time, there is a noticeable trend to centralize the national leader’s personal power as well as the crisis in the previously adopted “collegiate governance” concept. In other words, today China is constructing a model which allows no variations: only the Communist Party led by a strong leader is capable of steering China through the 21st century (p. 8). It should be noted that this conclusion contradicts the traditional western discourse that views China’s political processes through the prism of “inevitable” democratization and liberalization.

At the same time, currently Xi Jinping does not have sufficient resources to fully control the CPC’s top brass (p. 18), which forces him, on the one hand, to eliminate possible opposition through anti-corruption campaigns, and, on the other, to fine-tune the political process.

It is apparent that Xi Jinping and his followers will retain their dominance after the 19th CPC Congress. Their influence will be the defining factor in the top party bodies, especially if the number of members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CPC’s Central Committee (the CPC’s “board of directors” of sorts) drops from seven to five and will include, besides Xi Jinping, at least two of his protégés (p. 20).

However, in the Central Committee itself, where, at annual plenums, the strategic decisions for the party and the state are adopted, no more than 6–10 % of its 200 members will be Mr. Xi’s followers (those whose ties to Mr. Xi go back before his election to the Politburo) (p. 20). The same is relevant for the Politburo. Thus, to ensure dominance in adopting the key decisions, Xi’s team banks on creating various “small leading groups” which siphon powers off other top party bodies (с. 21). Since 2012, for such key issues as “developing the economic reform,” national security, etc. “leading groups” have been created. Xi Jinping heads all these groups, and it allows him to personally determine their agenda and to control the decisions adopted. The only exception is “the small leading group on soccer development in China,” which is rather surprising since Mr. Xi himself is reputed to be a hard-core soccer fan.

The strengthening of both the “party discipline” and the party control over all the aspects of the society’s life is not Xi Jinping’s know-how.

At the same time, the experts immediately clarify their statement: the popular western stereotype of Mr. Xi as an all-powerful ruler is the result of the Chinese propaganda (p. 72). The role Xi Jinping plays in determining China’s policies should not be overestimated. He is a product of his time and his milieu, and it is important to understand that the collapse of the USSR and the dismantling of the CPSU were the most important historical lesson his generation has learned (p. 73). Studying the experience of the Soviet Union resulted in “identifying changes [the CPC] would have to make to avoid the same fate” (p. 73). The CPC’s public legitimacy crisis immediately before Mr. Xi came to power convinced both him and his followers that they had to take decisive measures, and so they did.

The role Xi Jinping plays in determining China’s policies should not be overestimated. He is a product of his time and his milieu, and it is important to understand that the collapse of the USSR and the dismantling of the CPSU were the most important historical lesson his generation has learned.

However, Xi Jinping’s political agenda aligns with discussions that had taken place among the CPC’s top brass even before Mr. Xi was elected Secretary General (p. 74). The process of centralization in the top party bodies was set in motion back in the time of Hu Jintao (p. 74). Regarding the “cult of personality” and parallels with Chairman Mao, the experts believe that the current developments in China should be properly called “the cult of cult of personality” (p. 75). Indeed, the events that preceded the economic reforms are now being completely reassessed. Since the times of Deng Xiaoping, the public discourse was dominated by the negative perception of the “cultural revolution” and other excesses linked to Mao Zedong, and this attitude was viewed as a kind of a vaccine against the return to a radical governance. Now, against the background of the multiple “side effects” of the economic reforms, the attitude to those times is transforming into nostalgia. Given this trend, the party’s propaganda bosses apparently believe it would be good to give the people back the image of “the dearly beloved Chairman” who is taking care of China from his office in Zhongnanhai (central headquarters of the top authorities in Beijing’s historical center).

On the whole, media effects dominate the perception of changes in today’s China. Analyzing the information coming from China, we are tempted to conclude that the “screws are tightened,” and the partocratic regime is being successfully buttressed. At the same time, the strengthening of both the “party discipline” and the party control over all the aspects of the society’s life is not Xi Jinping’s know-how. Since the 1980s, the subject has been discussed regularly, and some tenets migrate from one party document into another for as long as the People’s Republic of China has existed, and yet no rapid resolution of the problems is in sight.

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It is apparent that systemic risks threatening the CPC’s power still do exist and will exist in the future. The experts believe that these risks include the following factors: uncertainty in the issue of succession (the establish practice dictates that in 2022-2023, Xi Jinping and his “generation” will have to leave their offices); corruption which is being eliminated in one area, but flourishes in others; factional competition within the party; “a lack of party discipline” (the party bureaucrats attempt to ignore those party decisions which do not benefit them), and the very issue of the legitimacy of the monopoly on power held by the Communist party (p. 83).

Currently, the regime in China is stable, yet should Xi Jinping’s economic agenda fail, the existing risks may result in the collapse of the entire PRC’s political system. At the same time, the experts believe that the “fall of the party colossus would be no reason to celebrate” since “the establishment of a western-style democratic system is practically out of the question” (p. 83) due to China’s weak civil society and legal system.

Currently, the regime in China is stable, yet should Xi Jinping’s economic agenda fail, the existing risks may result in the collapse of the entire PRC’s political system.

The report contains four scenarios of China’s future political development. Two of them are named after China’s leaders, and two after Russia’s. The western experts believe that in the 1980s—2000s, China mostly implemented the system of an institutionally flexible and adaptive partocratic state, and the experts name this system after Den Xiaoping (p. 90). Still, several trends in China’s development point toward what they call the “Yeltsin system”: the disintegration of the partocratic system, a democratic façade covering up informal oligarchy (p. 90). China is likely to follow the Yeltsin scenario in case the CPC’s power collapses. The return to the Deng Xiaoping system is unlikely, since it is only possible when socioeconomic indicators demonstrate explosive growth, and if the side effects of this system are not curtailed in Xi Jinping’s manner they will result in an acute regime crisis that could even lead to its collapse.

The Xi Jinping system is what the experts believe now is being implemented in China: a partocratic state relying on strengthening the party hierarchy.

The Xi Jinping system is what the experts believe now is being implemented in China: a partocratic state relying on strengthening the party hierarchy, with the party bodies receiving the broadest possible powers (p. 91). The trend toward centralizing political initiative which has currently led China to the “Xi Jinping system” may be taken even further, up to the so-called “Putin system,” by which the experts mean authoritarian power of a strong charismatic leader relying on the security, army, and police forces; the party will be retained as an institution, but its power will be weakened significantly (p. 92).

The authors believe that in order to maintain their public legitimacy, the last two scenarios would require the authorities to constantly “fuel regional conflicts” (p. 92). The inevitable side effect is the anti-western rhetoric and the desire to wage “small victorious wars” against the neighbors which is a threat to the US interests in the region.

Conclusions for Russia

As regards China, the key issue for Russia is how stable the course toward the “great friendship” between Moscow and Beijing is, whether China could suddenly make a U-turn as did happen at the turn of the 1950s—1960s. It depends on how stable the power of Moscow’s current partners will be.

If the Berlin experts are to be believed, China will preserve the current partocratic regime for the coming decade, and this regime is highly adaptive since it constantly responds to the newly arising challenges. Most likely, Xi Jinping will be at the helm at least until 2022; he is the same age as President Vladimir Putin, and the two leaders have good personal relations. Despite the images offered by the propaganda, there are reasons to believe that Xi Jinping as a person is not irreplaceable in the “Xi Jinping” model. The system is characterized by the presence of a leader, capable of concentrating powers in a single center, but this ability does not stem from the leader’s personality, rather, it comes from a large circle of the party elite, who believe that this is the right way to respond to the sociopolitical challenges. Even with Xi Jinping gone from power, the policies and politics linked to his name will be continued by his successor.

As regards China, the key issue for Russia is how stable the course toward the “great friendship” between Moscow and Beijing is.

This system entails an energized foreign political agenda, accompanied by the reformatting of the military and the growth of chauvinist rhetoric. It leads to the regional conflicts’ incitement and China’s expansion into the regions Russia traditionally considers to be its sphere of interest (primarily Central Asia). The experts warn that “small victorious wars” are dangerous, but given the current Russia—China balance of military power, such a war would not be waged against Russia. At the same time, Moscow and Beijing are a perfect fit in their desire to publicly criticize the global dominance of the US. The important thing is not to take China’s threats and warnings too literally and to remember that for China, anti-American rhetoric goes hand in hand with the highest trade turnover and humanitarian exchange indicators.

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Ivan Zuenko , “The Present and Future of the Chinese Authorities under Xi Jinping,” Russian International Affairs Council, 14 October 2016, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=8226

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