At the time of Xi Jinping’s ascension in 2012 at the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) 18th Congress, a vigorous debate was playing out in the pages of Communist Party newspapers between the party’s ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ factions, each arguing for a different direction in the country’s politics.
For the Mao-inspired Left, decades of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms had only brought inequality and ideological confusion. It was time, they argued, to go back to the first principles. For those on the pro-market Right, the leadership change was an opportunity to finally push for stalled political reforms, and rule China not by Party power but by law and the constitution. Mr. Xi, the son of a reformist former Vice Premier, was their great hope.
Fast forward a decade, and the Party media is a very different beast. Some pro-reform outlets have been shut down and others have had their leadership replaced. Neo-Maoists have maintained a careful silence, breaking it only to praise the current helmsman. Indeed, there is no longer a discernible Left or Right faction, at least in public. Everything begins and ends, as editorials seem to declare on a daily basis, with Xi Jinping.
The New Era
In recent days, many of the bridges that cross high above Beijing’s ring roads have been decked in long, red banners hailing a “new era” in China’s development. For anyone living in China this past decade, the phrase “new era” (or “xin shidai”) immediately connotes one thing: it means the Xi era, which began in 2012.
Since taking over, Mr. Xi appears to have been in a hurry to refashion Chinese politics to define his era. As he opens the CPC’s 20th Party Congress this week, he presides over a political landscape that is almost unrecognisable to what he saw when he took over in the midst of an unprecedented political scandal which embarrassed the party, involving the corrupt former Politburo member — and once Xi’s rival — Bo Xilai and his wife’s murder of a British businessman. When the CPC, last year, passed its third “historical resolution” in its 100-year history — the first in four decades — it alluded to this sense of crisis, noting that when Mr. Xi took over “previously lax and weak governance has enabled inaction and corruption to spread within the Party and led to serious problems in its political environment, which had harmed relations between the Party and the people and between officials and the public, weakened the Party’s creativity, cohesiveness, and ability, and posed a serious test to its exercise of national governance.” Mr. Xi, it declared, “solved many tough problems that were long on the agenda but never resolved and accomplished many things that were wanted but never got done.”
Indeed, the party’s sense of existential crisis at the 2012 transition played to Mr. Xi’s advantage, who was given the mandate by the party’s elders to keep the ship afloat. However, the former leaders who gave him carte blanche to clean the rot got much more than they bargained for.
The policies of Xi
Key to Mr. Xi’s rapid accumulation of power was an anti-corruption campaign that was launched immediately after he took over. It laid down strict rules for Party members, which was welcomed by a weary public that had seen CPC officials amass fortunes. At the same time, it also neatly eliminated all of Mr. Xi’s rivals. This gave him the political space to embark on a massive restructuring of the Party-State, which was completed in 2018, when the CPC unveiled an entirely new governance structure that, for the first time in decades, brought Party organs out of the shadows and placed them firmly in charge of the State bureaucracy.
Also gone was the “collective leadership” model put in place after Deng, that saw a division of responsibilities in the top Politburo Standing Committee. The Premier was no longer given the reins of the economy, and was left to preside over a diminished State bureaucracy.
The Party-State division and system of parallel governance was designed to professionalise governance, particularly in running the economy. Mr. Xi collapsed that division, and his 2018 reforms declared that the “Party is the highest force for political leadership.” Central leading groups that in the past held little sway over how the State executed policy were upgraded to “commissions”. A new National Supervisory Commission was created to take over all anti-corruption work — the tip of Mr. Xi’s spear.
The Central Commission for Comprehensively Deepening Reform, headed by Mr. Xi, displaced the bureaucrats of the State Council as the leading policy-making body, just as the Central Financial and Economic Affairs Commission and Central Foreign Affairs Commission asserted control over economic and diplomatic policies.
The main goal was to end “fiefdoms” that emerged in the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras and put the party — and its “core” leader — in charge of all domains. The civil service — a state within a state — was similarly brought directly under the Central Organisation Department which now handles both Party and State. The Party’s secretive Central United Front Work Department was placed in charge of running all religious and ethnic affairs, earlier managed by State commissions.
Cleaning up the army
Along with the overhaul of the political system was the reform of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — the biggest of all fiefdoms — which all of Mr. Xi’s predecessors, going back to Deng, had failed to do. Here too, the anti-corruption campaign, which struck fear in the Generals after Xi purged the PLA’s two highest-ranking Generals who had been accused of running a “pay for post” military, allowed Mr. Xi to carry out what the PLA Daily described as “the largest scale military reform since the 1950s”. The reforms ended the Soviet-style General Staff Departments, disbanding four vast bureaucracies handling staff, politics, logistics and armaments and bringing them under the direct control of the Central Military Commission. Seven sprawling military commands were consolidated into five theatre commands with a focus on jointness between forces.
Mr. Xi’s remaking of the Party-State may have brought him firm unchallenged control but has removed any and all space for dissent. At the same time, it has also raised the stakes for China’s leader as the country deals with a slowing economy and an unpopular “zero-COVID” regime at home, coupled with what many in Beijing see as an increasingly unfavourable environment abroad. If the party’s successes in dealing with these challenges may, as its media reminds, rest on Mr. Xi, so will its failures.
This is the first article of a three-part series looking at China’s changing politics, economy and diplomacy in the Xi decade.
- In recent days, many of the bridges that cross high above Beijing’s ring roads have been decked in long, red banners hailing a “new era” in China’s development.
- Key to Mr. Xi’s rapid accumulation of power was an anti-corruption campaign that was launched immediately after he took over. It laid down strict rules for Party members, which was welcomed by a weary public that had seen CPC officials amass fortunes.
- Along with the overhaul of the political system was the reform of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — the biggest of all fiefdoms — which all of Mr. Xi’s predecessors, going back to Deng, had failed to do.