With the new >title of ‘core leader’, President Xi Jinping has further cemented his authority within the Communist Party of China and the government. Already the party chief, the head of state, the commander-in-chief of the military and the one in charge of the group overseeing the change in the economy, he is now on a par with >Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. This concentration of power in Mr. Xi’s hands stands in sharp contrast with the ‘collective responsibility’ dictum the party propagated during the Hu Jintao regime. Mr. Hu was not called a core leader. From the beginning, Mr. Xi had signalled he would be a leader different from his immediate predecessor. He gradually emerged as the most influential leader at least since Deng, and demonstrated his authority by launching a massive clean-up in the name of fighting corruption, that felled top leaders of the party and the military. Corruption is a major problem in today’s China. The high economic growth that followed the reforms initiated by Deng spawned massive, institutionalised corruption, stoking public anger against the establishment. Mr. Xi built his war on “corrupt officials” against the backdrop of such a mood of anger, and his efforts have been generally well-received despite criticism that he is using the campaign to amass powers to himself. The party plenum, by appointing Mr. Xi as the core leader, has sent a clear message to the public that it stands by him and his policies.
The timing of the appointment is significant. The plenum kicks off year-long preparations for the party congress next year, which could shake up the leadership. Five of the seven current members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the inner sanctum of power in China, and a third of the Politburo’s 18 members are due to retire next year. Being the core leader, Mr. Xi will be in a stronger position to influence the outcome of the congress. As in the case of his predecessors, Mr. Xi would certainly prefer to have the Standing Committee filled with his allies. But this doesn’t mean that Mr. Xi is guaranteed a second term free of challenges and of unchecked power. If the Hu Jintao era, despite some allegations of corruption, is regarded as one of prosperous and peaceful rise for China, Mr. Xi’s term has been marked by slowing economic growth and geopolitical tensions. Even if Mr. Xi gathers unprecedented powers in the party and the state, his tenure will be judged by how he addresses fundamental problems that China faces, including systemic inequities and foreign policy challenges, while managing the economic rebalance process.