Post-Party Congress Review: Xi Jinping is Powerful, Not Omnipotent by Jun Kwon and Hyesung Jang
China is a communist country. In simple terms, Chinese communism is associated with four main characteristics: 1) Marxism-Leninism is the official governing ideology; 2) collective ownership of means of production through the mechanism of central planning; 3) credo that equality of outcome is essential to humane and egalitarian community; and 4) the communist party, as the vanguard party, has a monopoly of political power working for interests of proletariat, Chinese people and the Chinese nation.
The Chinese Community Party (CCP) has 87 million members in a pyramid structure from the grassroots level to a 7-member Politburo Standing Committee at the pinnacle of the Party. The most important and biggest political event of the CCP is its Party Congress which is held every five years.
A week long 19th Party Congress was held in Beijing, between 18 and 24 October 2017. The Party Congress is usually designed as a political festival in which the CCP reports and propagates what it has accomplished in the past five years. It is also choreographed as a venue to lay out a grand vision of policy directions and goals toward China plans to take in the next five years. At his marathon 3-plus hour speech on the first day of the Party Congress, Mr. Xi Jinping addressed wide-ranging issues and challenges in the chart of the country’s future. Two notable priorities that he stressed at the speech were "China dream or rejuvenation" and "小康 (xiǎokāng) society." Mr. Xi put forth "China dream" to realize the national rejuvenation that “China will continue to play its part as a major and responsible country…China is moving closer to center stage and making greater contributions to mankind.”
It seems that Mr. Xi wanted to send a message to the world that China is moving forward to regain the status that it used to have as a great and strong power at the world stage. Despite his reiterated commitment to the peaceful rise of China, it remains to be seen whether China will be disrupting the international stability and its relationship vis-à-vis the United States.
The other priority Mr. Xi emphasized has to do with the Chinese domestic dream. He stressed with enthusiasm the realization of "小康 (xiǎokāng) society," which can be understood as a society composed of a functional middle-class or Moderately Prosperous Society. Mr. Xi borrowed the term xiǎokāng from the Analects of Confucius in which Confucius discussed the three stages of societal development with his students.
Mr. Xi was confident that China has successfully accomplished the first stage of "溫飽 (wēnbǎo)," the stage having only adequate food and clothing. He is expected to continue to strive for the "小康 (xiǎokāng)" under the slogan of "Socialism With Chinese Characteristics." The final stage is "大同 (dàtóng)" which can be translated into an ideal or perfect society with great harmony.
Two considerations are particularly important in analyzing the Party Congress : 1) how formidably and significantly Mr. Xi is able to consolidate his power in the CCP as he begins his second-five year term; 2) the shake-up or selection of the 7-member Politburo Standing Committee. As aforementioned, the CCP has a monopoly of political power and it has been governed since the end of the Deng Xiaoping era by the collective leadership in the context of the Politburo Standing Committee.
Western democracies have elections and monarchies in the Middle East have heirs apparent. It seems obvious that undisputed succession of leaders in the CCP is required to help the Party to stay in power. How does the CCP go from one leader to another? In learning the lessons from the Mao and Deng’s era and from the other Communist countries, the CCP has institutionalized several unwritten norms to avoid the chaotic transfer of power in the Party. These include:
1. Those who are in Politburo Standing Committee stay in power for 10 years (a two-term limit).
2. Those who are above the age of 68 are to retire from power when they are in Politburo Standing Committee (七上八下 qīshàngbāxià.
3. Two of the most respected and talented members in their mid-50 are elevated into the Politburo Standing Committee and are designated as the current leader’s successors.
4. There is acknowledgement for the importance of factional balance in choosing these two members to the Standing Committee. There are check-and-balances and power competition between different factions under the big umbrella of the CCP. The outcomes of policies are products of competition, negotiation, and compromise between different factions. Notable factions in the CCP are the Princeling faction (led by Xi Jinping), the Shanghai faction (led by Jiang Zemin), and Communist Youth faction (led by Hu Jintao). Of course, it is not like Western-style of check-and-balance.
5. These two members are under the leadership training with constructive competition for five years.
6. They will take over power from their predecessors after five years of training.
7. A non-chaotic and uncontested transfer of power between the two generations is respected by every member in the principle of democratic centralism.
Xi Jinping has emerged from the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress as the most powerful leader ever since Deng Xiaoping. Unlike his two predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, his name has been enshrined into the Party’s constitution in terms of ideology as the Xi Jinping Thought.
This was not something that happened over night as Xi Jinping has built up his power steadily and cleverly ever since coming into office in 2012. Through his anti-corruption purges against the Shanghai faction and Jiang Zemin’s clique, he has eliminated much of his opponents and critics from within.
The unveiling of the new Chinese leaders in the Politburo Standing Committee after the Party Congress have also raised questions whether or not Xi Jinping would ever relinquish power when his term as the General Secretary of the CCP ends in 2022. Yet when looking closely at the possible goals that Xi Jinping had upon entering the Party Congress, his omnipotence looks very much questionable.
Despite the impressive show of power and unity by Xi Jinping, it is very possible that Xi Jinping’s power is limited by the institution that he leads. The Western media does not see the nuances of what Xi Jinping’s goals are as they are often focused on him attaining power, yet there were three important goals that he may have set out to do as the Party Congress began.
Xi’s three goals were to have his political thought enshrined in the Communist Party’s constitution with his name recognition, reviving the title of party chairman for himself, and putting his preferred successor Chen Min’er onto the Politburo Standing Committee. Out of all three goals, Xi Jinping only succeeded the first, making Xi Jinping the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, but not necessarily omnipotent.
While many can understand why the immortalisation of Xi’s political thought in the party constitution is a desirable goal, they may question the importance of Xi giving himself the title of party chairman. In a Confucian society where public image in regards to authority is of extreme value, every bit of symbolism should count.
As of now, Xi’s General-Secretary (總書記 Zǒngshūjì) title implies that he is the first amongst equals in a system of collective leadership, whereas the title of Chairman (主席 Zhǔxí) implies that he is the head of the party with de facto veto power over his colleagues in the Politburo Standing Committee. In a sense, his ambition to consolidate his leadership by elevating himself to the Moa’s status was not successful. Therefore, there is only one person who is called Chairman in China, that is Chairman Mao.
The unveiling of the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee suggests a lack of successors for Xi Jinping as this cadre has no one who is below the age of 60. Mr. Xi’s protégé and his preferred successor Chongqing party chief, Chen Min’er (57 years old) has not become part of the inner circle of power at the Standing Committee. This may be because Xi’s power was checked by the institution that he has led behind closed doors. However, Chen Min’er made it into the Communist Party Politburo (25 members). It is expected that Mr. Xi in his second five-year term goes to great lengths to anoint Chen Min’er as his successor right after he leaves power in 2022.
Mr. Xi is far from omnipotent as his powers are limited by the institutions in which he is part of. Nevertheless, he is still a formidable character in his own right, and his goals, despite not being achieved this Party Congress, may be so in the near future, especially with the clout he currently enjoys right now.
Jun Kwon in Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College. Hyesung Jang is a government student at Utica College.