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Five Years of Xi Jinping

Economically Hot, Politically Not?

Anurag Viswanath (anurag.m.viswanath@ is a columnist for the Financial Express; Adjunct Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi; and lives in Singapore.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s five-year term (from 2012 to 2017) has been action-packed with new initiatives and ambitious plans. He has also received a lot of international media attention. This article looks at trends and issues in the light of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China that will be held in Beijing on 18 October.

In recent times, no Chinese President has been so much in the limelight as much as President Xi Jinping for good reasons and otherwise. Certainly, Xi has accumulated many “firsts.” He is the first Chinese leader to have social-media presence on Weibo (microblog) via “Learning from Xi Fan Club” (since 2012, with 2.94 million followers in 2016) (Shan2016). He is also the first Chinese leader to garner the endearing acolyte that Indians associate with Nehru (Chacha Nehru)—appearing as China’s own “Xi da da” (Uncle Xi). Most of his predecessors were rather frosty and remote.

Where economic agenda is concerned, Xi has charted many a “first.” China’s economic growth slowed from 6.9% in 2015 to 6.7% in 2016, which Xi has embraced as the “new normal.” Indeed, China’s 13th Five Year Plan, with its thrust on “rebalancing and restructuring” (Wong 2016), has set the target of 6.5% annual growth in 2017. This is a conscious move to slower but higher quality growth that will ostensibly “trickle down” to the poor.

Economists assuage us saying that China’s slowdown was “slow” only in China’s own growth context (in 2014, China was “regionally and globally the highest among major economies”) (Wong 2016) and that with a “managed slowdown,” world-class infrastructure, whopping forex reserves ($4 trillion), China is still far from Gordon Chang’s apocalypse, “the coming collapse of China.”

Xi’s five-year term (2012–17) has been action-packed with new initiatives and ambitious plans running on parallel tracks along with the 13th Five Year Plan’s ambitious National New-Type Urbanization Plan (2014–20). Its goal was urbanising “100 million people” (Zhao2016), boosting demand and co-opting a 280-million-strong migrant population into urban life. There is the ambitious “Make in China 2025” intensive manufacturing plan, ambition to make China innovation power by 2050 and a firm commitment to eliminate poverty, targeting the remaining 56 million rural poor (9.2% of the population) (Qian2016) by 2020.

Globally too, Xi’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) is footprinting the map, charting new land-based and maritime routes through the central Asian backyard, all the way to Europe to the shores of Africa. Under Xi, China has spearheaded the first multilateral institution, the Asian Infrastucture Investment Bank (AIIB) set up with an initial capital of $50 billion in 2015, with 57 countries, including the United Kingdom (UK), France and Germany signing up as founding members. The AIIB is seen as a possible counterweight to Japanese-backed Asian Deve­lopment Bank (ADB). A Silk Road Fund (state-owned investment fund) had also been established at the end of 2014.

Indeed, overwhelmed by these breakneck developments, the China Daily called Xi the “Chairman of Globalization.”

‘Economics First’

While the China Daily has good reasons to cheer, the political and social undercurrents in the domestic terrain suggest a brew of another kind—the beginning of the “endgame” as Sinologist David Shambaugh conjectured, much to China’s discomfiture.

At the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (18th Party Congress) (2012), the baton passed to Xi—a “fifth generation” leader (born in the 1950s)—a communist princeling or a “red aristocrat” who had lived through the ignominies of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). As a child of hei-bang (capitalist roaders), Xi was one of those infamously “sent down” to the countryside in Shaanxi (a province that is famously associated with China’s communist temple—Yan’an) where Xi learnt to survive fleabites and eat sauerkraut, a taste which he has apparently not forgotten.

And survivor Xi is. Xi’s rise to power in 2012 was melodramatic and had a certain mysterious ring to it, which fascinated the media worldwide. This was partly because of the drama surrounding the fall of his political rival, Bo Xilai (the party secretary of Chongqing municipality). While Bo perforce became a forgotten footnote, Xi survived to become the new king, and how.

Xi inherited his predecessor, Hu’s three “hats” coveted in China’s “three-in-one system”: as party secretary (general secretary of the Communist Party, which is key), as Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and as state president—three in one stroke.

This was quite unprecedented. Deng Xiaoping, China’s moderniser par excellence (“second generation”) clung on to the chairmanship of the CMC after his retirement in 1987. Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin (“third generation”) did much the same, holding on to the CMC for two more years until 2004. But Jiang’s successor, Hu (“fourth generation”) relinquished all posts, easing the leadership succession and transfer to Xi (“fifth generation”). Hu’s was, as sinologist Willy Lam said, a “naked” retirement.

So far, Xi’s term has been considered as a departure from the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao decade of 2002–12, mocked as “the lost decade,” a “collective presidency” where “policies do not leave the gate of Zhongnanhai” (China’s South Block)(Gore2016) owing to Hu’s predecessor, Jiang’s preternatural influence over China’s most powerful body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). Neither did Hu wear all the “hats” as deemed necessary. Xi was no Hu.

Campaign to Net ‘Tigers’

Xi’s ascent into office was marked by the public trial of rival Bo and his wife Gu Kailai in 2011–12, who until then had been China’s “golden couple.” Bo hailed from communist “red” royalty. His father Bo Yibo was a revered party elder, one amongst the “eight immortals” of the party. Once considered China’s charismatic, stylish couple, Bo and Gu—handcuffed and held in abeyance by security personnel during the course of the trial—were, in hindsight, a premonition of what was to unfold.

China’s anti-corruption campaign was, in intent, as is self-explanatory, meant to be precisely that: to net “tigers and flies” (both high level and low level functionaries) in the 85–90 million strong Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with a cadre base of 50 million given to collective amnesia about the sacrifices of the leather-eating, ragtag lot of revolutionaries, ideologues and soldiers of the Long (1934–35) generation.

Consumption, materialism and corruption, what with Ferraris, Cartier and Maotai (Maotai is a popular liquor) being coveted over ideological “redness” has been a reality of the glorification of the maxim “Get rich first!” in the post-reform period.

Though the official count of “mass incidents” (or discontentment which amounted to 87,000 in 2005) has disappeared (journalist Tom Orlik’s count was 1,80,000 protests in 2010), the common man sniffles at the visible conspicuous consumption of the nouveau riche. The latter are referred to as the tu hao (literally, dirt-good), some disturbingly the offspring of China’s high-ranking officials/party members, the guan’er dai (literally second-generation officials who are rich) or the fu’er dai (literally rich second generation).

“Mr Money” has become such a celebratory point that when a spoilt communist brat bragged, and this under the most inglorious of circumstances that, “My father is Li Gang” in 2010 this and other such aberrations (“I’d much rather cry in the backseat of a BMW than smile on the back of a bicycle”) again in 2010 became a sad joke and touched a raw nerve about the growing arrogance of affluence. Not that this deflated the rich who struck back, accusing detractors and critics of sour grapes known as “red eyes” in Chinese lingo.

Long and short, the logic of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was in its right place. But the reality translated as something else. Those felled in the campaign were none other than heavyweight “tigers” who were either potential rivals, had a wide power base (for example, oil faction) or knew too much, as they say.

The “tigers” include a litany of political stars of the last decade, considered “political untouchables” in Chinese. These included the former security czar, Zhou Yongkang and others such as Xu Caihou, Guo Boxing (both former vice chairmen of the CMC), Ling Jihua (former chief of staff and Hu’s right-hand man whose son, Ling Gu was found dead in a Ferrari accident with two half-clad women in 2012) and Su Rong (top official of a parliamentary body).

But the (selective) netting and persecution of “tigers” under anti-corruption was commonly understood for what it came across: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Undeniably, such purges have been a part of China’s political landscape as routine political hiccups, what the Chinese call “killing the chicken to scare the monkey”; but Xi had, clearly, upped the ante.

Xi at Leadership ‘Core’

In tandem, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign coincided with his increasing personal dominance, as the strongman in Chinese politics.

The era of the strongman is said to have perished with Chairman Mao (in 1976). Not only did Deng repudiate the title chairman (and replace it with general secretary) but also sought to establish political normalcy by bringing back, as Manoranjan Mohanty has said, “collective and consensual leadership.” This was welcomed, particularly after an erratic decade of the Cultural Revolution.

Deng navigated post-Mao politics delicately. In the 1980s, many party elders were no longer the swashbuckling revolutionaries of yore, but octogenarians who needed a walking stick or two. They were not marginalised but accommodated by Deng through informal mechanisms such as the newly established Central Advisory Commission (1982) and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (1978) (Zheng Yongnian).

Deng liked to call himself the grand old “popo” (mother-in-law). Deng gave the older leaders an informal voice and groomed younger leaders in formal positions. Deng remained “outside the bounds of institutions” but struck a balance. In alluding to the cycles of “loosening” and “tightening,” Sinologists Lucien Pye, Richard Baum and Lowell Dittmer sought to explain how politics in China is “framed within the hierarchical structure of government, and thus follows the up-and-down motions of centralizing and decentralizing, tightening and relaxing, controlling and loosening, shou and fang” (Pye1992).

Under such circumstances, Deng attested the primacy of a “core”—“collective leadership (lingdao hexin) must have a core” because “without a ‘core’, the leadership will not be reliable” (Zheng Yongnian). Deng bestowed the “core” status upon himself and upon his successor Jiang. Between them, two of Deng’s favoured protégés Hu Yaobang (died in 1989) and Zhao Ziyang (removed in 1989) bit the dust.

The “core” status, so critical and key in Chinese politics, evaded Jiang’s successor, Hu. This was a succession billed as a “succession that didn’t happen.” Hu’s designation remained circumspect, narrowly curtailed to and as “the Central Party Leadership with comrade Hu Jintao as the general secretary” (Gore2016).

Xi inherited “pre-2012 factional politics” (Chen2016), a seven-member PBSC not of his choice, but chose to maneouvre the situation with Machiavellian genius.

Xi did so by adding a “new layer of authority at the top” by way of small leadership groups. The Economist (2017) inferred they were nothing but a “shadowy web of committees.” This enabled Xi to “bypass the Politburo and State Council” (China’s cabinet) and directly command relevant ministries and departments through these small groups.

What created a political ripple was that Xi impinged on Premier Li Keqiang’s domain (the economy) by heading the “Central Leading Group of Comprehensively Deepening Reforms,” and the “Central Leading Group of Finance and Economy.” While many analysts had earlier spoken glowingly about Li Keqiang economics calling it “Likonomics,” it was obvious that the death knell had been sounded, though quietly.

Xi asked for “period reporting by the State Council, National People’s Congress, People’s Political Consultative Conference, Supreme Court and Supreme Protectorate to the PBSC” (Gore 2016; Shan 2016). With several PBSC members heading these bodies, this translated as PBSC members reporting to Xi.

It was not for nothing that the sharp-witted Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé spoke out the thought of many when he said that Xi was more primus than primus inter pares. As he said, Xi was China’s CoE (Chairman of Everything) (Barmie et al 2015).

This came a full circle with Xi being anointed as the “core” of the leadership at the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress in October 2016.

Xi Comes Full Circle

What is interesting is that Xi’s “core” status is not being seen analogous to Deng (or Jiang) as “core”—but rather as a sorry departure. As one seasoned observer politely noted, “Xi is the strongest Chinese leader since Deng.”

There is no doubt that Xi has taken greater accountability and responsibility. Given the apathy of China’s bureaucracy, Xi might have even fashioned himself, as Andrew Walder suggested, as an “anti-bureaucratic crusader” to “fix” the system and get things done. On the flip side, Xi may have done so, at the cost of Deng’s dictum on “collective and consensual” leadership by bringing the party back in and placing himself at the core.

Time magazine did not stop short of mincing words via its cover (March 2016) which said “Chairman Xi” and showed him emerging from Mao’s shadow, thus insinuating the decipherable.

Time magazine may well be having the last laugh: a famous song associated with the Mao years, “The East Is Red” is making a comeback under Xi, albeit under a new title “The East Is Red Once Again.” And if that was not enough the honorific title once used for Mao “lingxiu” (leader) is back in circulation.

19th Party Congress

The three top tiers of the CCP—the apex seven-member PBSC, the 25-member Politburo and the 376-member central committee—will be under scrutiny as many as half of the members who constitute more or less half in each body will retire.

Wang and Vangeli have succinctly explained that

as a rule a major turn over at the system level is now set to take place every 10 years at Party congresses held in years that end with the number 2 (that is, 1992, 2002, 2012, 2022 and so on). In between, at Party congresses held in years that end with the number 7 (that is, 1997, 2007, 2017, and so on), some degree of elite turnover will also take place, following explicit age rules of termination of tenure and promotion. (Wang and Vangeli2016)

\With Xi in command, composing the new PBSC (of the seven members, five are expected to retire) and the Politburo (of the 25 members, 11 are expected to retire) will go beyond the next five years.

Xi’s Heir and the ‘Sixth Generation’

Deng, for all his “collective leadership,” had installed Hu Jintao at the 14th Party Congress in 1992 who retired in 2012. All eyes are on Xi and his choice of successor.

The Chinese political system is not as democratic as the Chinese would want us to believe (there are eight political parties in China). But China is not, as Sinologist Susan Shirk told us, a dictatorship either. There may be no electorate but there is a “selectorate” that sifts the wheat from the chaff.

Entry and exit into the top tiers of the CCP is not arbitrary but based on formal rules, informal norms and checks that have developed under Deng and have been honed by his successors. The interplay of the formal and the informal has pretty much characterised the post-Mao political landscape, a “quasi-formalisation” which implies “a deliberate blurring of the lines between formal and informal in a way that prevents formal institutions from emerging full blown and yet prevents informal political balances from overwhelming institutionalized rules.”

Based on the previous congresses, Fewsmith indicates that about half the membership of the central committee retires at each party congress. New entrants are a mixed bag: those who have “worked their way up” along with newcomers who have “helicoptered” into the rank and file of the central committee. There are at present 205 members and 171 alternate members. The age for entry into the central committee is 63 years. A large chunk of the members are from the People’s Liberation Army and as has been said many a time, the party controls the “gun and the pen.”

The central committee elects the politburo members. The politburo follows an age limit called a Li Ruihuan clause. At the 15th Party Congress (1997), politburo member Li Ruihuan retired at 68 (after serving two terms). Also called “7 up and 8 down” (qi shang, ba xia) (Lai2016), which means that at 67 you go up, at 68 you go down.

At the last congress, that is the 18th Party Congress (2012), “a total of 14 politburo members aged 68 or above retired without exception,” three members aged 67 retained their seats to serve one more term, and two of them were promoted to the standing committee (Wang and Vangeli2016). What remains to be seen is whether some current politburo members make it to the PBSC—and importantly, whether Xi will follow the precedents.

Back to the Future?

Perhaps, some of these questions have arisen given the rocky backdrop. The fate of Xi’s right hand men, chief of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), Wang Qishan and Li Zhanshu, the director of the General Office of the Communist Party known as China’s “Holy Trinity” are being keenly watched. Wang is 68. Also, the South China Morning Post retracted an “investigative” article about Li Zhanshu’s family thus putting Xi’s “anti-corruption” in peril.

Recent reshuffles at the provincial level indicate that Xi’s men are protégés who had served alongside him when he served in Zhejiang, Fujian, Shanghai and Hebei or are from his alma mater Tsinghua or hail from the Central Party School. Beijing (municipality), Shanghai (municipality) and Guangdong (province) all carry weight. Those in the running include Hu Chunhua (Guangdong party secretary, male, age 54), Chen Jining (Beijing mayor, male, age 53) and Han Zheng (Shanghai mayor, male, age 53).

There will be a transition to a “new cohort” of “sixth generation” leadership (born in the 1960s or possibly 1970s). The faces to watch include Chen Min’er (Xi’s protégé, Guizhou party secretary, male, age 57), Zhang Guoqing (mayor of Chongqing, male, age 53), Xu Qin (governor of Heilongjiang, male, age 57) among others.

All this is reducible not to “who” but “how” it will all unfold.

While nobody would deny that economics is once again in strong focus—after all China’s economy is on the rebound with 6.9% growth in the first quarter of 2017 (Wong2017) and “Xiaokang” (well-off society) is a major plank of Xi’s “Chinese dream” (Mohanty2014), the political implications, is causing unease.

Almost three decades ago, Lowell Dittmer (1990) had famously said that Chinese politics has shown that it is “possible to retain power indefinitely with no formal office at all” and that the “backstage backer” is a familiar villain in Chinese political theatre. There is no easy answer as to whether Xi will have an extended role beyond 2022—Xi as we know, is no Hu, but Xi is no Deng either.

[According to Shan (2016), Xi’s social media prowess is orchestrated by his Harvard educated daughter Xi Mingze. As Shan writes, “Xi’s daughter, Xi Mingze, though kept off the limelight, is reported to have joined Xi’s public image team after graduating from Harvard … She was reportedly her father’s image and public relations consultant, helping Xi to use social media to build his image and was surmised to have written online in defence of Xi’s policy using a pseudonym,” p 51.

Economist John Wong argues, that for a huge economy of China’s size at nearly $12 trillion, 6.5% growth is not “low growth”—for a large economic base—this is one-third of India’s GDP or 80% of Indonesia.

Urban hukou (household registration system) to 100 million rural migrants who have moved out of agriculture; Rebuild “urban villages” involving another 100 million people; 100 million rural residents to live in local towns and cities in the central and western regions of China.]


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Brodsgaard, Kjeld Erik (2016): China’s Political order under Xi Jinping: Concept and Perspectives, Talk at the International Conference on China’s Neo-socialism under Xi Jinping, 18–19 August 2016.

Chen, Gang (2016): Massive Reshuffling of Provincial leaders for the 19th Party Congress, East Asian Policy, Vol 8, Number 4, October/December, p 22,

— (2017): “China’s Politics 2016 Xi Jinping as “Core Leader” and Massive Personnel Reshuffles,” East Asian Policy, Vol 9, No 1, January/March, p 50, p 61.

Dittmer, Lowell (1990): “Patterns of Elite Strife and Succession in Chinese Politics,” The China Quarterly, No 123, September, pp 412, 430.

Economist (2017):, accessed on 21 September 2017.

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Wong, John (2016): “China and the Middle Income trap,” East Asian Policy, Vol 8, No 3, July/September 2016, pp 78–86.

— (2017): “Xi Jinping’s Post-party Congress Challenges,” The Straits Times, 3 October.

Wang, Zhengxu and Anastas Vangeli (2016): “The Rules and Norms of Leadership Succession in China: From Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping and Beyond,” The China Journal, Issue 76, July, p 30.

Zhao, Litao (2016): “China’s 13th Five Year Plan: Road Map for Social Development,” East Asian Policy, Vol 8, No 3, July/September, p 25.

Updated On : 12th Oct, 2017


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