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Chinese Party–State under Xi Jinping

Alka Acharya (alka.acharya@gmail.com) teaches at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The abolition of the two-term limit on the President’s tenure in China has generated a lot of debate. Portraying this as the return to hard authoritarianism in China does not fully take into account the gamut of changes that are taking place at the political, economic, and societal levels. Newer studies and research suggest that the mainstream Western projections of China as a repressed, controlled society, suffering under the iron grip of the party, cannot be taken at face value and must be explored in greater depth.

Since the middle of 2017, arguably, no event was as intensely debated, analysed and examined across the world as the quinquennial 19th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), convened in Beijing from 18 to 24 October 2017, and the subsequent National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2018. The NPC is convened annually in Beijing for two weeks from 5 March. No domestic events in any other country—except possibly the United States presidential elections—have generated as much excitement and even frenzy all around.

From theoreticians and scholars who grapple with concepts such as world order, power transition and globalisation, to policy and decision-makers who are adjusting their tactics and strategies vis-á-vis this rising power, to security and strategic communities who ponder over the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) capabilities and intentions, to the business and commercial sectors around the globe whose fortunes have been, and continue to be, shaped by their dealings with China, the interest and concern were palpable. This is a profound testament to the transformative impact that the rise of the PRC has had on the international system, on the regional orders, and even on the domestic calculations of a large number of countries over the last three decades.

Much of the interest that was centred on the 19th Party Congress and the NPC was essentially about the consolidation of President Xi Jinping’s power and control over the party and state, arguably commanding the same degree of authoritativeness as Mao Zedong. Unquestionably, Xi has been steadily acquiring extensive powers and has centralised control domestically to a considerable extent since he took charge as general secretary of the CPC. His first term (2013–17) was widely assessed—not entirely accurately— as marking a shift in the “consensual” or “collective” model of leadership that had come to characterise Chinese politics since the political and administrative reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. The exclusive focus on the personality cult of Xi (both within and outside China), while not unexpected, was not very useful, since the context invariably was how Xi and the PRC under his leadership would change the world.

Primus Inter Pares?

Xi’s continuation in power beyond two terms had begun to be widely anticipated when, contrary to the established norm, no successor was announced at the end of the 19th Party Congress. It was clear then that Xi—and the CPC—intended to overturn the practice that limited the top leader to two consecutive terms in office. This was subsequently enshrined in the state constitution of the PRC at the NPC.

While it does appear that Xi is changing the game considerably, it is also apparent that this decision is based on a sort of consensus, at least among the top leadership. It would be a misapprehension to assume that we are looking at a leader who has no challengers or questioners, as some prominent Western scholars have argued (Shirk 2018). The Second Party Plenum, which normally meets up just ahead of the NPC, was held instead in mid-January 2018 to discuss the proposed amendments. The decisions were announced just a week before the NPC. An obvious implication is that it did not give much time to those who opposed, to challenge these changes. That Xi has managed to override such objections as may have been raised, points to a qualitative strengthening of his power, but it also underscores the fact that we are not looking at a complete one-man show or that the factions within the party have all been effectively neutralised. In the near obsessive focus outside China on Xi, particularly in the Western media, the strength of the different factions, especially the Jiang Zemin faction and their resistance to the Xi-led changes, have been generally glossed over.

Such comparisons as are being made with Mao Zedong are thus also quite off the mark. This is reflected in the specific formulation of Xi’s contribution to the theoretical underpinnings and the guiding philosophy for the party–state. The PRC today is not the China of yore. "Mao Zedong Thought," along with Marxism–Leninism, still constitutes a different category, and although the appellation of  Thought has also been conferred on Xi’s contribution, it has been formulated as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” in the state constitution. This had been announced at the end of the 19th Party Congress in October last year, as also some of the new phrases associated specifically with Xi, such as “China Dream” and “Great National Rejuvenation.”

However, as the Taiwan-based Communist Party historian Zhang Lifan has pertinently pointed out, “‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ is not a new concept;” it has in fact been officially around for over two decades now, and “merely adding the term ‘new era’ does not give a sense that there is theoretical innovation involved” (as quoted in Lam 2017). Interestingly, it was also announced that Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao’s contribution, “Scientific Outlook on Development,” would also be added in the state constitution, though neither of Xi’s two predecessors, Jiang nor Hu, figure in the party constitution.

Furthermore, there are some other notable amendments, which cumulatively point to a period of significant political changes ahead. The proposal to bring in Wang Qishan (a close confidant of Xi, who had led the anti-corruption campaign in coordination with Xi), as the vice president, despite the fact that he is past the age limit for these statutory posts, is also a pointer to Xi’s moves to bring in his trusted supporters and secure his control over state institutions and structures. While the limits on the terms of the President and the vice president have been removed, a two-year term has been stipulated for the director of the newly set up National Supervisory Commission, a body that would be in charge of the anti-corruption campaign. With these constitutional amendments, Xi appears well-placed to further consolidate the consensus on these matters and ensure that he has the full backing of the party, as the PRC begins the second term under the 19th Congress leadership.

As the opportunities to study China and its political systems and processes more closely are systematically expanding, increasingly useful studies are emerging that provide us with a more nuanced understanding of the nature and functioning of the NPC. It has been generally dismissed as the “rubber-stamp parliament” on account of the fact that no major debates take place on the reports and documents presented and passed at the NPC. It may be useful to point out here, that the documents presented at the Congresses are the outcome of a year-long (if not more) process of consultations and deliberations, bringing in views from every level of the party so that the final document reflects the consensus (Miller 2018). Furthermore, it performs a core function of conveying information from every corner of the country to the rulers at the province and the centre, and “facilitate responsive governance” (Truex 2016).

It may be instructive to look more closely at another significant amendment proposed in the Second Party Plenum. There is a change in the phrase “Chinese socialist rule by law” to “Chinese socialist rule of law.” Thus, the contentions and debates, as also the state–society interface on questions of freedom and dissent and their justiciability, are likely to see significant developments within China. Undoubtedly, all these changes would have major implications for further political reforms. This is a useful indicator of the jockeying and balancing that is underway among the various factions within theCPC and would need to be studied and analysed more carefully.

Economy Still Matters the Most

For Xi and the party, China’s economic growth is both a matter of national achievement and concern. The reports at both Congresses took pride in foregrounding China’s economic stature in the world in terms of its leading role among the major economies, and in trade, outbound investment, and foreign exchange reserves.

On the basis of these achievements, Xi suggested that the Chinese model of development has “[blazed] a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization” (Xi 2017). This has been interpreted largely as the PRC’s attempt to validate the “Beijing consensus” and constitutes another departure from Deng Xiaoping for whom there was no question of China being a model; it was indeed learning from others. But it is important to note Xi’s inflection as he talks about the relevance of the Chinese model. Xi stressed the significance of this model as “offer[ing] a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence; it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind” (Xi 2017)—in other words, a way that would allow nation states to protect their sovereignty.

However, this assertion is leavened by the sobering reality that “[T]he basic dimension of the Chinese context—that our country is still and will long remain in the primary stage of socialism—has not changed. China’s international status as the world’s largest developing country has not changed” (Xi 2017). At the 19th Party Congress, Xi had set out a timeline for China to attain its goals in two stages. In the first stage from 2020 to 2035,

we will build on the foundation to see that socialist modernization is basically realized … In the second stage from 2035 to the middle of the 21st century, we will, building on having basically achieved modernization, work hard for a further 15 years and develop China into a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful. (Xi 2017)

In the excitement over the abolition of the two terms, the important annual government work report presented to the NPC by the Premier Li Keqiang, which revisited many of the themes of Xi’s report, was quite cast in the shade. Given the enormity of the tasks, Li’s government report brought out the mammoth challenges facing the economy (particularly in the light of the “contradiction” mentioned by Xi) with particular reference to people’s livelihood problems, income inequality and regional disparities on the one hand, and environmental sustainability on the other. Eradicating poverty by 2020 has been in fact accorded top priority. Over the past five years, Xi has also emerged as a champion fighter against corruption. He has authored two huge tomes on governance and has made it clear that he intends to decisively pilot the fifth generation of economic reforms—the rebalancing of the economy—which would be potentially the most challenging task ahead. It will definitely require a strong hand at the helm.

Justin Lin, former chief economist at the World Bank and now a leading Chinese establishment economist, underscored the fact that the popular legitimacy of the Communist Party would only emerge from “people-oriented” reforms, “focused on meeting the public’s rising expectations regarding living standards, environmental quality, transparency, governance, and freedom of speech.” He therefore sees Xi’s stand that the party would “resolutely oppose all statements and actions that undermine, distort, or negate its leadership or the Chinese socialist system,” as a critical necessity (Lin 2017).

The Party and the People

While the world was understandably agog about these major events, it would be useful to bear in mind that the Party Congress, the report presented by Xi, theNPC and the various constitutional changes, are essentially and primarily about domestic political dynamics. The fundamental purpose of these political institutions and the congresses is asserting the role, relevance, and centrality of theCPC and conveying a unified message to the people. They set out China’s achievements—both in the domestic and international context—and would thus constitute important bases of the legitimacy of theCPC. They also lay out the important tasks for the road ahead. Thus, the comparisons of Xi with Mao—such as they are—acquire a special resonance for the party and the Chinese people and the flavour of this comparison is entirely different for those outside this frame.

Take, for instance, the use of the term “contradiction.” Xi said that

(A)s socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, the principal contradiction facing Chinese society has evolved. What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.

Unquestionably, this “contradiction”—which is intended to indicate a problem requiring a resolution by addressing its inherent complexity—is of significance only in the domestic context; it cannot be extrapolated in the external realm, as Mao had done in the 1960s, with the concept of the United Front.

It is the Chinese citizens who should be more concerned about Xi’s consolidation of power. In the Chinese media, Xi is projected not as any ordinary leader—lingdao—but he has established his reputation as thelingxiu, a spiritual/philosophical guide. By way of an explanation, delegates to the NPC were informed that the call for abolishing the term limit had come from many Congress delegates as also the public in order to “bolster Mr Xi’s authority” and “strengthen and improve the national leadership system” (cited in Buckley and Bradsher 2018).

The current membership of the Communist Party stands at about 90 million, and is reportedly growing, which appears to be a small number in a country of 1.3 billion people. But, it must also not be overlooked that what operates in China is a party–state, and the party, crucially, permeates every institution and organisation, including private enterprises. Party membership is often seen as a status symbol, a stepping stone to success. The longevity of the CPC has baffled many—especially those who have staked their reputations on the imminent fall of this “authoritarian regime”—particularly in the wake of the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc.

The party–state has always been a powerful force that has closely monitored the citizens. Many scholars have over the past two decades offered a range of explanations for the ability of the party to endure, and grow even more powerful. The traditional explanations tended to focus on “elite power sharing,” “Confucian meritocracy” and “institutional fragmentation,” and among the newer works to have emerged, a surprising factor has been suggested—“public opinion and mass support.” (Tang 2018). Tang’s study in fact comes up with the finding that regime support is actually high in China.1

This is not to ignore the fact that there are clear red lines that cannot be violated, and that certain “political” dissidents have been dealt with extreme harshness. Equally undeniable are the reports that in the run up to the Congress and the NPC, strict measures that were undertaken to suppress critical voices with a close vigil exercised, especially on the social media (Myers and Hernandez 2018). Most people are often surprised by the fact that a vibrant social media and communication is alive and kicking in China, playing cat-and-mouse games with the omnipresent official censors on the lookout for “offensive” or anti-state posts.

Technology has now provided the state with extraordinary tools for surveillance and control. The debate has just begun on how the information that can now be amassed on each and every detail of the private life of citizens would be used and to what end; the systems of protection—legal and political—that would be set up. The ongoing debates over Facebook and how its data on people—unbeknown to them—was sourced out, has brought home the unprecedented power of the internet and its manipulation by the powerful.

A great deal of focus is now being directed towards the study of public opinion that are increasingly using these new technological tools and more sophisticated techniques. These initial studies certainly provide sufficient evidence to suggest that the traditional and fairly conventional mainstream Western projections and images of China as a “repressed” “controlled society, suffering under the iron grip of the party, stifling all dissent mercilessly, cannot be taken at face value and may well have to be moderated. There are far more historical resonances and factors at play than are generally acknowledged and more complexity and ambiguity involved, as a pithy exchange that I had with a young research scholar in Beijing in early 2017 would indicate: “Mao Zedong liberated us, Deng Xiaoping made us rich, and now Xi Jinping and the Party will make China powerful.”

Note

1 Tang (2018) has shown through his analysis of various surveys, that even the “anti-democracy” high point in post-Mao China—the crushing of the protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989—was not a pro-democracy movement; the dissatisfaction was more with the fast pace of reforms, with large numbers “panicking” about the negative consequences of marketisation. Many people wanted to roll it back, and return to centralised state control.

References

Buckley, Chris and Keith Bradsher (2018): “China’s Leaders Meet, and See ‘Critical Battles’ on Economy and Pollution,”New York Times, 4 March.

Lam, Willy Wo-Lap (2017): “Has Xi Jinping become ‘Emperor for Life’?” https://jamestown.org/analyst/willy-wo-lap-lam/, viewed on 18 January 2017.

Lin, Justin Yifu (2017): “The Economics of the New Era,” https://www.project syndicate.org/onpoint/the-economics-of-china-s-new-era-by-justin-yifu-lin-2017-12, viewed on 18 December 2017.

Miller, Alice (2018): “The 19th Central Committee Politburo,”China Leadership Monitor, 23 January, https://www.hoover.org/research/19th-central-committee-politburo, viewed on 15 March 2018.

Myers, Steven L and Javier C Hernandez (2017): “Murmurings of Dissent Upset China’s Script for Xi’s Power Grab,”New York Times, 8 March.

Shirk, Susan (2018): “China’s Xi in the ‘New Era’: The Return of Personalistic Rule,”Journal of Democracy, Vol 29, No 2, pp 22–36.

Tang, Wenfang (2018): “The ‘Surprise’ of Authoritarian Resilience in China,”American Affairs, 20 February.

Truex, R (2016):Making Autocracy Work: Representation and Responsiveness in Modern China, Cambridge University Press.

Xi Jinping (2017): “Secure a Decisive Victory in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in All Respects and Strive for the Great Success of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” report delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, 18 October,China Daily (Beijing), 4 November, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/19thcpcnationalcongress/2017-11/04/co..., viewed on 6 November 2017.

Updated On : 8th May, 2018

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