How powerful is Xi Jinping?

Andrei Lungu | 27 September 2017

Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. No, Xi is the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong! No, Xi is as powerful as Mao! You’ve probably read these a million times since Xi came to power in 2012. Yet, is Xi really as powerful as the founder of Communist China, who later started the Cultural Revolution, or as the man who opened China to the world and put it on track to become an economic superpower?

Hyperbole is only natural in the absence of a thorough analysis of Xi’s power, one that places him in historical context. The 19th Party Congress in October will be the real test of Xi’s power. But, for the moment, there really aren’t signs that justify the comparison with Deng or Mao. Two or three years ago when the analogies started, the only sign was the anti-corruption campaign, whose intensity was greatly exaggerated.

“They underestimated his staying power earlier and now are overestimating his influence to avoid being wrong again”. This is what China scholar Bo Zhiyue had to say about observers of China and their perception of Jiang Zemin’s power. But the quote could easily apply today in the case of their perception of Xi Jinping’s power. Back in 2012, after the 18th Congress, numerous analysts predicted that Xi would be a weak leader, because the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) was, in their reading, stacked with Jiang’s allies, while Xi had no faction of his own. Fast-forward five years, and Xi became Mao

How did this happen? The explanation is simple: the anti-corruption surprised everybody and it was misinterpreted as proof of Xi’s power. Add to this Xi’s desire to centralize power and to create new institutions and he started being seen as “the Chairman of everything”. Of course, Mao was simply Chairman of the party, while Deng was just a retiree after 1989, yet both commended immense influence without numerous titles.

The mistaken narrative about the anti-corruption campaign gave birth to the “Xi as Mao” narrative, which in turn created another narrative, about Xi’s desire to remain in power after 2022. But all these narratives are wrong. While the evidence of Xi’s power was over-publicized, the signs regarding the limits of his power were utterly ignored, as they went against the established narrative. But if we take a look at all the evidence and try to place Xi in historical perspective, what would the result be?

The power of precedent

Let’s start with a discussion about precedent in China. As Christopher Johnson put it, “Chinese politics has no rules”. The institutionalization of China’s political system over the past 20 years has been based on informal and unwritten rules and norms. But how can we call them “rules” or “norms” if in fact they are unwritten and could be ignored? In Chinese politics, it would be far more helpful to talk about precedents.

There is no rule that says that Chinese politicians need to retire at 68. But there are clear precedents that pressure current politicians into retirement once they reach that age. There are no rules that say a Party General Secretary must retire after two terms, but there are clear precedents that force them to do so.

How powerful is precedent? We can find a very good analogy in the United States. When it came into force in 1789, the Constitution said nothing about presidential term limits. A president could rule forever, if the people loved him. But America’s first President, George Washington, decided to do something different: after only two terms, he retired. There was no rule to force him to do so. And there was no rule to force Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe or Andrew Jackson to do so. Yet, invariably, all have retired after two terms. This precedent created by George Washington’s example has been respected for over 150 years. Only Franklin Roosevelt, in 1940, when war was raging in Europe and Asia, broke this precedent. And once that happened, the unwritten rule was finally codified in the Constitution, so that no other president could ever attempt the same. 150 years. Precedent might not be written, but it is powerful.

Ask yourself: didn’t any of all these presidents want to remain in office for more than two terms? Were they not human beings, instead of saints, driven by the desire to rule? Indeed, Ulysses Grant wanted to run for a third term and Theodore Roosevelt tried to win a third, non-consecutive term, in 1912. Yet most presidents acquiesced in following Washington’s precedent. Odds are that, had they tried to break this precedent, they would have been submitted to ferocious attacks about becoming dictators and betraying the spirit of previous presidents.

As precedent is unwritten, the only constraint is political pressure. If a Chinese leader is truly powerful, he could break some precedents, because he wouldn’t be constrained by political pressure. We can start testing Xi’s power by seeing how he was constrained by precedent, especially in the context of the narrative that Xi plans to remain in office after 2022.

Xi versus precedent

Did Xi Jinping take down members of the Politburo Standing Committee, like Deng Xiaoping did? No. How many members of the Politburo has he purged? One, like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao in their first term. Did Xi manage to insert any of his allies into the Politburo or the PSC in-between congresses, like Jiang did with Huang Ju in 1994? No. Did Xi manage to keep any of his allies, like Xia Baolong or Liu Yuan, active even after they reached retirement age? No.

This doesn’t mean that Xi didn’t break any precedent. His promotions of Cai Qi, Chen Min’er and Ying Yong have been, in The Economist’s words, “rocket-style promotions”. Somebody not on the Central Committee, like Cai Qi, has never previously been named Party Secretary of Beijing. Jiang Zemin didn’t manage to pick his own successor, having to accept Hu Jintao, Deng Xiaoping’s choice. Jiang couldn’t even get an ally to succeed Hu – Xi Jinping wasn’t in Jiang’s Shanghai faction, having never worked with Jiang. Xi was simply the compromise candidate. Today, on the other hand, Xi seems to be grooming Chen Min’er as his successor, having taken down one of the politicians who had a chance to succeed him, Sun Zhengcai. Xi has appeared in the People’s Daily far more than Hu, Jiang or even Deng.

And, as an important sign, he became the first leader since Deng to inspect troops in the field, on the occasion of the army parade celebrating 90 years since the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Unlike Jiang or Hu, who presided over traditional parades celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic of China, in 2015 Xi created a new parade, to celebrate victory over Japan in World War Two. And Xi broke the precedent of the army saluting the leader by calling him “president”, instead Xi being called “chairman”, both in Hong Kong and during the PLA parade.

If Xi will manage to get Chen Min’er installed on the PSC as Vice President at the 19th Congress, which is a very strong possibility, he will break an important precedent, by naming his own successor. Furthermore, at the 15th Party Congress in 1997, after 8 years of rule, Jiang Zemin managed to get only three or four allies on the Politburo. Today, Xi has at least five allies in a position to join the Politburo and two more allies could follow (Li Qiang and Liu He). This would be far more than Jiang or Hu managed.

It’s clear that Xi is stronger than Hu Jintao and Xi seems to be even stronger than Jiang. But in case we forget Jiang Zemin’s power, in 2002, there was also speculation that he might remain in charge for another term. Jiang kept his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission for two more years, until 2004. While Xi might have terrorized the army with the anti-corruption campaign, in the 1990s, Jiang managed to force the army out of the business sectorHe and Zhu Rongji (Zhu taking the leading role) managed to pass very painful, but necessary, economic reforms at the end of the ’90s. On the other hand, even though Xi managed to get more control over the economy from Premier Li Keqiang, he couldn’t implement the vision he described in the third plenum communique in 2013, calling for the market to have a decisive role in allocating resources.

Xi, Deng, Mao

Compare this with what a retired Deng Xiaoping managed to do in 1992, just by traveling to Guangdong and talking about the need to continue economic reforms. Even if the conservatives in charge of the press didn’t initially report Deng’s trip, the coverage soon started snowballing, eventually forcing the central leadership to restart stalled reforms. Deng managed to get his way without any title whatsoever (Honorary Chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association really doesn’t count).

When it comes to Deng, we should also remember his control over appointments and dismissals. Over the past three years there has been a lot of speculation over a rupture between Xi and Li Keqiang and there have consistently been rumors that Xi will remove Li from his premiership (in reality, Xi and Li might get along just fine). Even today there are rumors that Wang Qishan, who should retire, will instead be named Premier at the 19th Congress. After three years of rumors, where is Li? He’s still Premier and will remain so until 2022.

Deng didn’t have to wait until a Party Congress to change somebody. In 1987, he removed Hu Yaobang, the Party General Secretary, during an enlarged Politburo meeting. And the Politburo became utterly irrelevant during the Tiananmen protests. It was Deng who took the final decisions, in the comfort of his home. And then he removed both Zhao Ziyang, the General Secretary, and Hu Qili from the Politburo Standing Committee, with no need to wait for a Party Congress. It was the last time a PSC member was purged. Compare this with the fact that the current leadership jailed retired Zhou Yongkang, a wounded tiger, but Xi couldn’t change any current PSC member.

Deng wasn’t constrained by formalities or party bodies. He did what he wanted to do. That title that Xi managed to acquire in 2016, of “core” of the party leadership? Deng invented it and bestowed it upon Jiang Zemin. Hu Jintao was never named core, but in 2016, a party official, Deng Maosheng, said that Hu consistently refused this title. Xi’s designation as “core” does put him above Jiang Zemin, because Jiang passively received the title, while Xi managed to convince the party leadership to give him the title. But to say that this makes Xi as powerful as Deng is an exaggeration. Deng could change people in the PSC if he wanted. On the other hand, Xi purged only one Politburo member, without touching the Standing Committee.

One doesn’t even know where to begin criticizing the comparison with Mao (maybe by saying Xi himself probably doesn’t like such comparisons?). The anti-corruption campaign targeted a few retired tigers. Mao targeted almost the entire party in the Cultural Revolution. We’re now trying to predict what will happen at the next Party Congress, which takes place every five years. Mao organized only three congresses in 27 years of rule. Xi targeted one successor named by other leaders. Mao named his own successor, Liu Shaoqi, and purged him during the Cultural Revolution, without any formality like a trial. After three years of mistreatment, Liu died. And Mao then named another successor, and then anotherXi had to maintain the current composition of the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee. Mao didn’t quite care about these bodies and purged members whenever he desired. Xi was heavily promoted by official propaganda. Mao was official propaganda. Xi wrote a much publicized book. Mao’s was one of the most published in history. Xi had to remind the press that its surname is “party”. Mao didn’t have to remind the press its surname was Mao. And the list could go and on.

Just because a few retired high-level officials and a current Politburo member were arrested for corruption doesn’t mean the party has reverted to one-man rule. Xi is just the core of the party, not the party. In order to understand the current state of Chinese politics it is vital we don’t overestimate certain trends. Xi seems indeed to be more powerful than Jiang Zemin, but we shouldn’t jump the horse and proclaim him Mao. If that were the case, there would be no 19thParty Congress in 2017.

So how strong is Xi? The correct answer, judging by the evidence accumulated up to now, would be: a little stronger than Jiang, but weaker than Deng. While the formulation “strongest leader since Deng” is technically correct, it is also misleading, as there have been only two such leaders, one of whom preferred collective leadership.

All this could change over the next five years, as Xi gets the chance to stack the Politburo and the State Council with his allies, thus being in a stronger position to implement his vision. Only once this vision becomes reality, could we claim that Xi is as strong as Deng, who, together with like-minded officials, changed the face of China.

This is why the 19th Party Congress will be the first true test of Xi’s power. Until now, Xi couldn’t really break the most important precedents of Chinese politics, by keeping allies once they reached retirement age, or purging members of the PSC, or removing Li Keqiang from the premiership. This makes it very unlikely Xi will manage to avoid naming a successor, or will name Wang Qishan Premier, instead of Li Keqiang. The signs over the past five years indicate that precedent will be the main influence on the outcome of the congress, though Xi has some room for maneuvers, proved by his grooming of Chen Min’er as leader of the sixth-generation.

At the Congress, Xi might get six or seven allies on the Politburo, setting the stage for stacking the PSC in 2022. He might get his desired successor and might even be able to keep Wang Qishan, if the party leadership agrees that it is vital to continue the anti-corruption campaign. But if Xi is forced to accept Hu Chunhua as his successor or fails to get some of his allies on the Politburo (like Li Qiang or Liu He), this would be a clear sign that Xi’s power is in fact on par with Jiang’s.

That Xi became stronger than Hu, should have been, in retrospect, predictable. Hu’s power wasn’t limited just by Jiang. It was limited by Hu’s own desire to keep a low profile and to have a collective leadership. Hu refused to be name “core”. Hu abandoned all posts at the same time, retiring for good. What is really impressive is that Xi managed to accumulate at least as much power as Jiang Zemin. And while Xi isn’t yet as powerful as Deng and certainly not as powerful as Mao, the trend over the past five years is putting Xi in a position to equal Deng during his second term. To do so, Xi won’t just have to get his allies on the Politburo and the PSC or get his name enshrined in the party’s Constitution, but also to implement the economic reforms that China badly needs.

Photo credits (in order of appearance): Xi Jinping at the 2017 BRICS Summit (Flickr/Palácio do Planalto), statue of Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen (Flickr/Janneke Meertens), painting of Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (Flickr/Jean-Pierre Dalbéra), the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress in 2012 (Flickr/Bert van Dijk), Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, at the 2013 APEC Summit in Indonesia (Flickr/APEC 2013).


Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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