What happened to the Chinese Communist Party under Xi?

Xi micromanages China in a way that separates him from previous party leaders. This is both his strength and weakness.

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    Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing [Aly Song/Reuters]
    Chinese President Xi Jinping at the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing [Aly Song/Reuters]

    The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the world's largest political party as well as one of the longest ruling. With a membership of almost 90 million, it is larger than the population of most countries in the world. It has thus far been able to withstand strong challenges caused by rapid social and economic change as well as the fallout from the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Communist Party.

    In fact, in recent years the CCP has strengthened and centralised its grip, reaching into every corner of Chinese society. Through an internal and rigorous appointment system the Party also controls the Chinese political system at all administrative levels and from the basic township level up to the national level, no leader is appointed without the consent of the CCP. For these reasons, the current 19th Party Congress is a major event whose significance can be compared with the US presidential election.

    At the congress, or rather at the first meeting of the new Central Committee elected at the congress, the CCP's current leader, Xi Jinping, will be appointed general-secretary for a new five-year period. At the National People's Congress in March next year, he will also be reappointed president of the People's Republic of China. He will also continue as chairman of the powerful military commission and of a number of other important commissions and leading groups.

    Xi Jinping has been called the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping. But actually, Xi Jinping's way of ruling China is fundamentally different from Deng Xiaoping. Deng was never formally number one in the party or in the government apparatus. He held informal power and ruled from behind and, in fact, seldom participated in formal meetings. Xi Jinping is Chairman of Everything and micromanages China in a way that separates him from previous party leaders in China. This is both his strength and weakness.

    China has not turned capitalist under Xi.

     

    When Xi Jinping, in 2012, was appointed general-secretary of the CCP, China was in the middle of a deep political crisis. Important Party leaders such as Bo Xilai were plotting to advance their own career based on populist campaigns and were protected by the powerful security tsar and member of the standing committee Zhou Yongkang. 

    In the military, top generals were engaged in severe corruption, which among other things involved buying and selling of positions. Former party leaders such as Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin saw the writing on the wall and gave Xi Jinping green light to clean up the political system and the military establishment.

    Xi has used this to conduct an intensive anti-corruption campaign, which, so far, has involved hundreds of thousands of CCP cadres and has resulted in the purge of more than 200 ministerial-level officials. Less known is his campaign to create a party where the focus is on quality rather than quantity. The growth of the party has been reduced and new and strict rules for recruiting and training party members have been implemented, including regulations for demoting and disciplining Party cadres.

    Xi has also spearheaded a centralisation of Party leadership. He has emphasised that the Party should be presented at all levels and in all types of organisations, agencies and enterprises in China. Even private and foreign-funded companies are now required to have a Party committee, which has to be consulted on major issues regarding running the company.

    He is also stressing a policy of overlapping positions between Party and state and between Party and business, so that the Party secretary in a province or county also serves as chairman of the local people's congress and the Party secretary in a state-owned company also serves as chairman of the board.

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    This process has evolved to such an extent that some analysts have started talking about the stratification of the Party. In his recent speech to the Party congress, Xi emphasised that "Party and government bodies at the provincial, prefectural and county levels" should work together as "one office". This is also different from Deng Xiaoping who advocated the separation of Party and government.

    In November 2013, Xi put forward an important document which indicated that he was in favour of market reform: in the future, the market should not just play a basic role, it should actually play a "decisive role". However, it also stipulated that the public sector and the state should control the market. Since then state ownership has been strengthened.

    The big state-owned enterprises have not been broken into smaller competitive companies as envisaged by the reform proposal; rather a process of consolidation and of merging the big state-owned enterprises has taken place.

    Some scholars like to talk about the dominance of the private sector in today's China. Yet, the strategic sectors of the economy are still completely dominated by large state-owned companies and through share-owning and other mechanisms they control numerous companies that formally appear as privately owned.

    China has not turned capitalist under Xi. Capitalist economic forms such as market forces are playing an important role in the economy. However, this is done in an effort to develop productive forces in order to create a more affluent society, which is the precondition for laying the foundation for the socialist transition. This is still the ultimate goal of CCP leadership. It is wishful thinking on the part of Western observers to believe that Chinese leaders are only paying lip service to this goal and actually should be seen as capitalist roaders in disguise. They are part of a hegemonic ideological system which currently is being reinforced rather than weakened.

    This system relies on the ubiquitous power of the Party. Nothing in the documents and speeches from the Party congress indicates a weakening of the Party's role in the coming five-year congress period. It is also hard to find evidence that Xi Jinping, after having finally consolidated his power, might introduce basic economic and political reforms in an attempt to introduce Western-style democracy. On the contrary, in his speech to the Party congress he stated that "socialism with Chinese characteristics" offers a new and better option for "countries who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence".

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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