For almost two decades, China has been ruled by a collective system of leadership, with veteran bureaucrats – in consultation with their peers – overseeing the smooth operation of the Chinese political system. After decades of political upheaval and economic instability under Mao Zedong, whose megalomaniac projects such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) led to unimaginable human tragedies, the post-Mao Chinese political establishment vigorously sought to prevent any single individual from wielding absolute power.
The post-Mao system of consensus-based leadership, however, has struggled to catch up with the mindboggling pace of transformation in contemporary China. Recent times have seen a dramatic explosion of political resistance – from the Turkic-Muslim communities in Xinjiang to Buddhist monks in Tibet and pro-democracy students in Hong Kong and Taiwan – to Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule.
Amid China’s renewed troubles, a new “paramount leader” (a singularly powerful figure at the helm of the political system) has seemingly emerged. Since his ascent to power in late-2012, Xi Jinping has wasted no opportunity to overhaul the Chinese bureaucracy and consolidate Beijing’s dominance over unruly subjects and neighbours. Xi’s attempt at concentrating power in his own hands has come at the risk of short-term political backlash, but it also raises the possibility of more stability in China’s domestic politics and foreign relations in the long-run.
Origins of Collective Leadership
Paradoxically, it took a towering figure like Deng Xiaoping to lay down the foundations of contemporary China’s unique model of consensus-driven leadership. Before his retirement, Deng personally selected his successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, to ensure continuity in policy and stability in political transition. Yet, neither Jiang nor Hu, largely seen as bureaucrat par excellence, ever possessed sufficient charisma and political capital to undertake grand experiments like Mao or structural reforms like Deng. And as China’s rapid capitalist expansion presented an evolving set of challenges to the CCP’s rule, the consensus-based leadership model in Beijing struggled to cope.
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Against the backdrop of an impending political paralysis in Beijing, the CCP’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), selected Xi Jinping – a successful provincial official and son of one of the founders of the communist regime – as Hu’s successor.
Ironically, Xi, who was the first Chinese communist leader to be selected by a collective process, gradually emerged as the new strongman. In many ways, it wasn’t a question of greed and lust for power; for Xi, only a decisive leader could end the cycle of corruption within the CCP’s ranks, institute necessary reforms to upgrade China’s increasingly unsustainable model of export-driven growth, and build a powerful military that befits the country’s rising economic profile on the global stage.
Xi views himself as a synthesis of Mao (revolutionary zeal) and Deng (economic pragmatism). Emulating Mao, he instituted ideological rituals such as “self-criticism sessions” among top bureaucrats, implored austerity among officials, and won huge popularity by undertaking publicity stunts such as his low-profile visit to an ordinary restaurant, ordering and dining next to Beijing residents. To further purify what he sees as a decadent bureaucracy, Xi has launched an unprecedented anti-corruption crackdown, which has shaken the CCP to its core.
The Chinese Dream
Sensing a potential political backlash, with some officials criticising the initiative as a possible tactic to purge Xi’s rivals, he has gone so far as exclaiming: “In my struggle against corruption, I don’t care about life or death, or ruining my reputation.” As many as 180,000 officials have been reportedly “disciplined” on allegations of corruption, while overweening provincial governments have come under close scrutiny by Beijing authorities.
And to secure his grip on the bureaucracy, Xi has taken over a myriad of new bureaucratic mergers. Following in Deng’s footsteps, Xi has vowed to launch a second economic revolution, where markets – rather than inefficient state-owned enterprises – can play a more decisive role in determining Chinese economic productivity.
Xi has made the “Chinese Dream” the centerpiece of his agenda: The ultimate aim is to make China (once again) the centre around which the East Asian order revolves. No wonder, Xi has, so far, adamantly opposed any genuine political autonomy in places like Hong Kong, vigorously opposed any expression of ethnic nationalism in places like Xinjiang, and refused to budge on territorial disputes with Japan, India, and neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. So far, however, Xi has utilised crises such as the recent protests in Hong Kong to demand absolute loyalty from the Chinese political establishment, while shunning a large-scale violent crackdown.
Nonetheless, there could be a silver-lining down the road: If Xi manages to fully consolidate power at home, he will – similar to Deng in the late-1970s – have enough political capital to make necessary, albeit risky, compromises, which would be crucial to a more stable and amicable relationship between Beijing, on one hand, and its subjects within Greater China as well as smaller neighbours across East Asia.
After all, Xi knows that political instability at home and estrangement of neighbouring states is not in the long-term interest of China, which aims to become a legitimate leader in Asia.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”