The vulnerabilities of Xi Jinping and China’s Communist Party

Today, despite all the accumulation of power, Xi and the CPC are far more vulnerable than is apparent.

Xi China op-ed Reuters
Xi currently appears to enjoy unrivalled political power and authority in China, but he has several vulnerabilities, writes Kewalramani [Reuters]

In advance of the National People’s Congress (NPC) meeting in Beijing, which will mark the official start of Xi Jinping‘s second term as the president of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) Central Committee proposed a set of constitutional amendments, chief among them being the removal of presidential term limits and the inclusion of “Xi Jinping Thought” in the country’s constitution.

NPC deputies are expected to overwhelmingly support these changes in a vote on Sunday, effectively allowing Xi to remain at the helm of Chinese politics for as long as he deems fit.

Ever since the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi has been making moves to upend norms of collective leadership and succession that were cobbled together after the excesses of the Mao Zedong era. 

Xi’s rapid consolidation of power has led some to conclude that China is descending into an era of dictatorship, with an all-powerful strongman in charge. Such claims, while not without basis, gloss over the underlying nature of the CPC’s specific brand of authoritarianism and the shifting dynamics of governance in modern-day China. Today, despite all the accumulation of power, Xi, and even the party itself, is far more vulnerable than is apparent.

One can, for the sake of convenience, classify these vulnerabilities into two broad, interlinked categories: structural and policy-level threats. 

Structural threats

Ever since Xi took charge as the CPC General Secretary in late 2012, he has been working towards increasing the centralisation of power. To achieve this, he restructured and centralised the policymaking architecture of the party and unleashed a ruthless anti-corruption campaign.

The former permitted him to have greater personal supervision over key policy areas. The latter, meanwhile, helped blunt opposing factions and earn local and institutional compliance, through either the demonstrable threat of coercive action or placement of key confidantes in positions of authority.

The centralisation of political power in itself is not necessarily problematic or a threat to the regime’s stability. What matters is how power is exercised, ie, whether it flows through a system of institutions that place necessary checks and offer opportunities for corrective action, or it is arbitrarily imposed on the elites and the populace alike by the force of personality. 

Under Xi, the constitutional amendment on presidential terms and the violation of party norms on succession imply that the latter is becoming the dominant means of exercising power. This heightens the threat of bad policy decisions going unchecked and potential abuse of power, which, in turn, increases the possibility of deepening fissures among the elites and broader social upheaval. Moreover, personalisation of power in this way renders the leader directly vulnerable to real and perceived failures, which can no longer be viewed as the products of structural mishaps or secondary actors.

Xi, therefore, now bears greater personal liability for failure to achieve key social, economic and foreign policy objectives, thereby impinging on broader national stability.

Policy-level challenges

At the moment, Xi and the Party are also facing serious policy level challenges. These threats are particularly acute since they come at a time when Xi faces the daunting task of guiding the Chinese economy from a stage of rapid to high-quality growth. What this means is focussing on reducing credit risks, containing pollution, tackling inequality and moving up the manufacturing value chain to avoid the middle-income trap. 

In doing so, however, he must contend with entrenched political, bureaucratic and business interests. In fact, the desire to effectively manage this economic transition has often been cited as the underlying rationale for Xi’s consolidation of power, placement of aides in key positions and establishment of the new National Supervision Commission (NSC). This is Xi’s strategy to address the “emperor is far away” problem. However, this does not guarantee success. For instance, even during Xi’s reign, provinces far away from the capital have falsified economic data. And while the NSC now brings state functionaries under a Party-style discipline campaign, operational questions and concerns over who will check the guardians remain unanswered.

Moreover, the social and economic policies adopted by Xi have seen increased the Party’s role in private enterprises, bolstering of state-owned enterprises, controlled market opening, as well as support for – and investment in – innovative Chinese businesses. Xi’s policies also heightened restrictions on dissenting voices and expanded state intervention in people’s daily lives. Such policies inherently cause friction with the redefined principal contradiction facing Chinese society, ie, the desire for balanced and adequate development that satisfies people’s need for a better life. This implies the promise of responsive governance, which would require reduced control and greater openness. The bargain that Xi appears to be offering is better economic opportunities and welfare assistance along with the promise of an improved environment in exchange for greater social control. Pulling this off requires a tricky tightrope walk to assuage China’s growing middle class and the maintenance of personal credibility.

Likewise in the external domain, Xi has broken from Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “hide your capabilities and bide your time.” The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is as much an economic programme as it is a geopolitical campaign to take China to the centre of world affairs. Under the BRI, Xi is seeking to expand Chinese business, military and diplomatic influence around the world.

The BRI’s success, however, is contingent on the sustenance of Beijing’s economic muscle. It is the remarkable growth that China has enjoyed over the past 40 years that has allowed a build-up of capacities to launch such an ambitious global initiative. Slowing growth will, therefore, impinge on Beijing’s capacities to execute BRI projects. Moreover, Xi’s global ambitions manifested through the BRI are also constrained by geostrategic, political and security challenges. For instance, the alignment of counter-balancing forces in the form of the Quadrilateral Group – India, US, Japan and Australia – of countries, the growing concern over the CPC’s so-called influence activities in the West, the threat of attacks from violent non-state actors targeting Chinese projects and citizens abroad and the spectre of resurgent nationalism derailing Chinese investments in recipient countries. 

All of these pose serious challenges, which, if not managed well, could lead to questions being asked at home and even potentially threaten the regime’s stability. And that could result in China sliding down a dark and slippery slope.

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