Six political trends shaping China today

Six political trends shaping China today

In China, a number of significant political events have materialised. These will play a monumental role in defining the global political landscape in years to come.

With Brexit and Trump centre stage in the news, much of the world’s attention has been focused on what these inchoate realities mean. However, on the other side of the world in China, a number of significant but far-less pronounced political events have materialised. These six phenomena which will play a potentially equally monumental role in defining the global political landscape in years to come.

 1. Xi Jinping as ‘core’ leader

The first trend is the centralisation and consolidation of power by Xi Jinping. On top of his role as President, Commander-in-Chief, General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission and holder of many other titles, Xi consolidated total power in October when he was given the title of “core” leader. Although the label conveys no formal powers, it is symbolically significant as it confers status, sends a clear message to lower-level officials about hierarchy and enables Xi to effectively restructure the top levels of the Party to his suiting.

2. The proliferation of leading small groups

Secondly, as part of the centralisation of power, Xi has been increasingly using ‘leading small groups’ (LSGs) to coordinate policymaking across government agencies. LSGs are ad hoc supra-ministerial consulting bodies formed to issue guiding principles about issues which cut across the government, party and military. The augmentation and increased utilisation of these groups by President Xi will enable him not only to maintain an even tighter grip on the direction of the country, but also push reforms through with increased ease. Without a doubt, the Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs has become most prominent LSG today and it is no surprise that it is headed by a close ally and adviser of Xi’s, Liu He, who is also the Vice Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

3. A new generation of Xi’s cadres

Third, Xi Jinping has been bolstering his position in order to enable him to appoint a new generation of officials at Congress next year where he is set to replace a number of key cadres not just within the Politburo but also within the wider Central Committee. As part of this reshuffle, Xi is expected to break one of the key rules currently in place: requiring members of the Politburo to retire at 68. This is due to the fact that when the 19th National Congress is held in 2017, Wang Qishan, the head of the anti-corruption crackdown in China responsible for the arrest of more than a million officials and 150 high-ranking Party cadres, will be 67. Xi is expected to surpass these existing measures in order to keep Wang on by finding a ‘special arrangement’ according to a high-level source. This will give further impetus to an already pitiless purge of Party members and sends a message to any anti-regime factions.

4. New anti-corruption measures & the eradication of Jiang Zemin

Fourth, despite the fact that on November 7th the Xi administration announced a new anti-corruption commission which answers to the state and not the party, Mr Xi has rejected greater separation of powers in favour of maintaining the party’s leading role. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), China’s highest internal-control institution, has been given new powers and initiated further measures to tackle corruption, although these are expected not to focus on the Party as Xi tightens his grip on power.

It appears that two of the most sought-after individuals, namely those who are considered to be between Xi and almost omnipotent dominance of both Party and state, are former President Jiang Zemin and his right-hand-man Zeng Qinghong. There have certainly been signs that both of these individuals are next to meet their fate. With Xi reportedly blocking any chance of reelection for Leung Chun-ying, the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong who is widely known to be part of Jiang Zemin’s faction through his ties to Zeng Qinghong, and Jiang Zemin’s son Jiang Mianheng under house arrest, it is seemingly on a matter of time before Jiang is toppled.

The current age limit on Politburo members also gives Xi a pretext to retire three significant Politburo Standing Committee members who are allies of Jiang. By appointing individuals close to Xi, he also strengthen’s his position to go after the former President, the downfall of whom would solidify Xi’s rule in the country.

Xi’s ‘tigers and flies’ campaign is thus not an anti-corruption drive, it is an anti-elite, anti-faction purge. Xi isn’t really interested about solving the structural causes of corruption. Eradicating all factions of ex-corrupted officials by pure blood, sweat and tears as part of his direct purge, he will instill not only fear in anyone wishing to challenge him, but will also take China’s political system further away potential tenets of democratisation towards an increasingly authoritarian shade.

5. The use of the term ‘comrade’

Fifth, a document entitled “Norms of political life within the party under current conditions” issued earlier this month called for the revival of the word ‘comrade’ when referring to each other, including President Xi. The term “tongzhi” or “comrade”, was a near-universal form of address in new China until almost the 1990s and harks back to a more Communist China.

An article published on the Party’s website last week stated that reviving the term comrade would “set things right from disorder”, in which cadres address each other by their titles or work relationships, such as “boss,” and “build an atmosphere of equality”. A statement issued by the Party argued that other terms and titles “have not only destroyed the seriousness of democratic relations within the party, but they have also affected the relationship between the party and the masses as well as the overall image of the party.” This decree is meant to promote equality and democracy in the party whilst also instilling discipline among party members. Again, this is a collectivisation exercise aimed at weeding out any anti-Xi cliques.

6. Single-party constitutionalism: China’s party-state

Finally, this revival of terminology is coupled with a reality that the party has truly eclipsed the state. Internal party supervision documents with new rules for senior cadres have stated that “Members of the Central Committee should strictly abide by political discipline and rules”. Recent rules have also urged the National People’s Congress, the Chinese People’s Political ­Consultative Conference, the Supreme Court and the Supreme Prosecutors’ Offices to report to the central party leadership before making important decisions. They state that “only the central leadership of the party is entitled to decide on and interpret key nationwide policies.” This new China under Xi will be more than ever about affirming loyalty to the now party-state wherein the party is actually above the government.

Also, as part of monitoring the behaviour of Beijing Mandarins, the Xi administration and the CCDI have shown signs of revitalising a Stalinist system of governance by issuing a directive encouraging individuals to report on senior officials. A recently circulated document read: “To report on members of the Politburo, submit a letter under your real name to the Standing Committees of the Politburo or the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection”. This rhetoric design could be interpreted as an attempt to instil Orwellian fear into the hearts of anyone who isn’t firmly in favour of Xi’s reign. It also has parallels with Chairman Mao Zedong’s Hundred Flowers Campaign in 1956 where the Party encouraged its citizens to openly express their opinions of the communist regime and which was followed by a brutal anti-rightist campaign the following year.

A Neo-Maoism revival in China?

Fetishising old political etiquette closely associated with the country’s revolutionary period, applying stricter party regulation, enhancing anti-graft measures and consolidating power at the top of the Party, all point to an important reality for modern China: a reversion back to Maoism.

In recent times, Neo-Maoism has been thriving in the streets of modern China. For one, experts believe if free elections were allowed in China today, a neo-Maoist candidate would likely come out victorious. Xi Jinping is also no stranger to this reality and has himself has embraced the ideas of Mao Zedong consistently throughout his leadership. In a 2013 speech entitled “Carry on the Enduring Spirit of Mao Zedong Thought,” Xi championed Mao’s political vision of a uniquely Chinese brand of socialism. Perhaps less overt however is the very pattern of centralised decision-making powers finding its way in Xi’s hands alone. This reality is arguably reminiscent of the founder of new China sidestepping the established channels of the time himself in order to implement his policies.

Fortified by the official support given to the memory of Mao, the possibility of a rapid re-connection between the Chinese state and the Chinese masses is very real. This is certainly a way to overcome the issues of the anti-corruption reform being blamed on the state by the masses, especially as China operates like that of a civilisational state wherein the state and indeed the party is seen as the protector of the civilisation. Xi is aware of the importance of the legitimacy of the party, and understands that China’s so-called social contract is based on the Party passing on the effects and profits of modernisation to the wider society. As denoted by Marxist rhetoric, ‘socio-economic changes trigger political changes’, and Xi is weary of the fact it is not the form but the degree of government which conveys authority.

Collectively, these political trends all point to tighter, more Party-dominated, personality cult-oriented, Red China, the implications of which may very well cast a shadow on the recent events in Europe and North America, and be the real elephant in the room for international politics.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

James Tunningley

James Tunningley is a GRI Associate Analyst. He is the Director of the Young China Watchers in London having previously held positions at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and the China-Britain Business Council. He is on the Young Leaders Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum, a Fellow at the Royal Asiatic Society and a Junior Member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford.