Critical Issues Confronting China Summary–Xi Jinping: The Three Problems and the Two Issues

December 12, 2016
Joseph Fewsmith

Since Xi Jinping took over the helm of the Chinese top leadership in the end of 2012, he has noticeably consolidated his power by placing himself as the head of many working groups covering a wide range of issues from economic policy to national security, and through a forceful anti-corruption campaign in which many “tigers” have fallen from high positions. What motivated him to adopt these measures? What did he have in mind? What is he trying to achieve? What are the implications of his actions? Professor Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies addresses these questions in turn in the Critical Issues Confronting China seminar series talk, "Xi Jinping: The Three Problems and the Two Issues."

When Xi took office, he confronted three problems: extra-organizational opposition, increasing party dysfunction, and the nagging question of legitimacy. In Xi's own words, he accuses those “fallen tigers,” including Bo Xilai, Party Secretary of Chongqing; Zhou Yongkang, Secretary-General of the Central Political and Legal Commission; Xu Caihou, Vice President of the Central Military Commission; and Ling Jihua, Secretary of the General Office, of not only “unscrupulous and reckless” violations of party discipline but also engaging in “political conspiracy” to “split the party.” The phrase, “split the party,” is reminiscent of the charge against Party Secretary General Zhao Ziyang, who was under the same charge in the spring of 1989. There are consequences once officials cross those implicit lines.  

Serious erosion of the party disciplines is compounded with formidable political factions rooted in personality and location. The factions rooted in Shanxi Province are a case in point, with close relationships stretching from local areas all the way to the center, impossible for outsiders to penetrate. Chen Yuanping, a capable young man, rose to CEO of the Taiyuan Iron and Steel Company at the age of 38. He quickly grew the company into a large-scale global company with funds approved by Ling Zhengce, a member of the provincial governing council and an older brother of Ling Jihua. Ling Jihua was then the head of the party's Central Office in Beijing and had established his own Western Hills Club, a personal clique consisting of people with connections. Ling Jihua's son, Ling Gu, died in a car accident; the luxury car he was driving was a gift from Chen. As a result of the anti-corruption campaign, about 80 percent of the top Shanxi provincial officials were removed and replaced.   

Since the specter of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chinese top leaders have been in a deep soul searching, as reflected in some editorials in the People's Daily under the pen name, Ren Zhongping. They attribute the collapse of the great Soviet state to the wavering of the Russians' ideal of and conviction of communism. They conclude that the Chinese must re-affirm and renew their dedication to the party, with little tolerance for any deviation from the party lines.
Fewsmith identifies two issues in top Chinese politics: leadership succession and political biography. He is not convinced that Chinese top leadership succession has been institutionalized by the established convention of two-term limit. He is inclined to think that the degree of generational influence has more to do with particular circumstances of succession. When President Jiang Zemin took office in the early 1990s, he became the real Number One Leader (一把手) after Chen Xitong and a few others fell from high offices under corruption charges. He touted the importance of “productive forces,” representing the interests of China's more prosperous coastal areas. When he retired, he expanded the size of the Standing Committee of the Politburo from five to nine and stacked it with his preferred candidates in key positions. After Hu Jintao succeeded him in the 16th Party Congress in 2002, Hu promulgated the concept of "scientific development" and "harmonious society," placing the interests of the majority of the people front and center. But due to Jiang's residual influence, Hu never became the real Number One Leader and didn't accomplish much in his second term.

In contrast, Xi has clearly established himself as the No. One Leader in China by building his own network and setting up his own agenda. Xi differs from his predecessors also in that he is a party princeling, the son of a prominent revolutionary. While enforcing party discipline, he also tries to appeal to the population by attacking corruption and promoting happiness of the people. Since he hasn't yet changed any structure or incentives for corruption, Fewsmith doubts the possibility of eradication of corruption from its roots.

This analysis has two implications. One is that power rolls back to the party from the executive branch of the government, headed by the State Council, where expertise on managing the economy resides. Prime Minister Li Keqiang's position has been weakened. Second, a more centralized party state leaves narrow bands for the civil society in China in terms of the range of public discussion topics and the degree of public participation in civic affairs, as demonstrated by the infamous Document No. 9, which prohibits discussion of seven topics such as civil society and constitutionalism. This is especially sobering against a backdrop of a more diversified and pluralistic society with views ranging from neo-Maoism to liberalism and a more globalized world.

For the 19th Party Congress next year, Xi is likely to further consolidate power. The question is: What will he do with it? Will he simply put a stopper in the bottle of this effervescent civil society or let some steam out and reduce the pressure inside the bottle? Studies have shown that a rule-based bureaucracy is more compatible with long-term economic growth. China has defied this general pattern for more than three decades. Can this continue? Fewsmith hopes to see more room for the civil society and the executive branch of the government to function normally.