Critical Issues Confronting China Summary: Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era

December 5, 2016
Cheng Li

In his capstone book of more than 500 pages, Chinese Politics in the Xi Jinping Era: Reassessing Collective Leadership, Cheng Li, Director of the John L. Thornton China Center and Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, examined the work relations of more than 500 Chinese political leaders in a political environment opaque to most outsiders. By challenging the conventional view of China as a static, rigid, authoritarian one-party state, the study aimed to clarify misperceptions in the U.S. about Chinese politics. Li’s analysis revealed a constantly changing Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whose institutional developments have enabled it to adapt to new challenges in an increasingly pluralistic and affluent society.

Li rejects two extreme views about Chinese President Xi Jinping. According to Li, Xi is not a strongman who has reversed the collective leadership model—whereby the general secretary of the CCP is considered a “first among equals”—and who strives to keep the U.S. out of the Asia Pacific; nor is he a weak leader who, amid stalled economic reforms and slowing growth, has alienated Chinese intellectuals through media suppression and offended bureaucrats through an aggressive anti-corruption campaign. Li pointed out that these two extreme views reach the same policy recommendation: to contain China, either before it becomes too powerful or because the regime is headed toward collapse, in which case containment bears little cost. Li argued that the truth lies somewhere in the middle and warned that these simplistic conclusions will lead the U.S. to miss out on myriad opportunities offered by China's historic rise, ultimately undermining U.S. interests.
In contrast to highly publicized U.S. presidential elections, the lack of transparency in the inner-workings of China’s top leadership gives rise to many misperceptions. Li believes that China respects the U.S. leaders and pays close attention to its words and actions. In September, at the latest G-20 summit in Hangzhou, President Xi spent six hours with President Obama, whereas he spent an average of only 20 minutes with other state leaders. This was the fifth time the two leaders had met since their informal summit at Sunnylands in California in June 2013.

Since Xi took the helm of Chinese leadership in late 2012, he has installed himself as the head of 12 organizations and central leading groups, covering a wide range of areas. This has fueled the perception that he is China’s strongest leader since Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. While some are concerned that Xi is building a personality cult, Li puts these actions in context. Before Xi took office, numerous factors had contributed to the decline of the party’s legitimacy: rampant corruption, fragmentation of the top leadership, a military almost out of civilian control, and ineffective execution of government policies outside the Zhongnanhai compound, where the top leaders reside. After Xi emerged as the top leader, with landslide support at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, he was determined to restore confidence in the party. He embarked on a massive anti-corruption campaign, pursued rapid military reform, set ambitious goals for market reform, and engaged a proactive foreign policy, including grand projects like the “One Belt, One Road” Initiative.

According to Li, the CCP consists of two basic coalitions: the “Jiang Zemin and Xi Jinping” camp, which mostly represents the interests of developed urban areas, with party cadres rising from local governments in Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Fujian; and the “Hu Jintao and Li Keqiang” camp, which represents the less-developed rural areas, with party cadres rising from the Communist Youth League (CYL). Li refers to the “princeling faction” as the core group of the Jiang-Xi coalition and calls the “tuanpai” (团派) faction, a reference to its CYL underpinnings, as the core group of the Hu-Li camp. Based on this division, Li referred to his model of Chinese political leadership as “one party, two coalitions.” Before the 18th Party Congress in 2012, the top leadership of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) was more or less evenly distributed between these two camps. But after 2012, the balance shifted strongly in favor of the Jiang-Xi camp, which holds six PSC seats, with Prime Minister Li Keqiang serving as the only tuanpai delegate.

In his book, Li also closely examined the dynamics of the CCP’s 376-member Central Committee, which is more evenly comprised of cadres from both camps and therefore operates as one of the party’s internal checks and balances. In addition, members of this committee abide by strict age limits. By the 19th Party Congress in 2017, members born before or in 1949 will all retire. Similarly, the top leaders are limited to serving two terms, with the exception of the central bank governor, Zhou Xiaochuan, for whom the CCP emulates the workings of the Federal Reserve. Li describes how the composition of the top leadership has changed over the past decades: from predominantly revolutionary party cadres at the outset; then to technocrats, mostly trained in engineering; and now to corporate leaders, successful entrepreneurs, and others trained in the social sciences, especially legal studies (albeit the Chinese version of legal training). This persistent turnover of personnel is evidence that the transition of power has become institutionalized, fueled by constraints like age and term limits.

Li characterized Xi as a man of contradictions, one who has defied all predictions about how he would govern. Examples abound: Xi favors market reform but also says that state-owned enterprises should play a bigger role in the economy. He suppresses intellectuals' room for free speech but touts the importance of building world-class think tanks. He is sensitive about freedom of religion but leaves room for the Catholic Church and Falun Gong to operate. He opposes so-called “color revolutions”, but has met with Aung San Suu Kyi, a symbol of the “color revolution” in Myanmar. He has tightened control of NGOs in China, but his wife has supported some NGOs in the fields of tobacco control and HIV/AIDS prevention. Under Xi’s leadership, human rights lawyers are facing greater pressure in China, but he has advocated for legal development and the rule of law. On foreign policy, he asserts “Asia belongs to Asia,” but he also says that the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the U.S.

Xi's legacy — how he affects the trajectory of Chinese politics — will not be clear until after the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Li said. Xi could pursue a winner-takes-all approach and stack top positions with people from his camp, but he would face ideological, institutional, and constitutional difficulties in doing so. He could team up with rivals from the tuanpai faction, similar to President Obama appointing Hillary Clinton, his former presidential campaign rival, as secretary of state in his cabinet. He could also sit back and allow members of the PSC to emerge through elections within the Central Committee, which would not only enhance the legitimacy of the top leadership but also would probably result in stronger representation from his own camp, given the current composition of the Central Committee. It’s not certain which path Xi will follow, but Li believes that Xi will act based on what best accommodates his long-term interests.

In conclusion, according to Li, Xi is a leader who is sophisticated and practical enough for Americans to work with in order to pursue mutual gain. It would be a mistake to believe that Xi’s policies and strategies are predetermined and immutable—the kind of thinking that leads policymakers to adopt a containment approach toward China. Such misguided reasoning precludes the compelling possibility of cooperation and increases the chance of hostility, or even war. Invoking one of Winston Churchill’s famous sayings, Li left China watchers to decide for themselves whether to perceive matters as pessimists who “see calamity in every opportunity” or as optimists who “see opportunity in every calamity.”