When Xi Jinping assumed the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in late 2012, he was confronted with a serious erosion of central party control, informal power networks and entrenched corruption. How did Xi handle this existential threat and consolidate his leadership? At a Critical Issues Confronting China seminar titled “Leninism Upgraded: Restoration and Innovation Under Xi Jinping,” Sebastian Heilmann, President of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin, former Visiting Fellow at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and former research fellow at the Harvard-Yenching Institute, explained this conundrum and distilled Xi’s approach to leadership into four restorations and five innovations.
First of all, in contrast to other post-1978 Chinese leaders, Xi prioritized political recentralization over economic restructuring in the implementation of the CCP’s agenda for “comprehensively deepening reforms” that has been under way since 2013.
Second, Xi boosted central authority by expanding disciplinary parallel bureaucracies and by implementing a relentless rectification campaign within the CCP under the cloak of anti-corruption.
Third, Xi has imposed “top-level design” (顶层设计), which stands for a system of centralized and top-down policy-making. This reversed the policies of the Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin eras of the 1980s and 1990s, when policy intelligence was believed to be distributed across the political system, and local-level experimentation and bottom-up problem-solving were actively encouraged.
Fourth, Xi streamlined political power by aggressively attacking informal groupings within the party. In effect, tangible intra-party factional activity has reached a low point in CCP history.
In addition to these restorative measures that follow classical Leninist prescriptions, there are innovative elements in Xi’s approach to transform the CCP and make it fit for the 21st century.
First, Xi reorganized the party’s core executive around leader-driven central leading groups that predetermine decisions by formal top-level CCP organs. The separation of party organs from the management of economic affairs under previous leaders was downgraded to a mere “division of labor” (党政分工), thereby bringing party organs back into regular administrative and economic decision-making.
Second, with Wang Huning as his strategic advisor, Xi put much effort into hardening CCP ideological prescriptions, with the intention to delegitimize “Western values” and re-conceptualize the global political and economic order from a Chinese perspective. Though it appears questionable whether a monistic, uniform ideology can be imposed on Chinese society today that is characterized by very diverse lifestyles, value orientations and worldviews, the intensity of CCP ideological work under Xi is starkly different from the much more relaxed approach taken by his post-1978 predecessors.
Third, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s guiding foreign policy principle of “hiding your strength and biding your time” (韬光养晦). It became more assertive on a global level and sometimes aggressive in dealing with neighboring countries (such as South Korea recently). China has significantly expanded its maritime capabilities, and broadened its economic diplomacy and external funding to open up doors abroad. Meanwhile, China moved into spaces where U.S. presence is weak (such as Central Asia) or is being weakened (multilateral trade and climate policy). Instead of Deng’s “hide and bide” guideline, Xi’s foreign policy pursues the Maoist guerrilla principle of “avoiding the solid main force and instead moving toward the empty spaces” (避实就虚).
Fourth, China harnessed new technologies in cyberspace and social media for political communication. Based on the belief that public opinion in the internet era must be actively shaped and controlled by the CCP, the party’s cyber-administrators moved beyond clumsy censorship by using, for instance, refined algorithms to steer viewers away from subversive content to officially-approved content.
Fifth, under Xi’s leadership, China is building a system of “digital Leninism” through new types of business and social regulation. With financial and communication activities increasingly taking place online, Chinese regulators aim at compiling encompassing “social credit” scores, a kind of big data-enabled rating system, for every market participant, thereby gaining access to detailed and regularly updated data profiles of all companies and citizens.
What will Xi’s leadership look like after the 19th Party Congress in the fall of 2017? According to Heilmann, the best-case scenario is that Xi, after further consolidating his power, will feel secure enough to allow some degree of political relaxation and to decentralize some decision-making power, thereby reinvigorating bottom-up economic and policy dynamism. The worst-case scenario is further political and economic ossification as a result of rigid party control and expanded surveillance instruments. For international relations, Heilmann anticipated that, if liberal democracies continue to appear torn and weak, China will find an environment conducive to attacking “Western values” and promote its own version of political order based on non-liberal principles, not just domestically but also increasingly on a global level and in multilateral institutions.