China’s President Xi Jinping is conducting the biggest effort to consolidate political power in a generation. So far, he has been strikingly effective. Though there is a real possibility that his adversaries could hit back – especially if China experiences some sort of economic or geopolitical crisis – his position is exceptionally strong. This means that President Xi will have a singular influence on the direction China takes. Whether it liberalizes politically and economically will depend on the decisions he makes.
Crucially, Mr. Xi is not only head of state – he is also the chairman of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a position that gives him tremendous political power. He has used that power to drive a wide-reaching anticorruption campaign that has transformed the country’s political landscape. More than 100,000 people have been indicted, including local officials, military commanders, executives in major state-owned firms and even high-ranking politicians at the national level.
The president has pledged to crack down on both powerful “tigers” and lower-level “flies,” saying that widespread corruption creates an existential threat to the party and state. This position has wide support among the Chinese people: opinion polls consistently show that corruption is their biggest grievance.
Turning the tide
Even before he announced his anticorruption campaign, President Xi initiated populist policies to strengthen his position. After becoming president and leader of the CPC, he immediately banned extravagant official banquets. He even made sure he was seen waiting in line to buy a simple meal at a Beijing restaurant. He has not shied away from stirring up nationalist sentiment, mainly through a hardline approach in dealing with Taiwan and the South China Sea dispute. His big idea is the “Chinese Dream,” aimed at reaching per capita income parity with advanced economies by mid-century.
Alongside the populist moves and the political crackdown, Mr. Xi’s administration has pushed back against the incremental trend toward greater liberalism. For example, he has encouraged the arrest of lawyers trying to promote human rights. Media controls have been tightened, reversing the slow opening up that was taking place before he came to power. Chinese newspapers and mass media are party organs, Mr. Xi told journalists recently.
The story of Wukan, a small village in southern China, paints an instructive picture. In 2011, it was the scene of intense protests against a corrupt land deal by local officials. After the death of a protest organizer, villagers forcibly expelled government officials, who in turn sent in hundreds of police to surround the village. Campaigners thought they had won when the Guangdong provincial government intervened and forced the local municipal government to allow an election that resulted in protest leader Lin Zuluan being chosen as local CPC head. However, this year Lin Zuluan himself was arrested on charges of alleged corruption after he continued lobbying to delay or block the land deals.
In recent months President Xi’s campaign has intensified. The National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s 2,987-member legislature, is grappling with an unprecedented vote-buying scandal that has seen 45 representatives from Liaoning Province expelled from the body. The regional Liaoning congress cannot muster a quorum because most of its members have been arrested for their part in the scandal. Now the NPC’s standing committee, a hugely powerful grouping of 150 lawmakers, have had to step in to assert direct control over Liaoning’s congress. This is the first time in modern Chinese history that such a step has been taken.
In a separate episode, security forces detained Wang Min, formerly the highest-ranking CPC official in Liaoning, after it became clear he had ignored instructions from Beijing as to who should be “delegated” to the CPC. This kind of corruption – and the crackdown – is not confined to a single province, though. A similar vote-buying investigation is underway in the southern Hunan Province, and there is growing speculation that many other cities are run along the same lines.
Catch a tiger
Arguably the most powerful “tiger” snared by President Xi’s crackdown is Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making body in the CPC. He had also served as the head of China’s largest state-owned energy company and headed the powerful Ministry of Public Security. These positions allowed Mr. Zhou to accumulate tremendous political power and wealth. When President Xi’s anticorruption forces caught him in 2014, more than $14.5 billion worth of assets were seized from his family and supporters.
The most likely target of President Xi’s maneuverings is the network of former President Jiang Zemin (1993-2003). Mr. Zhou, for example, was a supporter of Jiang Zemin and opposed Mr. Xi’s rise to power. President Jiang was known as a leader who spread his influence throughout the party. His policies in the early 1990s, including further economic liberalization and weakening the military and state-owned firms, are credited with helping China’s rapid economic growth. However, President Jiang was also known for being soft on corruption and doing little to address the growing wealth gap.
Technically, President Xi will face reelection for another five-year term as CPC chairman in late 2017 and another for the presidency in 2018. He is likely to hold on to both posts. With the exception of the political upheaval that followed the Tiananmen protests of 1989, China’s leaders have typically served in these positions for two five-year terms. During his remaining time in power, President Xi’s moves to solidify his position and block internal resistance will probably succeed. He is generally popular with the masses, and he has inspired fear among potential challengers by his ruthless actions.
Obtaining such a strong position will bring its own set of problems for President Xi. If he manages to cow all those who might challenge him, the question arises as to who would replace him once his term is up. Furthermore, by targeting Jiang Zemin’s associates, President Xi has set a dangerous precedent. He cannot be completely secure after he retires. If he tries to avoid retirement, he will be seen as an even greater threat to the post-Mao consensus.
There is a real, if not pronounced, threat of a rearguard action by supporters of former President Jiang, especially if China gets in an economic or geopolitical crunch. Any calamity that causes President Xi to lose face and popularity would provide an opportunity for his enemies to move against him. While his anticorruption campaign has spread fear, it has also created many potential enemies.
There are persistent signs of distrust between the president and Premier Li Keqiang. Officially the CPC’s number-two leader, Mr. Li has seen much of his influence over economic and domestic affairs diminished by President Xi’s centralized governing style. The prime minister is known as a pragmatist with an excellent academic background, who rose through the ranks based on his own merit and abilities. He has, however, been tainted by the fact that he was chief of the now-discredited local CPC organization in Liaoning shortly after Bo Xilai, another scandal-ridden politician, ended his term as province governor.
With various senior party leaders already disgraced and demoted and his premier under a cloud, the only remaining force that could potentially move against President Xi is the military. Here too, the president has shown himself to be a master at using political theater to push through policies. In 2015, he used a huge parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Axis powers to announce plans to cut 300,000 positions from the Chinese military. The timing of the announcement made any criticism seem unpatriotic. It also showed that President Xi was prepared to take on the military.
This summer General Tian Xiusi, a former political commissar for the Chinese air force, was placed under investigation for corruption. He was the third such senior general to be investigated, after Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, who both served as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. A recent book on General Guo reportedly claims that General Tian paid 50 million yuan – about $7.5 million – in 2012 to become the air force’s political commissar. General Tian had also allegedly bribed General Xu to get his previous job. Both Mr. Guo and Mr. Xu oversaw all promotions and appointments in the Chinese military during their tenure as vice chairs of the military and clearly extracted substantial payments for preferment.
President Xi has good justification for fighting corruption in the military. When officers buy their positions rather than earn them, it affects China’s military capabilities. It also creates corrupt networks between the military and high-ranking party officials in civilian roles – those who run state-owned factories, for example. But the impression is that the corruption only becomes an issue when someone is on the wrong side of the political fence. All three military leaders rose to power under President Xi’s predecessors, and could have potentially challenged his power.
If President Xi is consolidating power in order to enact deep, meaningful political reforms, it is difficult to say exactly what these reforms would look like. There is some degree of electoral democracy in the current Chinese system, particularly at the local level and within the CPC, but slowly expanding these elections could create more accountability without directly challenging party rule. Furthermore, allowing some degree of open disagreement on policy positions could potentially pave the way to increase flexibility while at the same time lessening the influence of political factions.
There is also the possibility that President Xi simply wants to stay on as the head of the current structure for as long as possible. Corruption is widespread throughout Chinese politics, but he seems focused on his political opponents’ misdeeds. This could backfire if it becomes clear that he is allowing graft to occur if it fits his political goals.
For now, President Xi’s anticorruption campaign has succeeded in spreading fear within the CPC and gaining support among the masses. His position seems secure for the next six years, barring any major unforeseen economic or foreign policy crisis. The year to watch will be 2022, as the president’s term comes to an end and he grapples with the challenge of passing on the vast power he has accumulated. Dysfunctions within the current system will eventually need to be addressed, regardless of whether the crisis comes from internal or external factors.