During the three days between October 24 and October 27, over 200 members of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Committee gathered in a Beijing hotel. The occasion was the CCP’s Plenum, the forum at which the Party’s most senior figures gather to discuss doctrine, appoint office-bearers, and formulate policy.
The Plenums themselves are notoriously opaque, conducted behind closed doors and under a code of silence. Once the event is finished, the Party releases a communiqué via official news outlets to explain the result of its deliberations.
This year’s Plenum attracted significant media attention, as most commentators expected Chinese President Xi Jinping would use the occasion to further tighten his hold on the Party apparatus. This notion is of particular interest to China-watchers due to President Xi’s ruthlessness and vision. The Chinese leader has been accused of conducting a political purge under the auspices of a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign, and under his administration China has stepped up its assertive activity in the South and East China Seas. A top political meeting seemed the perfect chance for him to advance his agenda.
Now that the doors have been opened, it appears these expectations have been realised. President Xi has increased his power and influence in the CCP, although he has fallen well short of the control enjoyed by some of the Party’s leading historical figures.
A TIGHTENING GRIP
The most symbolic outcome of the Plenum is the labelling of Xi as the Party’s “core.” What this means is somewhat nebulous – CCP official language is infamously impenetrable – but it can be inferred that Xi has taken steps to centralise authority in his own personage and character. This carries a whiff of earlier periods in the Party’s history, when Chairman Mao ruled the Party and China through a cult of personality, demanding quasi-religious personal devotion from the population. In an attempt to head off critics of this move, the official release distinctly mentions a ban on personality cults.
Another important outcome is the new emphasis on leadership from the top. The communiqué makes prominent use of the key phrases “Intra-Party Supervision” and “Strict Discipline”. In the case of Intra-Party Supervision there is a specific emphasis on “top-down organisational supervision” and “peer-review”. Once again, it is not immediately clear how this will be implemented. However, it seems likely that the senior leadership are cementing their hold over the Party’s lower ranks through a mix of directives from above and by encouraging the lower ranks to report deviations from the Party line amongst their peers.
Whe Xi’s power is strong at the top, he lacks support among the lower echelons and the “top-down” leadership approach seems to be a push to broaden his base. Mentions of “Strict Discipline” and “peer review” evoke memories of the Cultural Revolution, when Communist cadres routinely blamed one another in Party meetings, often with grave consequences for the accused.
There is also a renewed emphasis on democratic process within the Party, and a declaration that “No Party organization or individual should suppress or undermine intra-Party democracy.” This may be perceived as a warning by Xi against emergent challengers from the Party’s ranks, as it could facilitate the prosecution of figures who might gain a following of their own within CCP infrastructure.
Xi’s accumulation of authority is a new trend in Chinese politics. Following the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s, the Party’s senior leadership was carefully managed through consensus and factional consultation. Not since Deng Xiaoping has one person held such personal authority over the direction the Party – and hence, China – takes. Indeed, the elevation of Xi to “core” status is telling: no other incumbent senior leader has had this honour bestowed upon them. He is now CCP royalty, giving him a degree of personal gravitas and authority not enjoyed by any of his recent predecessors.
There are dangers in the concentration of Chinese political authority in the hands of one man. China is a nuclear-armed country whose power-political interests abut those of the US, and a diversity of opinion would be beneficial when trying to negotiate the difficult terrain of China’s strategic landscape. If a crisis were to occur, and a President unfettered by debate or disagreement were to make the wrong decision, the consequences could be disastrous. Perhaps Xi is aware of this. For the time being, though, it looks as though his hold on power will be greater than ever.
That said, observers should be careful not to exaggerate Xi’s authority. This is not the Second Coming of Chairman Mao. Xi is too aware of how a reputation for illegitimate governance might affect China’s place in the world for him to exercise his power in the way Mao did. Other countries’ fears of a return to the instability and personal caprice of the Mao years would be a hindrance for a leader pushing his country to what it regards as its rightful position as a global superpower.
China wants to be regarded as a responsible global stakeholder, not the personal fiefdom of a Beijing powerbroker. Combined with domestic political machinations, advancing China’s international interests will serve to restrain Xi’s use of his newfound authority.