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Xi’s “Core Leader” Status: A Blessing or A Curse?

November 3, 2016

[Translation by Human Rights in China] 

A Short Commentary on the 6th Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China

The 6th Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China officially established Xi Jinping’s “core” status in the Party. The process leading up to this designation was filled with twists and turns. Since the beginning of this year, Xi has made various attempts at elevating his popularity with a palpable sense of urgency and eagerness. The dust has finally settled now. Why was Xi so intent on acquiring the “core” designation? This is because for CPC leaders, their actual standing in the Party finds expression not so much in their official titles as in a whole different lexicon.

The so-called core status refers to the “ultimate decision-making authority” in the Party, or, in Deng Xiaoping’s words, the power to “pound the gavel and have the final say” (拍板说了算). During the Yan’an Rectification Movement (1942), in which Mao Zedong purged the dogmatist and empiricist factions in the Party, the top CPC leadership came to an unequivocal resolution: the Chairman shall have the final decision-making authority. With this, Mao embarked on his autocratic and arbitrary rule in his “hall of one opinion,” edging his way toward launching the Cultural Revolution.

As CPC’s de facto paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping did not have an official title, so he invented the term “core” to show that his standing within the Party was one that entitled him to “pound the gavel and have the final say.” It was precisely this status that enabled Deng to ignore the objections of Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳)—then General Secretary of the CPC—and dispatch massive military forces to Beijing to crush the protesters, causing the catastrophic bloodshed of June Fourth.

Over the four years since he took office, Xi Jinping has, very early on, consolidated his power over the Party, government, and military, making himself the head of more than ten “Leading Small Groups.” But despite holding supposedly immense power, Xi still yearned for the “core” designation because he had yet to acquire the ultimate decision-making authority. In the power struggle within the Party’s top leadership, Xi’s lack of veto power would prevent him from rejecting dissenting views and having the final say, leaving the ultimate decision to a vote count. Not having that designation would have meant that in the upcoming 19th Party Congress, Xi would not be able to line up the CPC’s top leadership entirely according to his own design, replacing rivals with people he trusts. For Xi, this is a matter of life and death, a matter of self-evident urgency and importance.

Now, the 6th Plenum officially declared Xi Jinping as the core leader. It also passed two sets of regulations for Party discipline and authorized Xi to, accordingly, “strictly govern the Party” (从严治党). In the 1980s, the CPC had laid out “Certain Guiding Principles for Inner-Party Political Life” (党内政治生活若干准则), emphatically upholding collective leadership and opposing autocratic rule. The new “Guiding Principles” approved by the 6th Plenum, however, went in the opposite direction: it stressed one country, one political party, and the “vital importance of core leadership,” opening the door to the concentration of power in the hands of one person.

The 6th Plenum has reversed the course of history. It would not be an exaggeration to call it a “coup”:  it upended the norms prescribed in the Deng era, toppled the CPC leadership system that had taken shape since the end of the Cultural Revolution, and brought back the one-person autocratic rule and concentration of power of the Mao era. All of this has no grounds to stand on in history. 

Yet gaining the “core” designation doesn’t make Xi a true core leader. The key questions are whether he can fully grasp the big picture, understand the will of the people, keep pace with the tides of history, and win people’s hearts with major accomplishments. A case in point: even though Hua Guofeng (华国锋), who became CPC Chairman in 1976 after Mao’s death, was praised as “the wise leader” (英明领袖) for having smashed the Gang of Four, he failed to grasp the big picture. He let Deng Xiaoping seize the opportunity to follow the will of the people and put forward the policies of Reform and Opening Up, thus securing core status among CPC’s second-generation leaders.  

As the 6th Plenum concluded, the lineup of the CPC leadership to be formalized in the 19th Party Congress in fall 2017 remains unclear. Even though Xi gained “core” status, it was the product of Xi’s behind-the-scenes negotiations with various factions inside the Party and the result of certain inevitable compromises. For example, retired Party seniors such as former President Jiang Zemin (江泽民) and Zeng Qinghong (曾庆红), former General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, had made public appearances prior to the plenary session, signaling their continued relevance. Furthermore, coded references of checks and balances for Xi’s core status can be spotted in the plenum’s communiqué, such as stressing the importance to adhere to “the combination of collective leadership with individual responsibility” and that “this system shall not be violated by any organization or individual under any circumstance or for any reason.” These signs make clear that Xi’s core status is not as omnipotent as the outside world speculates. Instead, Xi is not yet capable of autocratic policymaking and basically, the CPC’s top leadership remains in a state of “fighting but not fracturing” (斗而不破).

A while ago, there was a lot of talk in media outside China about the possibility of Xi eliminating the Politburo Standing Committee. This actually served as a red herring for Xi’s personnel appointments for the 19th Party Congress, which involve two important questions to watch for: first, whether Wang Qishan (王岐山), the Secretary of the increasingly powerful CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, will stay on despite the fact that he will turn 68, the mandatory retirement age, in July 2017, several months before the Congress in the fall; second, whether Xi will appoint his own successor. The media’s discussions of waiving the “seven-up, eight-down” (七上八下) rule (translator’s note: this is a shorthand for the convention that only CPC officials aged 67 and younger are eligible for the Politburo Standing Committee while those aged 68 or older must retire) distracted public attention from the possibility that Wang Qishan will remain in office. Similarly, the media’s talk about eliminating the Politburo Standing Committee also shifted public attention from Xi’s rejection of Hu Chunhua (胡春华), the Party Secretary in Guangdong, who had been picked during Hu Jintao’s administration through consensus to succeed Xi. These two matters seem to remain hotly contested within the party. It also makes clear the fact that Xi is not yet fully in charge or capable of overriding dissent.   

Is Xi’s core status designation at the 6th Plenum a blessing or a curse to China? Without a doubt, having one person wielding absolute power above the law with no checks, balances, or supervision is definitely a curse to China, not a blessing. First, this goes against the tide of history and runs counter to the universal values of democracy, constitutionalism, and the rule of the law. Second, as history has shown, as soon as Mao had acquired the ultimate decision-making authority, he started to run amok, did as he pleased, and ultimately launched the Cultural Revolution. Third, all of Xi’s actions since he assumed office have laid bare his extreme leftist line. He has reversed the course of history and blocked all roads toward moderate and gradual reforms. The danger of Xi’s core status lies in the fact that he possesses the typical reckless impulses among second-generation reds. While others might have questionable intentions but not the audacity to act on them, Xi has both the heart and the nerve to be relentless in safeguarding one-party rule. One can predict that as long as Xi is the core leader, the Party, the country, and the Chinese people will not have a day of peace.

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