The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Xi Jinping is ‘putting the house in order.’ Or is China facing destabilizing changes?

Souvenir plates bearing images of Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and late Chinese leader Mao Zedong are displayed at a shop near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in March 2016. (Andy Wong/AP)

Is the Communist Party of China (CCP) gearing up for major changes in the fall, when the 19th National Party Congress takes place? Behind closed doors, the Congress, held every five years, will elect members for the CCP Central Committee. This committee will then choose the general party secretary, as well as the Politburo and its Standing Committee, the main body responsible for China’s “collective leadership.”

Because five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee may retire, a reshuffling of the top leadership is expected. However, the big question is whether Xi Jinping, China’s president and CCP general secretary, will bend the informal two-term limit as general secretary and extend his stay in power. If this happens, many are concerned that it may lead to political instability.

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Here’s why this is a concern. First, Xi has personalized power, which means he has deinstitutionalized the CCP’s collective leadership. Second, Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns destabilized previous patronage networks. Many of the political elites and dynastic families that had held the CCP together were suddenly out of favor. Third, the Xi administration has undermined civil liberties — and this, in turn, has weakened the CCP’s legitimacy.

These concerns may be unfounded, however

Instead of political instability, recent political science research suggests that Xi’s reforms are on track to repair an undisciplined CCP and strengthen China’s fragmented government.

Xi’s personalization of power isn’t necessarily the end of China’s collective leadership. The sixth plenum of the 18th Party Congress in 2016 elevated Xi to the title of “core” leader — a designation enjoyed by only three previous CCP leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. But the party communique that followed also emphasized the importance of “collective leadership.”

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The anti-corruption campaigns Xi initiated undermined certain political factions within the CCP, but did not change the norm of patronage across the CCP as a whole. For example, though the Youth League faction was under scrutiny following the prosecution of its key members, other political camps are still well represented in leadership bodies.

Although Xi has pursued a nationwide crackdown on activist lawyers and journalists who advocated human rights protection and political liberalism, some political science research points to other sources of regime legitimacy. Measures, such as economic performance, nationalism or ideology, for instance, help solidify regimes. Xi’s “Chinese Dream” education and patriotic doctrine, for example, suggests that he is harnessing nationalism more and more as a source of regime legitimacy.

Xi has addressed social instability

To address the rising tension between the state and society, he has responded to the sources of social instability, a fragmented local officialdom and a discontent society. He has improved the compliance of local officials with national directives and weakened the antagonistic forces within society.

These tensions are manifest in the frequent and large-scale popular protests, which threaten regime stability. Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, responded by lessening fiscal burdens on farmers and increasing local responsibility to resolve local issues. But social protests and collective resistance continued — and worsened.

My research shows that, in addition to rising grievances, the emergence and persistence of popular unrest indicated the declining capacity or willingness of local governments to respond to or contain social complaints. This happened for two main reasons:

1) Political and economic reforms effectively eroded collaboration within the local officialdom, the group on which the system relies for steady governance. When those commanders in chief focused on sensational projects to score political points within their short tenure, the majority of bureaucrats were left with heavy responsibilities and dim career prospects.

In 2015, the Xi administration introduced the separation between promotion to higher office posts and promotion associated with civil service ranking. Without being assigned to a different post, officials at the local level can now advance as civil servants and enjoy material benefits. This reform has now motivated local state agents to implement CCP policies.

2) Increased mobility, a byproduct of socioeconomic changes, had rendered social control more challenging. In addition to various attempts at censorship, the Xi administration introduced a “social credit” system to keep citizens in check. This new credit rating system collects personal information from people’s online activities and their residential neighborhood committees, which is then compiled into digital records. The ranking also factors in financial creditworthiness and personal conduct, and could in turn affect a person’s job prospects, ability to purchase a home, dine in a hotel, travel abroad, and other freedoms in their daily life.

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As for social welfare, the Xi administration improved migrant workers’ access to health care, pensions, education and other benefits. The government also introduced more affordable health-care options, among other reforms.

Xi has also strengthened the CCP’s governing capacity

To sustain these reforms, he has reinforced the CCP oversight of state affairs. This was achieved with the following steps.

First, Xi improved local judicial independence and transparency to restrain the largely unchecked power of local officials, but maintained party control over the judiciary. The increased financial independence of local courts from local governments and the setup of cross-jurisdictional courts have lessened political interference by local elites.

At the same time, higher-level courts continued to administer local courts, with top-down intervention from the national government and party branches within the court. This institutional setup helps check local misbehaving on the one hand, and maintain the party’s hierarchical control over the judicial system on the other.

Second, the CCP disciplinary committees have de facto control over a new supervisory commission that is responsible for inspecting the conduct of all civil servants. This new commission is independent of the legislature (the National People’s Congress), state executive (the State Council) and the judiciary (the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate).

Third, the state executive, the legislature and the judiciary began to report to the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, which suggests government’s accountability toward the party.

While securing his personal power, Xi has been “putting the house in order before inviting guests,” a practice Mao followed in 1949. Xi’s reforms appear to have consolidated the CCP. Since a functional political party is crucial for the survival of authoritarian regimes, we can expect the CCP regime to last for some years to come, with Xi as its leader, either formally or behind the scenes.

Juan Wang is an assistant professor of political science at McGill University. She is the author of “The Sinews of State Power: The Rise and Demise of The Cohesive Local State in Rural China” (Oxford University Press, 2017).