What Xi Jinping has accomplished over the past year doesn’t look like an old-fashioned Communist Party putsch. There aren’t red banners in the streets or blaring loudspeakers. But Chinese and Western analysts agree that Xi has achieved a remarkable consolidation of power.
Since taking over as party chief in November 2012 and as president last March, Xi has transformed what was a colorless collective leadership into an aggressive instrument of control and reform. “Xi Jinping marks the arrival of a golden age for Chinese neo-authoritarianism,” commented Chinese scholar Xiao Gongqin in a November 2013 interview with the New York Times.
The “princeling” son of a famous revolutionary and a fan of the movie “The Godfather,” Xi has used all the levers of power in this one-party society. He has launched an anti-corruption campaign that targeted top officials of Beijing’s state security bureau, the national oil company and other previously untouchable power centers. He has sought to impose top-down discipline on local party leaders who had grown rich and arrogant during China’s boom years.
Like so much in modern China, Xi’s reforms are a study in contradiction. He proposes at once that market forces have a “decisive” role in the Chinese economy and that state ownership play a “leading” role. A Chinese official conceded during a conference here that “it’s obvious” there is a conflict between the two mandates, but both are attempts to “crack the nuts” that block change.
“The old way is unsustainable,” this official told the conference, the Stockholm China Forum, which was organized by the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and the German Marshall Fund of the United States (of which I am a trustee). But the official stressed that “we should not expect that reforms led by the Communist Party will weaken the party’s leadership.” Quite the opposite; Xi wants to enhance the party’s power.
This consolidation of power has been so decisive that it’s easy to forget how wobbly China looked just 18 months ago. The vapid leadership of President Hu Jintao had been rocked by a scandal involving a charismatic regional party chief named Bo Xilai, whose wife had been arrested in a murder case. Corruption was said to be endemic among local party leaders and the military. Experts were asking whether Communist Party rule was unraveling.
Xi’s transition looked messy at first. The 18th Party Congress, which was supposed to anoint him as Hu’s successor, was delayed, and Chinese sources said the agenda wasn’t set. Analysts weren’t sure how many seats would be filled on the Politburo’s Standing Committee or whether Hu would continue as head of the Central Military Commission. For two weeks in September 2012, Xi disappeared from public view, leading to wild rumors.
When he finally took the stage as party leader in November 2012, he made an emphatic inaugural speech: “Inside the party, there are many problems that need to be addressed, especially the problems among party members and officials of corruption and taking bribes,” he said. He displaced Hu from the military commission, a sign of his strong power base. Soon after, Xi announced his “Chinese dream,” whose four attributes tellingly included a “strong China.”
The Chinese leader accelerated his reform plans with a “Third Plenum” meeting last November. He created two special committees, a “leading small group” on economic reform and a “national security commission” to oversee China’s huge military and security bureaucracy. The plenum gave Xi even tighter control.
The challenge for Xi is to oversee the maturation of China’s economy. The super-fast expansion of the past several decades is slowing, and China must now shift from explosive export-led growth to a more balanced, consumer-driven model. But some analysts see a hard landing ahead. “With rising wages, an aging population, declining productivity and an increasingly bloated and inefficient state-owned enterprise sector, China needs a new economic model to achieve the Chinese dream,” notes a recent report by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
“Xi wants to show that he can save the Titanic,” a leading U.S. scholar told the Shanghai gathering. He likened Xi’s power putsch to Yuri Andropov’s attempt to reform the Soviet Communist Party in the early 1980s; that effort backfired during Mikhail Gorbachev’s “glasnost” era and the unraveling of the Soviet empire.
Xi evidently thinks he can reform the party without destroying it. Indeed, one China expert told the conference that the party has instructed its members to watch a lengthy video chronicling the fall of the Soviet Union — lest they repeat the same mistakes. Xi’s tricky problem is simultaneous loosening and tightening.