Originally published at 9DashLine, 6 October 2022.
It is axiomatic that authoritarian states will be more vulnerable to sudden leadership changes or to regime collapse than open, democratic systems. Therefore, it is natural for China’s leaders to worry, and not entirely surprising that the Chinese Party-state has spent more on internal security than it has on external defence since 2010.
Given such investment, a sudden change in the regime in China today would require some effort given the strong control over sources of information and a high degree of centralisation of power by successive general secretaries of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Xi Jinping, the present incumbent, has centralised power to a degree perhaps unprecedented in the CPC’s history. He has done so with the aid of both traditional methods such as personnel changes through anti-corruption campaigns and the appointment of loyalists to key positions as well as with the help of modern technological surveillance. Chinese leaders at the highest echelons, including retired ones, are themselves closely monitored. It would be very difficult for meetings or plotting to happen without internal security agencies that report directly to the CPC General Secretary getting wind of them.
Thus, to the wild swirl of speculation towards the end of September about his fall from power in a military coup in China, Xi might have responded like Mark Twain once did to a rumour by saying, “The report of my death was an exaggeration”.
Ringing out the old
That said, every leadership change in the history of the PRC from Deng Xiaoping through Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao to Xi has been accompanied by large-scale personnel changes in order to ring out the old — loyalists of the previous leader, schools of thought, those standing in the way of new approaches to politics and governance, and so on. Changes occur across the spectrum of Party, government, and military leadership. In other words, even as the CPC has remained in power, there have been equivalents of regime changes from one leader to the next with disruptions sometimes taking place several times even within a single leader’s time in power. Consider, for example, the oustings under Deng Xiaoping’s rule of his first two designated successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang.
Under these circumstances, what will be worth watching is the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee for clues on what Xi’s policy directions for the next five years of his rule are going to be.
In one notable instance, Jiang tried to hold on to power by not giving up his position as Chairman of the Central Military Commission even after he had to stand down as General Secretary in 2002. It was not until 2004 that Jiang finally stepped aside and Hu Jintao was able to take over. Xi, by contrast, was powerful enough to take over both positions in 2012 when Hu stepped down and has perhaps achieved a scale of change through his anti-corruption campaign and impact with personnel changes unseen since Deng unseated the elder Hu and Zhao. Additionally, for the first time since the end of the Mao era, there is no clearly identified next-generation successor on the horizon.
There are two questions that arise in this context on the subject of governance in China. First, how does a political system with strong tendencies towards centralisation maintain efficient channels for feedback? And second, how does the General Secretary ensure the effective implementation of his policies down to the lowest levels in the face of natural resistance?
Clearly, to become the world’s second-largest economy China had to develop a wider political economy of institutions and structures that kept pace with modern economic principles and the requirements of globalisation. Alongside, and especially after the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989, it was widely understood that short of challenging the Party’s leadership, it was possible to discuss and debate any matter within think tanks, universities, and Party circles. The Party would then draw on these to frame its policies. Flexibility and responsiveness were, thus, possible without the Party appearing weak.
Over time, with the use of the expression of ‘core leader’ for the General Secretary, one could argue that factional politics within the CPC — a characteristic as old as the Party itself and one way how feedback channels are maintained in authoritarian polities — has become less about personal competition or political differences and more about policy differences. In other words, political factions in the post-Deng era agree that China must remain a one-party authoritarian state under the CPC and essentially differ only in their economic views and approaches.
Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai faction can be characterised as promoting laissez-faire capitalism with a strong tendency towards concentrating economic resources in a few hands. This approach undermined discipline within the Party and its reputation among the common people. The Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration that followed responded by trying to address problems arising from crony capitalism and widening income as well as regional inequalities. However, their methods — today ascribed to what is known as the Communist Youth League faction — also risked unravelling Party control of the institutions and coercive instruments necessary for governance in a large and complex country.
Xi’s approach has been to narrow both the terms of debate and discussion and the circle of those allowed to criticise the Party’s policies — scholars in think tanks and universities now find it challenging to do more than parrot the Party line. Simultaneously, Xi has re-established Party control over the private sector while continuing to create opportunities for the public sector to grow as a way of ensuring that the Party-state has sufficient resources to maintain order in society — creating or protecting jobs, tackling environmental pollution, strengthening the security apparatus — and to support China’s ambitions abroad.
To ensure compliance, Xi has used coercion in the form of the anti-corruption drive on the one hand and, on the other, provided an ideological undergirding through intense training programmes for the Party rank and file and propaganda for the masses. The latter is represented by the eponymous “Xi Jinping Thought”, a particular interpretation of Chinese Marxism-Leninism fused with a sense of Chinese exceptionalism and nationalism. Designed to strengthen both his personal control and that of the Party, this approach also seems to suggest a declining role for the state in the Party-state equation.
All eyes on the Politburo Standing Committee
The news in recent weeks of convictions of former high-ranking officials across the country — from the Tibet Autonomous Region to Liaoning — on charges of ‘violating Party discipline’ suggests that Xi remains very much in control and will win a third term as General Secretary at the upcoming 20th Party Congress. Under these circumstances, what will be worth watching is the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee for clues on what Xi’s policy directions for the next five years of his rule are going to be.
With overwhelming power concentrated in an individual, factional differences, if any, will be less consequential for China’s politics than they will be for its economy. While the Politburo Standing Committee will only include those as dedicated as Xi to maintaining and strengthening the CPC in power, this does not necessarily rule out the possibility of continuing debate within the Party on China’s current economic direction and on the ways to get the economy back on track.