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The puzzle of Chinese political power

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In Brief

When Xi Jinping ascended to the Chinese presidency, he, Premier Li Keqiang and their streamlined seven-person Politburo Standing Committee faced serious economic challenges at home as well as increasingly complex issues to manage abroad.

Domestically, the Bo Xilai affair hovered over the leadership transition ominously, underlining the need to deal with disquiet among the Chinese public over corruption and the relationship between the state and economic power.


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If Xi wanted to secure the popular support, he needed to deal with state monopolies; but in dealing with the monopolies he ran the risk of undermining his power base if he wasn’t prepared to see off threats from some very powerful interest groups that were becoming a more and more important feature of the economic and political landscape.

Internationally, there was the issue of how China’s rising power played into the relationship with the United States, economically and strategically. In the distance, the looming territorial issues with America’s allies and partners in the neighbourhood had the potential to get out of control.

Seeing off these threats required considerable focus of power.

Some say that, as China’s President and Party Secretary, Xi is now the most powerful leader of China since Mao. This power comes partly from Xi’s personal character, lineage and image, and partly from the overt centralisation of power that has been put in place around his leadership. While holding the reins of power may make Xi’s job easier today, down the track it may make it more complicated, and urge on him more caution.

In the week’s lead, Shen Dingli of Fudan University suggests that the concentration of power around the presidency does not compromise the virtues of ‘democratic centralism’ that was put in place precisely to check Maoist-type excesses, but rather strengthens its accountability and guards against abuse by the likes of Zhou Yongkang. Bringing the monopolies, the military and the Party into line to assert the coherence and integrity of the state is one massive task, bound to elicit an image of authoritarian aggrandisement. But, Shen warns, to conflate centralisation with a return to authoritarianism is premature.

Xi’s ability to centralise power comes partly from his ability to project his image as a ‘man of the people’ — taking minibuses rather than motorcades, ordering tripe at Beijing restaurants without ceremony, riding on bicycles with his daughter — and his gifts in dealing with the public that previous leaders like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao can only envy. Praise of Xi’s’ genial personality is broadcast far and wide.

Xi’s popular image has helped to put him in charge. Two decisions in particular are of importance.

The first is his re-entrenchment of idea of a ‘mass line’ — officially, a reminder to Party officials to ‘better understand, represent, and prioritise the wishes of the people’; unofficially, an efficiency and anti-corruption drive using Party offices rather than government ministries to make it work. The campaign ‘saved 586,000 meetings, removed 160,000 phantom staff, returned 115,000 vehicles to government use from private accounts and stopped 2580 unnecessary official buildings from being built’. It has also brought over 200,000 Party members (mostly government officials) to Party tribunals and disciplinary actions. This so-called ‘tigers and flies’ campaign appears very popular — and it’s caught some very big tigers, most notably Mr Zhou, but also many senior officials, generals, popular commentators and other important people.

While the ‘tigers and flies’ anti-corruption campaign is populist gold, it scares the rest of the fauna silly. The assault on Zhou broke what many considered an unspoken rule to not go after Party heavyweights or their families after they have retired from office. It’s reported that Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao urged Xi to rein in the anti-corruption campaign for this reason. If, as the analysis right now suggests, the campaign is winding back on the hunt for tigers, reading about the capture of flies is likely to be less engaging.

But Xi’s other push towards centralisation may have effects that are more long-lasting. Unlike previous Chinese leaders, Xi has put himself in charge of a number of ‘leading small groups’ (like task forces) designed to push major reforms and tackle serious issues. So Xi is now leading the Economics Small Leading Group, and calling for ‘a revolution in the way the country produces and consumes energy’. Whether it’s foreign affairs, Taiwan, maritime security, internet governance, economics and finance, or ‘comprehensive deepening of reform’, the Presidency is in the middle of the action.

It appears that Xi has become the so-called Chairman of Everything, centralising authority for almost all policy to committees at the centre of the state. This has huge advantages in coordination of the affairs of the state and dealing with big issues that were threatening to get out of hand. On the other hand, it might yet prove what Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister would describe as a ‘courageous’ decision. The danger is one of the centralisation of failures in dealing with any among a myriad of these issues, in a system where the accountabilities are not exactly clear. That centralisation of failure could come at a big and personal political cost.

The puzzle is whether the personalisation of policy heft can translate into governance grunt. In the short term, moves like lifting the control of local courts up a level to remove them from local interference is likely to deliver better outcomes to Chinese citizens and taking the privileged down a peg or two likely to reassure them, but the climate of fear that constrains worthy activists as well as venal officials creates an environment in which a major policy misstep could unleash a tsunami of criticism from either side the political spectrum.

Let’s hope for success, as success could hopefully bring a major advance in Chinese political accountability.

The irony and the reality is, of course, that it is exactly the absence of Xi’s (and the leadership’s) broad representative legitimacy, in some form or another, that creates both the risks to its continuing authority as well as the hazards to its collective democratic exercise of authority.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

Ryan Manuel is Research Fellow in China in the World at The Australian National University.

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