Opinion

China’s Xi Jinping Is Eyeing a Return to Supreme Power

Xi Jinping
China's President Xi Jinping is taken on a tour during his visit to Inmarsat in London, Britain October 22. Xi has laid the foundations of what could be a power grab. Anthony Devlin/Reuters

Since taking office in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has remade his country’s political landscape. He has detained hundreds of thousands of corrupt or non-compliant officials. He has ousted dozens of senior leaders and sidelined many of the previous decade’s most powerful figures. And he has undermined alternative paths to power, most notably the recently reorganized Communist Youth League. Xi is fast consolidating his position as the uncontested “core” of his generation of Communist Party leaders.

In other words, under Xi Jinping, Chinese elite politics is returning to historical form. After two anomalous decades of consensus-based leadership, intra-Party politics in the People’s Republic is once again a contest for supreme power.

For more than 20 years, China has been governed collectively. Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao as paramount leader and launched the country’s “Reform and Opening” in 1978, wanted it that way. To prevent another Mao from arising, Deng created a system in which competing interest groups like the Youth League and the so-called “Shanghai Clique”—a group of Central Committee officials promoted under former leader Jiang Zemin —would balance each other. As Deng saw it, this balancing would provide a rapidly growing China what it needed most: Cautious, restrained policymaking.

In essence, Deng sought to inject a dose of classical liberalism into Chinese political life. He channeled China’s innate diversity into a complex web of formal and informal constraints on top leaders. He hoped that such internal checks would yield lasting political stability. Under his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, it did.

Deng’s innovation was as remarkable as it was abnormal in the sweep of Chinese history. Now it is being undone. As Xi consolidates his power, he is unspooling the internal checks and balances that defined Communist Party governance after Deng. Xi’s actions may represent a departure from the status quo under Jiang and Hu. But they are in keeping with Chinese elite politics from dynastic to modern times. As the late political scientist Tang Tsou put it, the struggle for power in China is, above everything, a game of winner-take-all. Like Mao and Deng before him, Xi is playing not to compromise, but to win.

Xi’s push to remold the People’s Republic in his image may be disconcerting, especially to Western observers. It is also understandable. Collective leadership served post-Tiananmen China well. Rapid economic growth called for political stability and predictability, not dynamism. But in recent years, as China’s economy began to slow and its international role and interests expanded, the shortcomings of Deng’s system of collective leadership became apparent.

Economically, China is entering a period of tremendous, potentially destabilizing change. For more than 20 years, the country looked to low-cost exports and state-led investment into construction to fuel its explosive growth. Now, rising input costs, ballooning debt, and declining returns on construction-related spending are upending this model. China’s leaders want to shift the country to a consumption-led growth model. But private consumption is equivalent to only 37 percent of GDP—far too weak to sustain nationwide economic growth.

It will take time to get China’s economy from where it is—investment, mostly from the state, is still equivalent to almost half of GDP—to where it needs to be. It will require overhauling much of the country’s financial architecture. And it will likely entail much higher rates of unemployment, at least for a while. So far, collective leadership has proven incapable of supplying China with the decisive, flexible and innovative leadership such hard times will demand.

China’s evolving international position and imperatives similarly expose the limits of consensus politics. China is becoming a full-fledged great power. Its economic interests span the globe and its military footprint is growing. The nation’s public increasingly sees China as a key player in world politics and looks to its leaders to defend the country’s interests with strength, creativity and confidence. Though less tangible than the vagaries of economic decision-making, these international and societal pressures are no less powerful as nails in the coffin of collective leadership.

These factors make Xi’s concentration of power understandable. But they do not guarantee it will succeed. For every Mao or Deng who won a contest for intra-Party influence, there are many more who lost spectacularly. And the system Deng built has proved far more resilient than many anticipated, precisely because of its collective nature.

In his effort to undo Deng’s checks and balances, Xi still faces enormous challenges. The depth of these challenges is apparent, above all, in the scope, intensity and duration of his anti-corruption campaign. It is reflected in his push to sideline alternate power bases like the Communist Youth League. And it can be seen in Xi’s budding efforts to craft a cult of personality for himself and to strengthen his grasp on state media and propaganda organs.

But regardless of Xi’s success or failure, Deng’s vision of limited government is not likely to last. In China, where power tends to concentrate and politics is a game of winner-takes-all, the Deng era was doomed to be at best a brief interlude.

John Minnich is an East Asia analyst at  Stratfor.com, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm based in Austin, Texas.

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