Xi Consolidates Power at Fourth Plenum, But Sees Limits

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 22

Chinese President Xi Jinping wrote himself into the Party's theoretical lineup, alongside former leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pledged to promote rule of law with Chinese characteristics at the Fourth Plenary Session of its Central Committee. President Xi Jinping, also Party General Secretary, promised that the CCP would lead the nation in “strengthening the implementation of the Constitution and promoting administration by law.” “Only if the CCP rules the country in line with the law will people’s rights as masters of the nation be realized and the state and social affairs be handled in line with the law,” said the communiqué of the four-day conclave, which was held behind closed doors in a Beijing military hotel last month (Xinhua, October 23). While Chinese citizens await the establishment of institutions such as a Constitutional Court to ensure strict observance of the Constitution and the law, the 61-year-old Xi has emerged from the plenum with more authority and thus greater ability to ignore the rule of law than ever.

Xi Endows Himself With Official Mantra, Much Earlier Than Predecessors

Xi’s status as the most powerful Chinese leader since late patriarch Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) was enshrined by the much-awaited plenum. The communiqué urged all cadres and Party members to “take as guiding [principles] Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the important thoughts of the ‘Three Represents’ and the scientific outlook on development, and to deeply implement the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s series of important talks” (Xinhua, October 23; China News Service, September 29). This was the first time that Xi’s edicts and dictums were cited in a top Party document in the same breath as those of Mao and Deng. Moreover, while the “important thoughts  of the  ‘Three Represents’” and the “scientific outlook on development” were the brainchildren of ex-presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, respectively, their names are never mentioned alongside their well-known mantras largely due to the recognition that these two bodies of ideas were the products of collective leaderships. Equally important is the fact that the theoretical contributions of Deng, Jiang and Hu were cited in CCP documents as “guiding principles” for the Party and state only after their retirement from the Politburo and Central Committee. Xi, on the other hand, is expected to serve as paramount leader until the 20th CCP Congress, slated for 2022 (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], October 24).

That Xi is a hands-on leader is also illustrated by the fact that he chaired the drafting team that produced the Fourth Plenum document, entitled Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Advancing Rule of Law. The vice-chairmen of the high-level drafting body were two Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members, National People’s Congress (NPC) Chairman Zhang Dejiang and Secretary of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), Wang Qishan, who is a Xi confidante (People’s Daily, October 29; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], October 29). The sole regional representatives on this committee—Zhejiang Party Secretary Zhao Zhengyong and Zhejiang Governor Li Qiang—are deemed Xi loyalists (See China Brief, February 15, 2013; New Beijing Post, October 30). Similarly, Xi headed the drafting group that put together the Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, which was endorsed at the Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee last November. The vice-chairmen of the drafting unit for the Third Plenum were two PBSC members, ideology and propaganda chief Liu Yunshan and Executive Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli (People’s Daily, November 15, 2013). It is significant that Premier Li Keqiang, the only representative of the Communist Youth League Faction on the PBSC and the only Politburo member with a law degree, was not involved in the handling of the rule-of-law document, just as he was excluded from the November 2013 economic reform package.

CCDI Continues Politics Above Law Approach, Reaches Military

The plenum witnessed the no-holds-barred aggrandizement of the powers of the CCDI, China’s highest graft-busting body, which is noted for its lack of transparency. While the Fourth Plenum emphasized that all Party and government organs had to function within the parameters of the Constitution and the law, the CCDI’s activities are not subject to the oversight of either NPC legislators or judges. Given that many of the “big tigers” who have been nabbed since the 18th Party Congress are deemed members of “anti-Xi factions,” such as that headed by former PBSC member and security tsar Zhou Yongkang, Xi has been accused of using the CCDI as a political tool to destroy or intimidate his enemies (South China Morning Post, July 29; Reuters, April 16). While speaking at the Fourth Plenary Session of the CCDI, which was held immediately after the Central Committee plenum, Wang warned mid- to senior-ranked cadres: “The more senior and powerful the official, the more respect for and fear of [the law] he should have.” “He should adopt a cautious attitude, as though he were walking on thin ice,” added Wang, who, like Xi, is a senior princeling. “He should never do things without regard to the law” (China News Service, October 25). The question of whether the nation’s top graft-busters are subject to proper legal and judicial supervision, however, goes unanswered (Hong Kong Economic Journal, August 7; China Review News Agency [Hong Kong], May 2).

With the blessings of General Secretary Xi, the CCDI has, since late 2012, undergone a series of personnel changes that testify to its growing clout. For the first time ever, the top echelon of the CCDI boasts staff members who have backgrounds as senior cadres in the Ministry of Public Security, the courts and the procuratorate. At the just-ended Fourth Plenary Session of the CCDI, Vice-Minister of Public Security Liu Jinguo was made a Deputy Secretary of the Commission. Other Deputy Secretaries include former vice-president of the Supreme People’s Court Zhang Jun and former head of the Procuratorate of Sichuan Province Chen Wenqing (Ta Kung Pao, October 27; Phoenix, January 17). The CCDI has also extended its tentacles to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), where graft-related matters are usually investigated by disciplinary-inspection units within the army. Since late 2011, however, General Du Jincai, who is Vice-Director of the PLA General Political Department in charge of disciplinary issues, has assumed the concurrent title of Deputy Secretary of the CCDI (People’s Daily, November 16, 2012). This means that Commander-in-Chief Xi could maintain a tighter control over the top military brass with the help of the much more experienced and better-equipped civilian graft-busting unit.

Silence on Zhou Suggests Upper Limits to Xi’s Power

It is also clear, however, that even a leader as tough as Xi has to contend with discordant notes in the Party. One example is the fact that the Central Committee failed to reach a decision on what to do with the disgraced Zhou Yongkang. This was despite the fact that Xi’s ability to break the tacit taboo that “serving and former PBSC members are untouchable” could be considered one of his major achievements since coming to office in 2012. The CCDI announced in late July that Zhou—who was in charge of the political-legal establishment from 2007 to 2012—was being investigated for “gross disciplinary infractions;” but there was no mention of the former security chief at the plenum. This was despite the fact that four key Zhou associates and cronies found guilty of economic crimes—former China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) President Jiang Jiemin, former CNPC deputy general manager Wang Yongchun, former assistant minister of public security Li Dongsheng, and former deputy Party secretary of Sichuan Province Li Chunchun—were kicked out of the Party during the plenum. After all, the CCDI started probing Zhou’s vast corruption ring as early as December 2012. There was widespread expectation that Zhou would at least be relieved of his CCP membership at the plenum. However, both the official China News Service and the semi-official Hong Kong China News Agency have reported that an official verdict on Zhou would only come at the Fifth Central Committee Plenum, which could take place as late as October 2015 (Hong Kong China News Agency, October 25; China News Service, October 24). The lack of an announcement of Zhou’s punishment at the Fourth Plenum would suggest that his supporters, likely led by ex-president Jiang, are resisting Xi’s power play more than he expected. This may also suggest that the interest blocs in the CCP elite that Xi has failed to win over are finally starting to oppose Xi’s self-aggrandizement and to set limits to his power accumulation.

It is an open secret within Beijing that a plethora of Party elders—including former PBSC members and ex-presidents Jiang and Hu, former vice-president Zeng Qinghong, along with former premiers Li Peng and Wen Jiabao—were opposed to disciplinary action against Zhou. President Xi took advantage of the National Day banquet at the Great Hall of the People, which was held on September 30, to orchestrate at least a façade of unity among the retired Party-state leaders (see China Brief, October 10). No fewer than 15 former PBSC members, including Jiang, Hu, Zeng, Li and Wen, showed up for the festivities. While these elder statesmen apparently gave their approval for the incrimination of Zhou, it might be to their advantage that the investigation into the biggest corruption scandal in CCP history be drawn out over an extended period: Contretemps that Xi and the CCDI’s Wang may have encountered regarding the Zhou case could predispose them against tackling another retired PBSC member during the rest of Xi’s first five-year term (2012–2017) (Ming Pao, October 1; Wall Street Journal, September 30; Voice of America, September 30).

Yet another possible setback for President Xi, who heads the Princelings Faction (a reference to the offspring of top cadres), is that he failed at the Fourth Plenum to promote either Commander of the General Armaments Department Zhang Youxia or Political Commission of the General Logistics Department Liu Yuan to the post of Vice-Chairman of the policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC). This was despite widespread reports that one of the two heavyweight princelings—General Zhang is the son of famed General Zhang Zongxun and General Liu is the son of the late state president Liu Shaoqi—would be elevated to the CMC leadership to help Xi consolidate his control over the PLA (BBC Chinese Service, August 1; Reuters, August 1). Despite the perception that the military establishment is a cornerstone of Xi’s power base, the commander-in-chief’s extensive anti-graft campaign in the PLA may have cost him the support of a sizeable chunk of officers. This could be behind Xi’s decision to hold a large-scale meeting of generals in Gutian, Fujian Province, soon after the Fourth Plenum. The Gutian conclave, whose theme was the top brass’s “absolute loyalty to the party leadership” echoed the famous Gutian Conference of 1929, in which Chairman Mao Zedong secured the undivided fealty of senior members of the Red Army, the PLA’s precursor (South China Morning Post, November 9; People’s Daily, November 2).

Xi’s Power at Plenum Highlights Contradiction

It is symptomatic of the new realities of Chinese politics that even as the Fourth Plenum was supposedly geared toward providing legal guarantees for achieving Xi’s much-vaunted goal of “putting power in the cage of systems and institutions,” the president’s personal clout has kept expanding (China News, January 22, 2013). Despite the plenum’s rhetorical commitment to Chinese-style rule of law, the conclave made it indisputably clear that legal and judicial reforms could only take place under tight Party control. “It is a basic experience of our country’s socialist legal construction that [the principle of] Party leadership is applied throughout the entire course of yifazhiguo [governance according to law],” said the Plenum’s Decision. “Our Constitution has established the leading position of the Chinese Communist Party. Insisting on Party leadership is the fundamental premise of socialist rule of law as well as the [political] basis of the Party and state” (People’s Daily, October 23). As General Secretary Xi has become the symbol, if not also the personification, of the world’s largest political party, buttressing the Party’s authority will inevitably result in the further empowerment of its unrivalled helmsman. This will form a fundamental contradiction with China’s attempt to pursue any true legal reform until the Party and its leader are truly constrained by the same laws as the people they rule.