The just-ended Sixth Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee elevated President Xi Jinping to the status of “core of the leadership.” However, few concrete measures to fight corruption, were announced at the four-day conclave. This is despite the fact that the leitmotif of the Sixth Plenum was to revise regulations on “norms of political life” as well as “intra-Party supervision.” Even though the official media has noted that fighting graft will be facilitated by a top leader with overriding authority, tough measures obliging senior cadres to disclose their assets and those of their close kin failed to be passed by the 370-member Central Committee. And while the plenum communiqué stressed “intra-Party democracy,” Xi’s continuing consolidation of power calls into question institutional reforms that were made by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping.
The Sixth Plenum communiqué released on October 27 emphasized that all CCP members must “closely unite around the CCP Central Committee with Xi Jinping as the core” (Xinhua, October 28; China Daily, October 27). Xi is not the only leader to have attained “core” status. Jiang Zemin, who was CCP general secretary from 1989 to 2002, was referred to as the “core of the third-generation leadership.” However, when fourth-generation leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao came to power, Jiang’s “core” status faded into irrelevance. However, Xi is simply “core of the leadership”—there is no qualification that he is “core of the fifth-generation leadership.” His “core” status therefore transcends term limits, tenure or retirement age (BBC Chinese, October 28; Radio Free Asia, October 28). By securing the “leadership core” designation Xi has confirmed widespread speculation he may rule for at least three terms, that is, until the 21st Party Congress in 2027 (See China Brief, March 7).
Xi and his close associates, including Li Zhanshu (栗战书), Director of the CCP General Office have been scheming for the investiture of the “core” title since 2014. In a September 2014 article on the need for cadres to profess “absolute loyalty” to the top leadership, Li wrote that “any leadership collective must have a core; a leadership without a core [figure] is untenable” (People’s Daily Online, September 29, 2014). Last January, a dozen-odd regional officials became the first to hail Xi as “the core of the CCP leadership” (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], February 3; Phoenix TV, January 31). But this apparently elicited opposition from politicians not associated with the inchoate Xi Jinping faction. During the meeting of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in March, none of the dozens of top cadres who gathered in the capital used this elevated designation for Xi. However, Li, who has a very high chance of being promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) next year, revived the “core” issue in a series of speeches last August (Radio French International Chinese Service, August 12; Sing Tao Daily News [Hong Kong], August 11).
Xi already has personal control over areas ranging from foreign and military policies to Party affairs and economy and finance. This is due to his leadership of up to ten top-level decision-making bodies directly under the PBSC, including the Central Military Commission, the Central National Security Commission, the Central Leading Group on Finance and Economics and the Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reform. The intensity of allegiance that cadres must profess to the “core” is astounding. “In upholding Party leadership, we must first of all insist upon the concentrated and united leadership of the dangzhongyang [党中央, Party central authorities],” the Sixth Plenum communiqué said. It urged all Party members to “self-consciously remain in a high degree of unison in thought and action with the dangzhongyang.” That “core” Xi is the personification of the dangzhongyang is clear: the document emphasized that “for a country and a political party, the leadership core is of utmost importance.”
What will Xi use his new powers for? As Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan pointed out, “Xi has won a tough battle by finally acquiring the ‘core’ status.” Zhang added that this designation of unchallenged supremacy would enable the supreme leader to ensure that more members of his Xi Jinping Faction—which is made up principally of associates and underlings of Xi’s when he worked in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces as well as Shanghai—to be promoted to the Central Committee and the Politburo at the 19th Party Congress in late 2017 (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], October 27; Radio Free Asia, October 24). In the past six months or so, a dozen-odd Xi protégés from Zhejiang Province alone have been elevated to posts that will entitle them to membership in the Central Committee or even the Politburo. Prominent among them are the just-appointed Mayor of Beijing Cai Qi (蔡奇, a former executive vice-governor of Zhejiang); Party Secretary of Jiangsu Province Li Qiang (李强, former Zhejiang governor); Acting Governor of Shanxi Province Lou Yangsheng (楼阳生, former head of the United Front Department of the Zhejiang Party Committee), Governor of Shaanxi Province Hu Heping (胡和平, former Head of the Organization Department of the Zhejiang Party Committee) and the Governor of Jiangxi Province Liu Qi (刘奇, former Party boss of the Zhejiang city of Ningbo) (Ming Pao, October 30; South China Morning Post, October 30; Apple Daily, October 24).
At the same time, “core” Xi is expected to move more aggressively against so-called conspiratorial groups and cliques in the Party which refuse to profess allegiance to the paramount leader. In a much noted speech earlier this year to the Central Commission on Discipline Inspection, the nation’s highest-level graft-buster, Xi warned against “careerists and conspirators” wreaking havoc on Party discipline and threatening Party unity. (Xinhua, May 3; People’s Daily, January 14). The communiqué warned against liangmianren (两面人, “two faced people”) who were plotting to advance their careers through “exchanging flattery and favors.” At a press conference one day after the Sixth Plenum, Deputy Director of the CCP Organization Department Qi Yu struck the same note about “a small minority of senior cadres with overweening ambitions and lust for power.” These bad apples were accused for “forming cliques and factions” so as “to boost their selfish interests and to seek high positions.” “They have severely damaged Party unity and [the principle of a] centralized and united leadership,” Qi said (People’s Daily, August 28; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], August 28). While the mainland media has never mentioned Xi’s turf warfare against two rival CCP cliques—the Shanghai Faction led by former President Jiang and the Communist Youth League Faction (CYLF) headed by former President Hu Jintao—it seems clear that the warnings against establishing anti-Xi groupings are also made with these two power blocs in mind (See China Brief, May 11).
In an apparent effort to pacify cadres and Party members who have reservations about Xi becoming the equivalent of the “Great Helmsman,” the plenum communiqué indicated that the CCP had not departed from the idea of a “collective leadership.” New regulations on Party life and Party discipline—which will be released later this month—would be geared toward fostering “intra-Party democracy.” “Democracy within the Party is the life of the Party,” the document said, adding that Party members should have the right to express their views. “No Party organs or individuals can infringe upon the democratic rights of Party members,” it said.
The “collective leadership” advocated by Xi, however, is a far cry from that championed by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s. In order to prevent the return of Mao-style dictatorship, Deng indicated that China should be run by a leadership collective roughly equivalent to the PBSC. Within such a framework, the general secretary can be described as a first among equals. And should there be seminal disagreements among PBSC members over policy, votes should be cast, in which case the weight of the general secretary’s vote is equal to that of his colleagues. Moreover, each PBSC member has a distinct portfolio. And unless there is a crisis, the general secretary is not supposed to meddle with how his PBSC colleagues handle their portfolios. Particularly after acquiring the “core” status, however, Xi towers above other PBSC members, who must periodically seek his guidance and approval (Liberty Times [Taipei] October 29; Voice of America Chinese, May 16; New York Times Chinese Edition, June 2, 2015).
The best example of Xi riding herd over his PBSC colleagues is the much-diminished “economic tsar” role of the premier of the State Council Li Keqiang, who is ranked No. 2 in the CCP’s pecking order. From the days of Deng to the 18th Party Congress, the premier usually heads the Central Leading Group on Finance and Economics—and he has the ultimate say over financial, economic and related policies. Soon after he took over power in late 2012, however, Xi arrogated to himself the leadership of the CLGFE. Premier Li, a CYLF stalwart who is former President Hu’s confidant, has to seek Xi’s approval for major financial and economic decisions (Radio Free Asia, June 1; Voice of America Chinese Service, May 11). In recent months, there is evidence that Xi is trying to marginalize the third-ranked PBSC member, National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang. Zhang, who is close to the Shanghai Faction, is in charge of the legislature as well as policy over Hong Kong. In the past month or so, Sing Pao, a pro-China paper in Hong Kong which is close to Xi camp has lambasted Zhang’s “devastating failures” in Hong Kong policies (Hong Kong Economic Journal, November 1; Hong Kong Free Press, October 3).
What about new and thorough-going measures to promote clean governance and to eradicate corruption? The Sixth Plenum communiqué stressed the importance of “the Party exercising control over itself and Party [leaders] running with Party with severity.” Leaders in particular would be subjected to tight scrutiny as “all Party members are equal before Party discipline and there is no special privilege [for top officials] regarding Party discipline.” While the full text of the revised regulations on “intra-Party discipline” has not yet been released, it is clear that earlier proposals about an “assets-disclosure sunshine regulation” were voted down by the Central Committee. This regulation would have obliged Central Committee members and other senior cadres to disclose their assets as well as those of their spouses and children. Moreover, top officials must tell the public whether their close kin have foreign passports or residence permits (Wen Wei Po, October 24; Hong Kong Economic Journal, October 13). Instead, the plenum document merely emphasized that senior cadres must “set themselves up as an example” of clean governance and that they must pay close attention to the business activities of their family members (Xinhua, October 29).
In the run-up to the Plenum, senior cadres reiterated that the Party itself could take care of problems including graft and other economic crimes through “self-purification, self-improvement, self-renewal and raising [the Party’s] own competence.” While CCDI chief Wang Qishan referred to the difficulty of “a patient performing surgery on himself,” the Party leadership has rejected suggestions about giving powers to forces outside the Party—including the media—to help monitor corruption (Ming Pao, October 23). This is partly due to President Xi’s insistence that cadres and Party members must have “self-confidence” in the path, theories, institutions and culture of the Party. The Communiqué has reinforced the Xi administration’s belief in the Party’s ability to cure itself by urging members to pay more attention to “culture, morality, honesty and the sense of honor and shame.”
Analysts familiar with Beijing’s decades-old anti-corruption crusade, however, have cast doubt on the efficacy of “self-improvement” measures such as cultivating high moral standards. Wang Yukai (汪玉凯), a professor at the National Academy of Administration and a frequent commentator on the issue of clean governance, said that only “tough, undiluted institutional arrangements” would have a big social impact. Apart from regulation on the disclosure of the assets and foreign nationalities of senior cadres and their close kin, Wang noted that special privileges accorded top-level national and local officials such as housing and other perks “should be standardized and rendered public” (Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], October 24). It is beyond doubt that Xi has been more successful in tackling graft than his predecessors. His no-holds-barred power grab—and the favoritism and cliquishness exposed by the fast-track promotion of Xi protégés to top positions—could create the kind of special privileges that are deemed the hotbed of corruption.
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges.”