Now China’s “Core” Leader, Xi Jinping Looks to Dominate Leadership Shuffle

Earlier this week, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee in Beijing. The leadership, headed by General Secretary Xi Jinping, presided over the meeting of almost 350 Central Committee members and other senior party and government officials. The focus of the gathering was on party discipline—regime code for ensuring cadres shun malfeasance and comply with central diktats—but the biggest news to emerge from the conclave, held in a military-managed hotel, was the anointment of Xi Jinping as the “core” (核心) of the leadership, a description that previously had only been applied to former senior leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin.

Q1: What is the significance of Xi Jinping being designated as the “core”?

A1: Xi’s designation as the “core” of the leadership confirms that he aspires to transcend the post-Mao era emphasis on power sharing and collective rule and suggests he may well have the power to do it. As noted above, former president Jiang Zemin was the last party boss to carry the moniker of core leader. As with many of Xi’s other feats since assuming power—establishing new senior party policymaking institutions, denuding the State Council’s authority over the economy, and declaring himself the military’s commander-in-chief—President Xi appears to have done his recent predecessors one better. Jiang very early in his tenure was handed the core designation by Deng Xiaoping to shore up his standing in the leadership in the face of potent rivals and meddlesome party elders whose hands had been strengthened by the turmoil of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In that sense, Jiang did not have to “earn” his standing as the core. By contrast, Xi began his stint as party chief with the byline “the 18th Central Committee leadership with Comrade Xi Jinping as general secretary,” the same anodyne labeling that had applied during the 10-year reign of his blasé predecessor as party chief, Hu Jintao. Consequently, by grabbing the mantle as core leader, Xi has demonstrated that he has the political heft to force the party to accept his more exalted status.

Similarly, it is noteworthy that Jiang’s elevated status was caveated by the additional reference to his being the core of his particular leadership cohort, “the third generation,” implicitly acknowledging the existence of the true core, Deng Xiaoping. In Xi’s case, the plenum simply crowned him core of the Central Committee. Although there are many possible explanations as to why this is the case, Xi may be trying to signal the system that his achievement is greater in that he, in essence, is now the personification of the CCP.

Whatever the theoretical niceties of Xi’s elevation, it sends an unambiguous signal to his Politburo colleagues that he does not intend to be bound by so-called norms the leadership has been following in recent CCP history. This likely has implications for the new leadership lineup to be announced in conjunction with next fall’s 19th Party Congress, in that it suggests that Xi could have in mind a “disruptive” political agenda for the conclave that would see him break with several other such perceived norms. These could include the practice of signaling the next-generation successor at the Congress—the nominal half-way point in Xi’s presumed decade-long tenure as party chief—or redefining informal age guidelines and a practice of stepwise elevation to higher office that have notionally governed Politburo membership since the 2002 16th Party Congress. What seems certain is that Xi’s elevation to core status incontrovertibly gives the lie to the notion that President Hu’s tenure somehow indicated that the CCP was on an inexorable pathway toward greater normalization and institutionalization of its politics. Instead, it appears that Hu may have been the exception to the rule and that his lack of control of the key levers of power is what best explains the practices and procedures followed during his administration.

Q2: Why was there such a focus on party discipline at the plenum?

A2: The Sixth Plenum of each party administration typically focuses on some issue related to culture or ideological matters. For example, the Sixth Plenum of the 11th Central Committee, held in 1981, issued the famous resolution on CCP history that concluded Mao Zedong committed mistakes but not crimes during the Cultural Revolution, and hence, was 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. The Sixth Plenums of the 12th and 14th Central Committees (in 1986 and 1996, respectively) both stressed the development of “socialist spiritual civilization,” and the building of a “harmonious society” was the focus of the 16th (in 2006).

Xi Jinping has made anticorruption the hallmark of his leadership tenure. Official media announced in conjunction with the plenum meeting that over 1 million party officials have been disciplined since the start of 2013, which is double the number of cadres labeled as “rightist” during the 1956–1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign. Describing anticorruption efforts as a “long march,” the leadership appears to be trying to more clearly standardize the process and clarify expectations of behavior for CCP members. Two documents were issued at the end of the plenum, the first on the norms of political life for CCP members and the second an updated regulation on intra-party supervision. If the leadership follows past practice, the documents may be released publicly in the coming days.

The focus on party discipline is distinct from the effort to strengthen “rule of law.” Although CCP members are supposed to be subject to and not above the laws and regulations that apply to everyone, the CCP has its own powerful system, headed by the Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC) to ferret out and punish corrupt behavior. It is clear that the CCP will continue to rely on self-enforced rules and exhortations for members to engage in ethical behavior and not external accountability mechanisms, such as an independent anticorruption commission. Data from Transparency International suggests that the corruption problem has only improved marginally over the past few years. The plenum’s emphasis on the broader issue of cadres’ responsiveness to central directives, however, is a reflection of the expanding writ of the CDIC under the tutelage of its iron-faced leader, Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Wang Qishan. Formally tasking the party’s internal watchdog, rather than the official institutions of the state, with monitoring cadres’ attentiveness to their duties, also is consistent with President Xi’s greater emphasis on party control and his seeming worldview that the CCP should be at the center of all facets of the regime’s policymaking decision cycle.

Q3: Did anything emerge from the plenum directly relevant for economic policy?

A3: There was no specific discussion of economic issues at the plenum or mention of the economy in the communique issued at the end of the plenum. Nevertheless, the leadership is concerned not only about official corruption but about cadres who shirk their responsibilities and do not fully carry out major party and government policies. The top economic priority for 2016 is to reduce overcapacity in infrastructure-related sectors, but local officials have hesitated to shut down production lines and factories because of the likely rise in financial losses and the backlash from workers. It is unclear whether this plenum’s emphasis on discipline will have a substantial effect on policy implementation.

Christopher K. Johnson is a senior adviser and holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Scott Kennedy is deputy director of the CSIS Freeman Chair and director of the CSIS Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Photo credit: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Scott Kennedy
Senior Adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics