The comments by Cai Xia, a retired professor at Central Party School, against Chinese President Xi Jinping, calling him a “mafia boss” and the Communist Party of China (CPC) a “political zombie” have raised speculations that Xi might be losing his grip on power. Xi’s leadership and policies such as abolishing two-term limits to the presidency and centralising power in key positions may have added fuel to the fire. However, such conclusions seem to be premature — Xi’s actions and the ensuing elite power struggles are neither extraordinary nor new in communist politics in China.
Xi might have undermined Deng Xiaoping’s idea of consensus in decision-making and orderly leadership transition. But Deng’s measures were a transitory arrangement to ensure the stability of the Party to minimise the disruption the market reforms could cause to the country. It raised apprehensions among communist veterans that the Party’s ideological hold would be diluted if China were to undergo a capitalist transformation. He was able to push his agenda by creating consensus among Party veterans, who were ready for a change after Mao’s policies caused devastation to social, political and economic life in China.
Moreover, Deng was not Mao’s legitimate successor as he had forced Hua Guofeng, an ardent Maoist, out of power. Deng was able to do this because many considered Hua to be weak and incompetent. Deng instituted presidential term limits to ensure the leaders he had chosen continue his economic reforms after him. However, by the time of Hu Jintao’s presidency, the Party’s hold on power became precarious. China faced widespread public discontent due to rampant corruption in public institutions and organisations. Moreover, rapid GDP growth had led to unequal development across regions. The Chinese leadership concluded that the governance system as it had existed could not be sustained if it led to a loss of legitimacy for the Party.
Therefore, when Xi came to power as a legitimate successor after Hu Jintao, he had a strong support base within the Party. But he inherited much more than a corrupt system. Xi was supposed to institute an enduring governance system that can grapple with people’s grievances through rule by law as well as maintain the Party’s legitimacy, especially in a post-reform society with a rising middle class.
Unlike many others who had favoured liberal policies after Mao’s excesses, Xi embraced Marxist principles and believed in the legitimacy of the communist rule in China. This put him at odds with reformers within the CPC, who favour liberal economic reforms and lax intervention of the Party apparatus in the economy. Therefore, rifts within the Party are indicative of the push and pull between reformers (broadly economic reformers) and Marxists (who favour a strong ideological influence over the corrupting nature of capitalism), on the ideas about how to transform and modernise China. Xi’s most vocal opponents are liberals — such as Cai Xia, who anyway believe in the eventual demise of communist rule in China, and want him to spearhead the political transition to democracy.
Xi’s detractors are not new, but those who were already dissatisfied with his policies. One such policy was to shift authority away from government officials to party secretaries. Earlier, when the central leadership announced policy measures, the government officials were in charge of deciding and implementing those policies and the party secretaries had a supervisory role. In practical terms, while the government officials had a lot of administrative control over the policies, they kept the Party secretaries informed of their decisions. This was to prevent any punitive measures from the higher authorities if the policy failed as they could rely on the Party secretaries. But given that Xi believes that corruption is rampant because of the lack of central control over administrative matters, he changed the governance model. Now, the secretaries are in charge of administrative decisions regarding government policies. The government officials are required only to carry out the tasks set by the Party secretaries. In Xi’s view, integrating the responsibilities of secretaries and government officials will bring greater coordination and efficiency when implementing policies. This has created resentment, as it has reduced the power of the government officials.
Xi’s power is not unlimited, and can only overcome opposition if he continues to show economic success, especially restructuring and reforms, which have not been successful so far. Whether it is the resentments of the government officials or public intellectuals and liberals who have been most affected by Xi’s muzzling of dissent, they can only remove Xi if there is a suitable candidate who can implement the next phase of reforms and introduce an enduring system of communist rule. While there are speculations that there is opposition within his own support base, Xi would have to show considerable ineptitude for them to push him out of power.
At least for now, there are no suitable candidates, who the CPC believes can take up the challenge of reforming the Chinese system. As of now, Xi is not going anywhere.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 10 under the title “For Xi, dissent but no crisis.” The writer is an associate fellow at East Asia Centre, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. She studied Chinese language and political theory at Beijing Normal University. Views are personal.
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