China's leader has quickly consolidated power, strengthened the party and initiated important reforms, showing he has a plan for the coming decades
When President Xi Jinping took up his position in 2012, the Communist Party lacked political leadership. His predecessor, Hu Jintao, had lost control long before 18th congress. The result was a simmering political struggle that included Bo Xilai setting up his own kingdom in Chongqing and Zhou Yongkang openly violating the law. Just over two years later, Xi's current position is a testament to his ability to consolidate power and his vision for China's future.
Before Xi's appointment, political disorder blocked economic reform. The monopolistic position of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) had been increasingly consolidated, rather than weakened. Collusion between government officials and businesses had become endemic, reinforcing special interest groups and exacerbating corruption. These issues, combined with inflated real-estate prices, caused a dramatic drop in the public's confidence between 2009 and 2012.
Against this background, Xi took only one year to recapture and consolidate his power in all domains. With his authority strengthened, he initiated comprehensive reforms in different sectors and government institutions. For example, the Central Committee plan to deepen reforms proposed that the country should promote the "modernization of the state governance system and governance capacity." In 2014, the party also decided to develop rule by the constitution and to build China under the rule of law. Xi has won widespread support, with his leadership endearing him to the general public.
How did Xi achieve this? And what do we mean by his new mode of governance?
Xi set up his new mode of governance by rebuilding political authority. He established new institutions and authorities to expand his power and maintain control. These new institutions include the Leading Group for Deepening Reform Comprehensively; the National Security Commission, which former party general secretary Jiang Zemin was unable to establish; and a leading group for cybersecurity and information.
Xi is in charge of all these new institutions. This means that all the institutions of the party, State Council and military are now responsible to Xi and only Xi. As a result, he acts as the de facto party Chairman – like Mao Zedong.
Xi also expanded the scope of party authority. In the 1980s, the State Council controlled the leading institutions of reform. Now it comes under the party's Central Committee. While the State Council was almost entirely self-governed during Hu's tenure, Xi has regained control of the reform agenda through his new institutions.
Most recently, Xi further strengthened party power by implementing a new form of democratic centralism. The party's leading bodies — the State Council, National People's Congress, Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, Supreme People's Court and Supreme People's Procuratorate — all report directly to the Politburo Standing Committee.
While the details of how Xi rebuilt authority are likely to remain shrouded, the anti-corruption campaign has served as one well-known method. With dirty officials tripping each other up, the campaign has acted as a broom, removing the obstacles to reform.
In the past year, Zhou, formerly a member of the Politburo Standing Committee; Xu Caihou, former vice president of the Central Military Commission; and Ling Jihua, the supervisor of party management for Hu, were all rounded up. Over 200,000 officials have been investigated for graft. The unexpected and unprecedented scale and strength of the campaign shows Xi's determination to defend the party's rule.
Strengthened authority has led to the revival of stagnated reforms. While Xi's anti-corruption drive has broken down vested interest groups, Li Keqiang has focused on the economy. "Keqiang economics" stresses the decisive role of the market in resource allocation, and Li has reshaped government regulation accordingly.
The central government has also pursued new programs to stimulate the market. The State Council has established free trade zones in Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangdong. And there are plans to establish another 18.
Market-oriented reform has achieved gratifying results. The number of newly established private enterprises increased by more than 30 per cent in 2014. And while GDP growth dropped to 7.4 per cent, the lowest in 24 years, employment increased.
If Xi's speeches are anything to go by, social justice is central to his new governance. Like economic reform, social justice reforms had remained largely theoretical because of fragmented political leadership.
Now, there are signs of progress. China has overhauled the dual pension system by merging the public and private employee tracks. Previously, public-sector employees paid no premium but received higher pensions than private-sector employees who did pay. The household registration system in medium-sized and small cities has been abolished in an attempt to eliminate differences in social security between urban and rural areas. Under Xi's leadership, the party has also reduced the salaries of senior management in SOEs and promoted education resource sharing.
In 2014, the party set "rule of law" as the primary topic of a plenary session for the first time. This was a difficult decision because the rule of law represents a dilemma for the party: while it would constrain the party's power, unchecked power would, in turn, hurt the party itself. The party finally decided to adopt the strategy of rule by the constitution or "Chinese constitutionalism."
Judicial reforms have also showed promising signs. To limit the influence of local governments on their courts, the party has assigned the salary management of judicial employees to provincial governments. The supreme court's decision to set up circuit courts further breaks the intertwinement between local governments and local courts.
By 2020, two years before his tenure ends, Xi aims to have finished 360 multi-sectoral reform programs that will lay the institutional foundation for the next 30 years of party rule to 2049. This grand design reveals Xi as more of a far-sighted reformer than a politician satisfied with the temporary ease and support of his position.
Yang Guangbin is chairman of the Department of Political Science at Renmin University
This article originally appeared on the website of East Asia Forum. It was reprinted here with the EAF's permission.