How Xi Jinping revitalised party and state with his morally uncompromising leadership
Lawrence J. Lau says it is Xi’s emphasis on discipline, virtues and patriotism that will succeed in ridding the party and government of the rot of corruption, and remove the impediments to economic reforms
Xi Jinping was elected general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the 18th party congress in November 2012. In the five years between the 18th and 19th party congresses, Xi has accomplished a great deal.
First and foremost, with his very successful anti-corruption campaign, he averted the biggest threat to the continued survival of the party and the nation. The precariousness of the situation can be seen in the hundreds of thousands of high-level party and government officials and the approximately 30 per cent of the officers of general rank in the armed forces who were purged because of rampant corruption, including the buying and selling of offices and ranks.
Second, under Xi’s leadership, the Chinese economy successfully avoided a hard landing and was able to transition smoothly into a “new normal”, with a steady rate of growth of approximately 6.5 per cent per annum, a still very respectable rate compared to developed economies. The reliance on exports and fixed asset investment as drivers of economic growth has diminished and the excess production capacities have been slowly but surely reduced through the supply-side structural reforms. During the same period, an additional 60 million-plus people were lifted up from poverty.
Third, China was able to raise its international profile and participate in global governance without appearing either too aggressive or too accommodating. It managed to play a leading role at the 2015 UN climate change conference in Paris and was instrumental in bringing about the Paris agreement, which won the unanimous consent of the 196 contracting nations and other parties. Even with the threatened withdrawal by the US from the agreement, China has remained steadfast in its commitment to fulfil and even overfulfil its promised targets and has become a global leader against climate change. Xi has also initiated the ambitious “Belt and Road” projects.
‘Xi Jinping Thought’ enshrined in the party charter
Thus, it was no surprise that the party congress was a triumphal celebration of his successes. Even before the meeting was convened, Xi was already referred to as the “core” of the party leadership. At the congress, Xi’s adaptation of Marxism, in the form of “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”, was officially enshrined in the party charter as Xi Jinping Thought, and placed at the same level as Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the doctrines of his predecessors Jiang Zemin (the three represents) and Hu Jintao (the scientific development view). These are all considered guidelines for action for the party.
Through the congress, Xi cemented his control over the party and put his own team in place. He will be able to set the direction for the nation in the next five years and implement a programme that is truly his own.
Xi subscribes to the view that “the nation can be governed well only if the party is governed well; and the party can be governed well only with the strictest discipline”. There is no doubt that he is in complete control of the party. After the congress, it will be through the party that he will exercise his power to move the government and the nation.
For example, it would be possible for him to push forward the economic reform programmes such as letting the market play the determining role and resolving the problem with “zombie” enterprises. That is precisely why supremacy of the party is so important. While the party’s leading role is clearly spelled out in the Chinese constitution, the more recent move to introduce language in corporate charters affirming the leading role of the party is new and reflects a desire to make enterprises more responsive to the party’s directions and needs. This may have been motivated by the fact that some of the economic reforms advocated by Xi have yet to be fully completed.
Xi must have reflected on the question: how was it possible to have so much corruption within the Communist Party, the government and the armed forces? In his work report to the congress, Xi repeatedly emphasised the importance of Chinese culture and philosophy. This may reflect the realisation that, ultimately, character and values, and not just talent, ability and popularity, are important determinants of actions and behaviour. To make the party a clean and effective governing body, it is important to try to motivate the members through ideology and to appeal to their idealism and patriotism, and not rely solely on potential punishment as a deterrent. Xi wants a party with members who are not corruptible because of their own personal beliefs and values.
The new and abundant private wealth in China poses a huge temptation to party members. The four traditional Chinese values of “courtesy, righteousness, honesty and shame” may once again have to become relevant. Xi places great importance on the education and nurturing of party members. It is useful to reflect that for approximately two millennia before the early 20th century, Chinese government officials were chosen through an examination system – it was a meritocracy.
However, it was not just a meritocracy, as the scholar-officials and the potential scholar-officials were required to adhere to strict personal behavioural norms. Thus, they were more akin to a “priesthood”. I believe Xi expects party members to be both meritorious and virtuous.
One of the outcomes of the congress was that, in accordance with the established custom, the 11 Politburo members who have reached the age of 68, including Wang Qishan, the anti-corruption tsar, retired. What implications does this have for the anti-corruption campaign? I believe the drive will continue, but perhaps it will enter a new phase.
With many of the government officials retired, anti-corruption efforts can become more forward-looking, focusing on current wrongdoings rather than past deeds. The goal should be to make sure no one will engage in corrupt practices after the 19th party congress. This change in focus will allow officials to concentrate on their current tasks rather than to try to hide past mistakes.
The expected establishment of a state supervisory commission, with branches at the provincial, municipal and county levels, in the spring of 2018, was mentioned in Xi’s work report. This is a momentous decision with far-reaching consequences. In principle, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection is only responsible for supervising the actions of party members. It cannot prosecute any suspected offenders in the courts or send them to jail; only the state prosecutor can do so. The new supervisory commission will be able to exercise the prosecutorial functions in cooperation with the discipline inspection commission.
It will actually be similar to Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption, which has had a huge impact in the reduction of corruption in Hong Kong since its inception in the 1970s. The establishment of the state supervisory commission will regularise and normalise anti-corruption efforts in China and hopefully will have a similar positive impact.
The new Politburo Standing Committee apparently has no member young enough to be a potential successor to Xi five years from now, leading to speculation that he may stay for another term. I would only say that the “retire by 68” rule is only a custom. What will happen five years from now depends on what is best for the Chinese nation at that time.
Lawrence J. Lau is Ralph and Claire Landau Professor of Economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong