Why becoming the ‘core’ matters for China’s communist leaders
In China’s world of opaque and delicate leadership status, holding a top party post does not necessarily signify authority. But being labelled “core” – a non-official title denoting a higher political status – is critical.
Four years after becoming the Chinese Communist Party’s general secretary, Chinese President Xi Jinping was anointed as the “core” of the party’s leadership on Thursday at the end of the Central Committee’s four-day sixth plenum in Beijing.
This sent a strong message that his authority is beyond challenge within the party that has ruled China for 67 years.
Here we take a brief look at history of some China’s communist leaders and their relationship between their titles and status.
Mao never called himself the “core” of the party leadership when he was alive, but Mao, after ruthless purges of his potential challengers and opponents within the party, was hailed as the Great Helmsman, the Red Sun and the “great saviour of the people”. He was credited as “the core of the first generation of collective leadership” by Deng Xiaoping in 1989.
Hua, Mao’s hand-picked successor, rose to power in 1976 after Mao’s death and assumed the chairmanship at the party’s central committee and the military commission. But Hua was sidelined in 1978 and his short-lived rule of China is recognised only as a transition period from the first generation to the second generation of the leadership. He was never recognised as the “core” of the party leadership.
Deng is the core of the second generation of the communist leadership, although Deng shared power with other powerful old guards,called the Eight Great Eminent Officials, or Eight Elders. Deng’s influence lasted into his final days even though he did not have any official position at the time. Chen Yun, one of the Eight Elders, credited Deng in 1989 as being the core of the central party leadership and the general architect of the reform and opening up of the mainland. This view has been widely cited ever since. Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, assumed the title of “core” with Deng’s blessing.
Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang
Hu was the party’s general secretary from 1980 to 1987, while Zhao was the general secretary from 1987 up until China’s 1989 crackdown against the Tiananmen Square democracy protests. Following the crackdown, Zhao was then placed under house arrest, where he remained for 15 years until his death in 2005. Hu and Zhao assumed top party posts under the close watch of party elders led by Deng, but neither of them was ever recognised as a core of the leadership.
The former Shanghai party boss unexpectedly replaced Zhao as general secretary of the Central Committee in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown. Deng was quoted on various occasions as saying it was the elders’ duty to cultivate a third-generation leadership with younger candidates. When handing over the highest military commander’s post to Jiang in 1989, Deng cemented Jiang’s core status by saying “I believe it is the right choice to establish the central party leadership with Comrade Jiang as the core”. But Jiang started to promote his “core” role only after Deng’s death in 1997.
Xi’s predecessor never enjoyed the “core” title in official documents during or after his rule of China.
When Jiang officially gave up his post on the Politburo Standing Committee and general secretary to make way for the “fourth generation” of leadership, headed by Hu in 2002, he was widely believed to be pulling strings behind the scene through his protégés in the leadership. Jiang also retained his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission until 2004. Hu, at best, was “the first among equals” in the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee and was always addressed as “the central leadership with Hu Jintao as the general secretary”.