How did China’s Xi Jinping secure ‘core’ status in just four years?
Communist Party chief moved swiftly to assert his power early in his tenure, sweeping away resistance in the military command
How did the head of China’s Communist Party, Xi Jinping, come to be hailed as the “core of the party leadership” in less than four years when his predecessor, Hu Jintao, never achieved such recognition in 10 years as party chief?
Party general secretary Xi was given the “core” title for the first time in an official party document in the communique issued by the party Central Committee’s sixth plenum, which ended on October 27. It urged the party to unite around “the party’s centre with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core”.
Unlike the title general secretary, “core” is not defined in any official party documents available to the public, but analysts say the title gives Xi final veto power.
Many see his elevation as marking the end of the party’s decades-long effort to make the leadership more collective, with China watchers saying Xi’s anointment owes much to the absence of any protracted influence by Hu following his retirement as party chief in 2012.
Chen Daoyin, an associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Sciences and Law, said Xi had enjoyed much more favourable circumstances inside the party than his predecessors in terms of consolidating and centralising power.
Hu was named party general secretary in 2002, but his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, retained the chairmanship of the party’s Central Military Commission (CMC) for two more years.
“Even after Hu was finally appointed chairman of the CMC, Jiang’s influence still dominated and the army leaders were very much Jiang’s people,” Chen said.
When Hu stepped down as party chief in 2012 he passed control of the party and military to Xi, who succeeded him as head of state in March the following year.
“That gave Xi a favourable environment to do what he wanted,” Chen said. “In some sense, Xi should thank Hu for relinquishing all his official titles at that time.”
Jiang had faced a similar challenge in establishing his authority during his first years in power. He was overshadowed by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, despite having been given the title of “core” leader with Deng’s blessing.
Chen said Jiang also used control over the military to consolidate power over the party and the government.
But when Xi came to power he neutralised Jiang’s continuing influence in the army by purging former CMC vice-chairmen Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, both former Jiang allies.
Xi further strengthened his grip over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by launching a sweeping reform of its ranks, allowing him to push forward with other aspects of his political agenda. “Xi has reshaped the PLA with the reform and that helped him to tightly grip the PLA,” Chen said.
Chen’s remarks echo the observations of American politicians who have dealt with China’s senior leadership, including former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former secretary of defence Robert Gates.
“Hu Jintao, unlike Jiang Zemin before him, never really captured the authority over the PLA that is essential for any government, whether it’s a civilian government in our country or a Communist Party government in China,” Clinton said during a speech in 2013, according to hacked emails released by WikiLeaks in October.
“So President Xi is doing much more to try to assert his authority, and I think that is also good news.”
Gates made similar remarks about Xi’s hold over the military, remarking in 2014 that Hu “did not have strong control” over the army.
When Gates visited Beijing in 2011, the PLA conducted a surprise test flight of its first stealth fighter jet, the Jian-20, with Gates saying the event seemed to catch Hu unawares.
“It was clear the civilian leadership was uninformed,” a senior United States official told the media that day.
Professor Ding Xueliang, a Hong Kong University of Science and Technology sociologist, said Xi’s grip on power owed much to his cleansing of both the domestic security apparatus and the army.
“It was rare for any leader to attack the domestic security apparatus and the army at the same time, they usually rely on one of them,” Ding said. “But Xi did exactly that ... that’s quite bold.”
Ding noted Xi’s far-reaching anti-graft campaign had taken down former security tsar Zhou Yongkang and Xu, who fell under investigation in 2013 and early 2014 respectively. Guo followed in 2015.
Xi’s boldness was rooted in the environment in which his generation grew up, Ding said.
“Unlike Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who were promoted step by step, Xi’s generation grew up during the Cultural Revolution,” Ding said. “It shaped their characteristics. They did not obey rules as they did not see many rules when they were young.”
Xi rose to power amid a growing sense of crisis among the leadership.
Discussion about the party’s ability to govern escalated during Hu’s second term, when he listed four dangers and four challenges facing one-party rule, including the mental sloth and incapacity of cadres, and detachment from the people. That discussion extended beyond the power transition in 2012.
Wang Qishan, the party’s top graft-buster, went further, warning the party its legitimacy to rule could be at risk. In 2012, after only two weeks as secretary of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Wang recommended that officials read 19th century French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville’s book The Old Regime and the Revolution, which focuses on the institutional causes of the French revolution.
Explaining Wang’s unusual book recommendation, the overseas edition of People’s Daily said that without bold reforms, China would be “in a race against revolution” and quoted Tocqueville as saying “a revolution is likely to occur after an improvement of social conditions”.
The article said people’s expectations of clean governance and politics in China had been growing as they became more affluent.
State media said Wang’s warning to the party reflected concerns within the leadership. The party needed to rule itself strictly, Wang said, in order to keep the promises made to the people when it came to power.