Wang Xiangwei
SCMP Columnist
Wang Xiangwei
Wang Xiangwei

Xi moves closer to becoming another paramount leader

State leaders may have stumbled in roll-out of plenum measures, but president's ascent is undeniable as Premier Li takes back seat

The disappointment among business leaders, analysts and even junior mainland officials was almost palpable on Tuesday after Communist Party leaders emerged from a secretive four-day meeting and outlined their much-anticipated plans to move the country forward.

The communiqué from the third plenum of the party's 18th Central Committee was full of lofty slogans including a vow to allow the market to have "a decisive role" in the economy and to achieve "decisive results" by the end of the decade.

But the document's vague language fell short of expectations driven up by the state media and senior leaders, such as Yu Zhengsheng , the No4 member of the Politburo Standing Committee, who predicted "unprecedented reforms". Many had drawn parallels to the landmark third plenum in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping laid the groundwork for the country's decades-long economic boom.

The next day, stock markets on the mainland, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia fell sharply. The declines continued on Thursday.

State leaders were perplexed and worried by the reaction, as plenum communiqués are about announcing a consensus and not meant to spell out specific reforms. Indeed, the 1978 document provided no grand blueprint and didn't even mention the words market economy. Concrete measures that would give rise to the so-called socialist market economy came months or even years later.

The country's leaders tend to forget they now control the world's second-largest economy. Their policy announcements can have far-reaching implications for the rest of the world. High-sounding slogans without specifics no longer cut it.


In an apparent response to the markets, Beijing released the plenum's full resolution on Friday, days before it was expected. The document contained details on specific decisions, including plans to relax the one-child policy, abolish the notorious "re-education through labour" system and other measures to reduce government meddling in the economy.

The stock markets rebounded as details began to leak out, but many analysts are still sceptical that the leadership has the political will to translate its goals into concrete measures given the powerful vested interests they face. For instance, state leaders fell short of expectations for a clear statement on a break-up of state-sector monopolies. Instead, they vowed to strengthen the state sector as the backbone of the economy.

While people wait for more details to come to light in the coming weeks and months, the plenum has sent out at least one clear and powerful message: President Xi Jinping is firmly in control.

Barely one year into his tenure, Xi has fully consolidated his authority and looks set to become the country's most powerful leader since Deng left the scene as paramount leader two decades ago.


Having already assumed control of the party, the state and the military, Xi has put himself at the head of two important new organs approved during the plenum, a central leading group on economic reforms and a national security committee.

The reform group will most likely give Xi direct control over the country's economic direction, a power shift that would come at the expense of Premier Li Keqiang , the country's No2 leader. The premier, as head of the State Council, has traditionally spearheaded the country's economic agenda.


Similarly, the new national security committee, which is thought to be modelled on the US National Security Council, would strengthen Xi's central role in setting the agenda on foreign policy and domestic security. The panel is expected include top officials from the foreign ministry, the military, the police and the intelligence agencies.

These two new committees posts would allow Xi to wield more influence than either of his two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin . The result could again transform the country's power structure.

In the decades after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong ruled with absolute authority. After Mao's death in 1976, Deng emerged as paramount leader, exercising tremendous influence, even after his retirement.


Many believed the era of strongman leadership ended with Deng's death in 1997, as power structures evolved requiring Jiang and Hu to rule by consensus and compromise. Jiang, for example, was forced to abandon a proposed national security committee similar to one just established by Xi because of strong internal resistance.

In the Jiang and Hu years, the party chief and the premier shared dual roles and equal status in setting the agenda. Jiang had Zhu Rongji while Hu had Wen Jiabao .

Most people expected this dual structure would continue after the current leadership came to power late last year, particularly because Li was elevated to the second-highest post on the Politburo Standing Committee. Wen had been No3.


Plenum announcements, however, show that Li was not even included on the team that drafted the plenum resolution. This was a break from recent practice, in which the premier usually led groups tasked with drafting major policy documents. Instead, the team was led by Xi himself, assisted by two other Politburo Standing Committee members, propaganda tsar Liu Yunshan and Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli .

Over the weekend, some state media outlets tried to play down the significance of Li's absence, explaining that the premier was already swamped with work. Such a statement suggests that Li would be more involved with implementing measures than drafting them in the future.

Supporters of Xi's growing power argue that the country needs a stronger leader to combat vested interests ready to resist pressing reforms. Many cite the weak administration under Hu and Wen.

When Hu and Wen came to power in 2002, the Politburo Standing Committee was expanded to nine from seven, adding two more voices to the debates over major decisions. Its membership was again reduced to seven last year.

Many mainlanders say the lack of reform during the Hu-Wen era was mainly because of the central government lacked the power to overcome pushback from local authorities and other vested interests. There is good reason that their 10-year has been dubbed a lost decade.

Others now lament that Xi's consolidation of power shows that the ruling Communist Party still clings to the old tradition of placing its faith in the power of one person instead of encouraging a government based on a foundation of rules.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Xi moves closer to becoming another paramount leader