China’s political system has effective checks on power that even Xi Jinping can’t ignore
Eduardo Araral argues that the various hard and soft restraints instituted since Deng Xiaoping’s time to prevent the emergence of another Mao – including the principle of collective leadership – are more robust than observers believe
The 19th congress of the Chinese Communist Party is around the corner and speculation abounds as to how China’s political order will evolve. Western observers wonder what is it about China’s political model that acts as a check on President Xi Jinping, whose power seems ever growing. In 2016, Xi was appointed as a “core leader” with the same powers and status as Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.
The 19th congress is significant because Xi will appoint five new members of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee. He will also appoint the next generation of successors, including the military brass. As a core leader, he is no longer just a first among equals. In short, Xi will emerge as an all-powerful leader.
What in China’s political model serves as checks and balances to President Xi? In other words, who guards the guardians in China?
Francis Fukuyama argues that China’s model is unsustainable for two reasons. First, there is no guarantee that it will produce a good emperor, generation after generation. Second, China has no credible mechanisms to restrain a bad emperor (the likes of Mao), if one emerges. He argues that the only way to do so is to follow the Western model based on the rule of law rather than the rule by law of the Communist Party.
Contrary to these views, China has developed its own unique mechanisms of checks and balances. The China model comprises at least five elements of both soft and hard restraints. When Deng took power in 1977, the first thing he did was to put in place mechanisms to prevent the emergence of another Mao, who presided over the tumultuous Cultural Revolution. Deng introduced several controls – term and age limits, collective leadership and dual-generation succession, and a new party constitution in 1982, which formalises the principle of democratic centralism. Since then, Deng’s successors – Jiang, Hu Jintao and Xi – have introduced more and more mechanisms in what has become the Chinese political model.
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The first restraint of this model is term and age limits. This helps ensure that no one is an emperor for life. However, this is a soft restraint, as it is not enshrined in the constitution.
The second restraint is the norm of criticism and self-criticism among senior party members. In this practice, Politburo members have the right to criticise constructively – in closed-door sessions – mistakes made by their colleagues as well as themselves. While helpful, this is not a sufficient restraint if no one speaks up to a powerful leader. Self-restraint or being virtuous is often regarded as a requirement for Chinese leadership but Western observers do not regard this to be a hard restraint.
Collective leadership is the third restraint and is provided in the party constitution. Collective leadership involves the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the 25-member Politburo and a Central Committee of about 200 members. Collective leadership would help restrain the authority of a powerful president, as he has to win the support of other party members. The mechanism of collective leadership lies in-between a soft and a hard restraint. While even a powerful president cannot easily overturn it without losing support from the ruling elite, he can effectively use the mechanism of discipline inspection (corruption crackdown) to get members into line.
The fourth restraint is the principle of dual-generation succession. This mechanism is formally enshrined in the party constitution and has been in practice over the past 40 years. It is essentially a mechanism to manage competition among different factions in the party to ensure its stability and thus it is not easily reversible without causing internal strife. I regard this, therefore, as a hard restraint.
In this mechanism, the first-generation general secretary of the party selects the core of the second- and third-generation leadership. After his term, the general secretary steps down and hands power to his carefully chosen and trained second-generation leadership, with him remaining in power informally as a mentor or elder. The second-generation general secretary appoints the third-generation leaders who were earlier vetted by the first-generation leaders. The second-generation general secretary, midway into his 10-year term, appoints the third- and fourth-generation leaders.
The composition of the Politburo Standing Committee would be such that at any point in time, two or three generations of leaders are represented in the committee, and no one faction or generation has a complete hold on power. This mechanism cannot be easily reversed without causing internal strife in the party leadership.
The current 18th party congress (2012-2017) provides a good illustration. Of the seven standing committee members of the Politburo, two are from Xi’s faction, one is from Hu’s (2002-2012), and three are from Jiang’s (1989-2002). Of the 25 Politburo members, 11 are from Hu’s faction, five from Jiang’s, five from Xi’s and four have no factional affiliations. As a core leader, Xi will have more bargaining chips in the Politburo to enable him to appoint two generations of successors in the Standing Committee. However, this does not mean he can get all he wants because he still has to get support from the collective leadership of the Politburo. In the Chinese system, seniority is important. A third-generation leader cannot simply ignore the second-generation leadership, even after they have stepped down.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the principle of democratic centralism, which is formally enshrined in the 1982 party constitution, is a central tenet. All Politburo members swear to abide by this principle in the same manner that all presidents of the United States solemnly swear on the Bible in front of the chief justice and the public.
In essence, democratic centralism is a set of values as well as a decision-making process. As a set of values, it means that personal interests have to be subordinated to collective ones, the interests of factions to the interests of the party, and short-term interests to long-term interests. As a decision-making rule, it means that the Politburo members can freely express their views (democracy) but would have to abide by the consensus decision (centralism). It is highly unlikely that this sacrosanct decision-making principle will be overturned at the 19th party congress.
In conclusion, contrary to Fukuyama’s argument, China has developed its own unique system of checks and balances. Some of these may undergo adjustments in the upcoming party congress – for example, adjustment in age and term limits – but the principles of dual-generation succession, collective leadership and democratic centralism are unlikely to be altered.
Eduardo Araral is vice-dean of research and associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and faculty fellow at the Centre for Asia and Globalisation