The trade war won’t shake Xi Jinping’s grip on power in China – for now

  • Deng Yuwen says the Chinese leader has been asserting his authority following biting criticism last year of his government’s handling of the trade conflict
  • His power is secure, but surely a China that has celebrated 40 years of reform won’t regress to the days when one person could decide the country’s fate
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2019, 3:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 January, 2019, 3:44am

Developments in China in 2018, especially the abolition of presidential term limits and Beijing’s response to the trade war, indicated that the centralisation of power in Xi Jinping’s hands is complete. In six years of Xi’s rule, this centralisation has been the most prominent feature of Chinese politics. It is clear from 2018 that this consolidation of power has reached the apex of what is permissible under the current conditions. Any further and it would be the Mao Zedong era all over again.

Having said that, it is impossible for a China that has been involved in 40 years of reform and opening up to return to the Mao era or replicate it. And this does offer a ray of optimism about China’s future.

From this point of view, although there were more ups and downs in the political situation than expected, 2018 actually continued in the same vein as the preceding five years and saw a logical evolution of the regime. Entering 2019, it is widely believed that the next two to three years will be the most difficult period for the Chinese economy.

What will these economic difficulties mean for the political situation? Will they intensify the reshuffle at the top of the government, will there be social unrest of some kind, and could it tear a hole in the tight political control? Most importantly, will a subtle change take place in the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership system in 2019?

The leadership system is a crucial issue that shapes other aspects of politics and makes a mark on society. Unpredictable changes have swept Chinese politics since the party’s 18th national congress in 2012, essentially because at the highest level, Beijing has brought back the “one-person leadership system” of the Mao era.

In the Mao years, one person could decide the fate of the party and even the country, but people thought those days were gone forever, with the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Although strongman rule continued under Deng Xiaoping, he nevertheless stabilised and normalised the national leadership system by establishing a retirement system, term limits and other modern political rules. Before 2018, most people did not think that would change.

After Xi took office, the development of his strongman politics was a gradual process. Early on, public opinion was only that he was the most powerful leader after Mao and Deng.

Why Xi should learn from Chiang Kai-shek, not Mao

Even when a Central Committee meeting conferred the title of “core” leader on Xi, people thought it would end there: his authority would be equal to Deng’s, but it would be hard to surpass Deng; after all, Jiang Zemin had also been “core” leader of the party, but his power never exceeded Deng’s.

However, stunning developments were to follow. The flattery and worship of the leader that began after Xi took power reached nauseating levels, and during the two congresses in 2018, the constitution was revised and the presidential term limits abolished.

In adopting a leadership style approximating to Mao’s personal authority, Xi is leaving his stamp on Chinese politics and society. If the trade war had not broken out in the middle of last year, this one-person leadership system seemed likely to be a certainty for at least more than a decade, and unlikely to face serious challenges.

However, can it be assumed that if China and the United States fail to reach a trade agreement in 2019 and the Chinese economy deteriorates further, Xi’s power base may be greatly affected? Would the one-person leadership system weaken? Could collective leadership of the party be restored?

On private and semi-public occasions in the past year, there has been fierce criticism of the government’s and Xi’s imprudent response to the trade war, including from officials.

There are two indicators of whether Xi’s power base has been shaken. One way is to see if he has control over personnel and the other, to see if official propaganda about his ideas is cooling.

The US-China relationship is too big to fail, but can Trump and Xi save it?

Certainly, Xi took charge of the personnel arrangement during and after the 19th national congress. Leading cadres loyal to him were picked for the Central Committee and even the Politburo, and vested with central and local decision-making powers.

Currently, neither the trade war nor other situations seem to have shaken their loyalty. Xi also remains firmly in control of public opinion, with his propaganda mill still running smoothly.

In fact, although the trade war dealt a blow to his authority and unprecedented criticism of his leadership surfaced in July and August last year, Xi remains powerful. In his speech commemorating 40 years of reform, he had the final say in what China would reform and how.

At a Politburo meeting held shortly after, he asked each Politburo member to conduct criticism and self-criticism; to uphold the concepts of the “four consciousnesses”, “four self-confidences” and “two maintenances”; and to take the lead in implementing rules on strengthening the unified leadership of the Central Committee and improving government conduct. In other words, it is the political responsibility of China’s top leaders to keep Xi in power.

It could be understood that Xi’s leadership is under threat, which is why he is emphasising the importance of maintaining his personal authority and the Central Committee’s leadership. However, even if Xi does feel threatened, the danger is not real but merely psychological. He is warning the leading cadres and senior officials precisely to prevent such a threat to his power.

Will Xi Jinping supersede Deng Xiaoping in the history books?

By and large, Xi has secured his power base after the 19th party congress and the two congresses in 2018. Barring accidents, no force is likely to emerge from within the party to pose an organised challenge to his power, at least not in 2019.

However, there is a ceiling on Xi’s power. Although there is scope within this limit for tightening his grip on China, he is unlikely to go over the limit and follow in Mao’s footsteps entirely.

Deng Yuwen is an independent scholar and a researcher at the China Strategic Analysis Centre Inc. This article was translated from Chinese