Xi Jinping wants to be seen as on a par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping

Xi Jinping has amassed more power in 20 months than his two immediate predecessors, but it may be premature to call him China's new strongman

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 August, 2014, 2:36am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 August, 2014, 2:37am

Power in modern China accrues at various speeds.

For most leaders, it grows at a steady pace, while for a few others, it hurtles forward like a freight train with blinding speed.

It took Mao Zedong years, including a long march, a civil war with Nationalists and routing the Japanese, to become indisputed leader. Afterwards, Deng Xiaoping emerged as paramount leader, exercising tremendous influence even after his retirement from his last official executive position as chairman of the Central Military Commission in 1989.

But in less than two years, President Xi Jinping has emerged as a potential new strongman as China seeks the status of a world power.

Just 20 months in office, Xi has amassed more control than his two immediate predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao . Xi chairs nine powerful organisations. He is China's president, Communist Party chief, Central Military Commission chairman and head of at least six high-level committees overseeing national security, foreign policy, cybersecurity, comprehensive reform, defence systems and military reform.

Analysts say Xi has consolidated power faster than any leader since Deng. "Compared to many other top leaders in the [history of the People's Republic] - Hua Guofeng , Deng, Jiang and Hu - Xi may well be the one who has consolidated his power the quickest," said Hongyi Lai, professor of contemporary Chinese studies and politics at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

But Xi and his team face rougher political waters than any of his predecessors, with the very survival of the party-state in their hands, said Cheng Li, chairman of the John L. Thornton China Centre at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Rapid economic growth in the past three decades has created a yawning gap between rich and poor. The cost of living has soared. Citizens feel there is rampant corruption, and the country has moved from one crisis to another - environmental disasters, food safety scandals, deadly levels of air pollution and violent anger by some ethnic minorities.

"On the one hand, [Xi] appears to be committed to reform. On the other, he sometime seems very conservative, emphasising the party line and maintaining censorship and ideological control," said Zhiqun Zhu, director of the China Institute at Bucknell University in the United States. "However, we must understand that the strongman type of leadership is over in China. Consensus building and collective leadership mark today's policymaking in China. So Xi's personal role will not be as influential as many people think. Xi will have to deal with different factions within the party and try to achieve some balance or compromise in making major decisions."

Jiang and Hu ruled by consensus and compromised among the ruling Politburo and its smaller standing committee.

Jiang, for example, was forced to abandon a proposed national security committee similar to the one that has just been established by Xi because of strong internal resistance.

Analysts say that under the collective leadership system, there is a clear-cut division of labour and power within the Politburo Standing Committee.

But Xi appears to have sidestepped the rule, messing in business that had once been the jurisdiction of other standing committee members. Xi is more involved in economic policymaking as head of a task force exploring reforms, a position traditionally held by the premier.

Analysts do not agree about extent to which Xi can make decisions himself or when he must forge alliances. A failure to reach consensus on major matters among the standing committee members and retired leaders has often been cited as a reason for the lack of meaningful change under the leadership of Jiang and Hu.

Unlike his two predecessors who come from humble backgrounds, Xi is the scion of a member of the Chinese elite. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a revolutionary with Mao who helped Deng carry out economic reforms. That pedigree has given Xi trust and respect among the ruling elites.

Analysts say that Xi appears to have great ambitions to shape his political legacy and be seen as on a par with Communist founding fathers Mao and Deng.

To realise his goal, Xi has focused on two critical fronts - wiping out graft and shoring up ideology in an effort to build a clean government and restructure economic, party, state, judicial and military institutions.

Recently the state announced an investigation into former security tsar and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang and the expulsion and court-martialling of retired general Xu Caihou , a former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The formal investigation of Zhou clearly marked Xi's move to consolidate his power base, said Steve Tsang, head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

But Tsang also noted how long it had taken Xi since assuming the presidency. "It has taken nearly a year for him to get to this point, not exactly what a strongman would be expected to have to endure," Tsang said.

He noted that Xi was using new institutions, so-called small groups, to strengthen his capacity to use the party as the instrument of control. "Again, not exactly the sort of thing one expects of a strongman, who is normally more interested in his own power than an institutionalised way of increasing power," said Tsang, who also directs the university's China Policy Institute.

Indeed, the unprecedented anti-graft campaign has been seen as bolstering the legitimacy of the party's rule.

At the Central Committee's third plenum last year, the party announced its most ambitious social, economic and legal reforms in decades. The party said the conclave had drawn parallels with its landmark third plenum in 1978, when Deng laid the groundwork for a decades-long economic programme.

Some analysts said the kind of cult of personality seen under Mao may be making a comeback, with some of the public engaging in "great leader worship".

For instance, researchers from the University of Hong Kong found that Xi's name was mentioned more frequently in People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece, than that of any other top party leader in the post-Mao era. Analysts also noted that party propagandists have used the publication of Xi's "little book" - A Reader of General-Secretary Xi Jinping's Important Speeches - to position the new ruler as the natural heir of Mao and Deng.

"They are part of an ongoing effort to build, over time, an image of a great leader after Mao and Deng," said Zhang Lifan, a party historian who was formerly with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Deng pioneered what historians call the "second revolution", establishing his credentials as a reformer. Xi has said his goal is realising a "Chinese dream" of "rejuvenation".

While most analysts agreed that it's likely that Xi will accomplish more than Hu and Jiang, they also said that iwas too early - and would be unnecessarily flattering - to compare him with Mao and Deng now. "Xi has only made an impressive start. Much more remains to be done," Lai said.

Tsang said that unless and until Xi could change the party to work as he desires, the president would remain vulnerable.

"It is much too early to speculate that he is a strongman in the Deng mode," Tsang said.