China signals return to strongman rule

Communist party anoints Xi ‘core’ leader in break from recent practice

by: Lucy Hornby in Beijing

Heart of the party: a souvenir shows a portrait of Xi Jinping surrounded by former Chinese leaders © Reuters
 
Chinese president Xi Jinping has been anointed as the “core” leader of the Communist party, paving the way for a return to strongman rule after a decade and a half of consensus leadership among the country’s elite.

The designation as “core” of the party is a break from recent practice and elevates Mr Xi to a level of individual power last bestowed on Jiang Zemin, in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests. Mr Jiang headed the party until 2002 and continues to exert influence from behind the scenes without any formal title.

The conclusion of the party plenum on Thursday kicks off a year of political horse-trading as Mr Xi, who is also chief of the military, attempts to cement his power in his second term and beyond. The make-up of the Standing Committee of the politburo will be announced next autumn at the Communist party congress.
“Gaining the core leader status certainly implies Xi is more powerful than before the plenum and more powerful than his two predecessors [Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao] at the same stage of leadership. But that was the case even before he gained this new status,” said Steve Tsang, a Sinologist at Nottingham University.

The proposal to designate Mr Xi as the “core” of the party generated deep opposition when it was first floated earlier this year. Many in the party and the broader public argue that China can only be effectively governed by an authoritarian leader. But others fear a return to the irrational rule, restrictions on individual liberty and economic stagnation that accompanied the Communist party’s extreme consolidation of power under chairman Mao Zedong in the 1950s and 1960s.

It engaged in unusually lengthy praise of the decades when chairman Mao Zedong exerted such sway that “even the ‘dida dida’ cadence of his voice through the radio was enough that all cadres obeyed unconditionally”.

“The secret, the key of the Chinese Communist party, is that it can make use of its strict internal political life to achieve party unity, unify the will inside the party and turn that will into the will of the state — even if it’s only the simple sound of ‘dida dida’,” the newspaper said.
The plenum also marked a shift in party rhetoric from “anti-corruption” to “discipline”, amid frustration that an almost four-year purge of the party leadership and military brass has failed to yield the promised efficiency.
Mr Xi’s problem as he tries to cement his own succession is that he has only a handful of loyalists who have the requisite age and experience. Consolidating his own power as the “core” of the party shatters the power-sharing arrangement among party elders, first adopted by economic reformist Deng Xiaoping and ingrained during the generation of leadership under Hu Jintao. It has kept China politically stable in recent decades but is also blamed for corruption, inefficiency and bureaucratic resistance to Beijing’s priorities.
 
The “core” idea was so controversial when it was first floated early in 2016 that it prompted unusually public opposition. About 20 provincial party chiefs quickly hailed Mr Xi as the “core” of the party but the designation was pointedly not repeated at the time by his most senior colleagues, the six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee. Since then, months of political manoeuvring, promotions and punishments have shifted the balance in his favor.

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