Last week we did a crash course in China’s political history. Our aim was to better understand the historical context of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) development, as well as the root of their guiding principles. This week we’re going to look Xi Jinping as well as how he rose through the ranks to lead the CPC and the Chinese government.
Currently, Mr. Xi is the most powerful person in China. He leads the largest faction within the CPC and serves as the CPC’s General Secretary (official party leader). Together, these positions make Mr. Xi incredibly powerful from a purely political standpoint. But wait, there’s more! Mr. Xi also holds the chairmanship for a myriad of committees that give him formal authority over the military, all government policy, and the majority of law enforcement. In his various roles, Mr. Xi has the authority to have the final say on almost any issue. So how did Xi Jinping amass such immense power? Was it rags to riches or was he just next in line?
Mr. Xi got his start in 1974 towards the end of the Cultural Revolution when he formally joined the CPC. Before that, Mr. Xi was one student of millions sent to live and work in rural China as part of a Cultural Revolution policy; however, unlike most of those sent to the countryside, Mr. Xi came from status.
Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of the revolutionary leaders of the CPC who helped secure victory for the communists during the civil war. After the war, Mr. Xi’s father held various posts in the CPC and government. Unfortunately for Xi Zhongxun, he fell from Mao’s good graces, was purged from the Party leadership, exiled, and then jailed. It wasn’t until 1978, two years after Mao’s death, that Xi Zhongxun was exonerated and allowed to resume being part of the party elite. Because of his political exile, Xi Zhongxun was unable to protect his son from being sent to the countryside. Following his return to power, Mr. Xi’s father oversaw a number of economic and legal reforms under Deng Xiaoping.
Despite spending his formative years outside the party as the son of a political pariah, Mr. Xi joined the CPC. From 1974 to 2007, Mr. Xi advanced through escalating positions of bureaucratic importance. By 1982, Mr. Xi was promoted to Deputy Party Secretary of Zhengding County. As Deputy Party Secretary in Zhengding, Mr. Xi was responsible for the day-to-day operation of the county government. In 1983 he rose to Party Secretary of Zhengding, the highest county office, responsible for county-level policy decisions.
In the US, regional offices are not equally renowned. Even though the governors of
Kansas and California share the same title, the latter oversees a much larger, and more important, state. As such, the governor’s mansion in major US states has often been a stepping-stone to the White House. Despite not being democratically elected, provincial posts in China serve a similar function. In 2002, Mr. Xi was promoted to leadership roles in Zhejiang, eventually becoming the province’s Party Secretary. Mr. Xi was also made a full member of the CPC Central Committee.
Just like Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the CPC Central Committee is technically a sub-committee charged with all legislative duties between National Party Congresses. With the Party Congress once every five years, the Central Committee is responsible for the specifics of legislating. More important than this, the Central Committee appoints party members to the highest political positions, such as to the Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee, the Central Military Commission, and General Secretary.
On paper, this system is relatively democratic; every five years provincial representatives meet at the Party Congress to outline guiding party goals and elect members of the Central Committee, which, in turn, elects individuals to the highest party offices. In practice, these organs serve as a rubberstamp for the decisions of party leaders (i.e. those in the Politburo and other high offices). Operating these bodies this way allows China’s ruling elite to legitimize sweeping policy changes by having them ‘approved’ by representatives of the party rank-and-file.
In 2007, Mr. Xi was promoted to his last regional office in Shanghai. For the next seven months, Mr. Xi administered one of the most important regions in China. In October of the same year, having impressed party leadership, Xi Jinping was elevated to a high-ranking position on the Politburo Standing Committee; this move was widely seen as meaning Mr. Xi would succeed Hu Jintao as China’s leader. Finally, in 2012, Mr. Xi became the General Secretary, succeeding Mr. Hu.
Until this point, Xi Jinping accumulated fame and political clout by operating within the existing governmental structures. His reputation as a steadfast supporter of the party and committed opponent of corruption gave his words weight. After becoming the leader of China, however, Mr. Xi began consolidating power under his office. While Hu Jintao governed by elite consensus, Mr. Xi created an array of ‘guiding’ committees with the authority to bypass ministries by steering policy implementation. The policy areas comprised of these committees include economic and social reforms, cyber security, Internet policy, military reform, and national security (i.e. intelligence gathering, counter-terrorism, anti-separatism). In his capacity as the chairman of these committees, Mr. Xi has the final say in those policy areas.
Another major factor in Mr. Xi’s consolidation of power since 2012 has been his far-reaching anti-corruption campaign. Since 2013 the campaign has implicated hundreds of thousands of officials. Generally speaking, corruption has been a
perennial specter in the CPC, which has resulted in widespread support for the campaign among Chinese citizens. Looking deeper, however, we also see that many high-profile officials netted are from humble roots. Traditionally, Chinese communism is flavored by factional struggles within the party. While not an outright purge (since meaningful progress against corruption has been made), Mr. Xi’s campaign has ousted a large number of officials with non-urban and/or not-from-status backgrounds.
Contrasting the North Korean government’s centralization, China’s current centralization campaign is a reversal of past reforms. Furthermore, despite Xi Jinping’s accumulation of power, he hasn’t completely surpassed the centralization of Deng Xiaoping, nor can he hold a candle to the totalitarian days of Mao. That said, major initiatives have been accelerated by Mr. Xi’s consolidations. From the South China Sea to Hong Kong, Xi Jinping has exercised his heightened authority to expand China’s presence in globally important areas. Since his ascension to power represents such a stark reversal of preceding CPC leaders, examining Mr. Xi’s rise allows us to clearly understand the general construction of the Chinese government as it is now.
Unfortunately, this is where we must end this week’s discussion. Next week we will examine specific areas where Xi Jinping has exercised his accumulated authority, such as in the build-up of South China Sea Islands and his corruption crackdown.