Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Chinese leader Xi Jinping's firm grip on power may not be as strong as he might like it to be

by Christopher Bodeen


A year since removing any legal barrier to remaining China’s leader for life, Xi Jinping appears firmly in charge, despite a slowing economy, an ongoing trade war with the U.S. and rumbles of discontent over his concentration of power.

The Chinese president and head of the ruling Communist Party wields more authority than any leader since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and looms large over the annual legislative session that starts Tuesday.

Since assuming the party helm in 2012, Xi has eliminated rival factions, gutted civil society and brought the party under his firm control through a wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign and the opening of party committees in private businesses and foreign companies.

Which is not to say Xi is resting on his achievements. Instead, with the economy’s go-go years firmly in the past, he is warning of increasing headwinds the party faces.

Xi, who gives few news conferences and whose public addresses are limited to a handful of special occasions, told senior party officials last month that “global sources of turmoil and risks have increased and the external environment is complicated and grim.”

“Cadres should dare to take up their responsibilities, to fight, to maintain their fighting spirit and strengthen their ability to struggle,” Xi said. “Young cadres need to fight the major battles with real swords and real guns,” he added.

This year’s legislative session is expected to be considerably less dramatic than last year’s, when Xi’s move to amend the constitution to remove term limits on the presidency effectively opened the way for him to remain head of state for as long as he chooses. Xi also saw through a partial government reorganization that boosted direct party control over movies and publications.

Such moves reverse a trend toward greater restraint on the leadership, advertising Xi’s willingness to upend what tenuous rules and structures the party had institutionalized in recent decades.

Chief among them is the tradition that, by his second five-year term, the leader should begin pointing to a likely successor. Xi has made no moves in this area while arrogating to himself ever-greater authority over government, from the economy to foreign policy and the military. As party general secretary, Xi is head of its all-powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.

“To my mind, the most important question now is: Which norm is the next to fall?” Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham Law School and author of a recent book on Chinese politics, said in an email.

Minzner cites Xi’s failure to call a key Communist Party meeting known as the fourth plenum that was expected last year as a possible sign the his administration is further turning its back on precedent.

Such a change could render “much more likely the revival of domestic political instability in China that people thought was dead and buried,” Minzner said.

For now, though, more immediate concerns predominate.

At a wide-ranging news conference Monday, congress spokesman Zhang Yesui reiterated Beijing’s desire to find a mutually acceptable resolution to the tariff dispute with the U.S. and touted the advantages of a draft law that he said would mark a “fundamental change” in how China manages foreign investment.

While the foreign investment law is the only item on the congress’ agenda, Zhang said its standing committee would be taking on new legislation in the areas of drug regulation, veterans’ affairs and protection of the Yangtze River, China’s most important internal waterway.

The standing committee meets every two months to deal with the bulk of the congress’ legislative chores.

As with last year, Zhang declined to disclose the planned increase in China’s defense budget, the world’s largest behind the U.S., but appeared to indicate it would continue the trend of single-digit percentage growth in place since 2016.

“When it comes to whether a country poses a military threat to other countries, the key is that country’s military and foreign policies, not how much its defense budget increases,” Zhang said.

“China’s limited defense spending is for safeguarding the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the country. It is not a threat to other countries,” he said.

China’s armed forces have undergone a thorough expansion and modernization program in recent years, raising concerns in Washington and among its neighbors, particularly those sharing overlapping territorial claims in the strategically vital South China Sea. Beijing also claims ownership of East China Sea islands controlled by traditional rival Japan and threatens to attack self-governing Taiwan to take control of what it regards as a breakaway Chinese territory.

Xi has cast himself as an ardent nationalist and foreign policy hawk, protecting himself from accusations of being too soft toward the West.

Yet while Xi appears solidly in control, University of Oxford China specialist Patricia Thornton says discontent lies under the surface, citing criticism over the removal of term limits and Xi’s handling of foreign policy and trade, along with reports showing an erosion of confidence in the economic outlook.

“There have been signs of discontent brewing among political and socioeconomics elites that could translate into some backpedaling on current central policies,” Thornton said.

Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution says Xi finds himself in a “delicate situation” and seems to have developed a new appreciation for the risks of promoting his brand too vigorously, although there are no signs he will compromise over what he has achieved thus far.

“He will not change the way he is already above the Standing Committee,” Li said. “But in some of the other things, Xi may give other leaders more chance,” giving more of an impression of joint decision making, he said.

As with every year, this week’s meetings brought a sweeping security crackdown, with neighborhood committees mobilized to patrol for trouble and construction work suspended to avoid accidents. Known government critics were confined to their homes or taken on what are euphemistically called “holiday trips” by the security forces to ensure they couldn’t be contacted.

This year also marks several sensitive anniversaries, including the 70th anniversary, on Oct. 1, of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the 60th anniversary this month of an uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet that saw the Dalai Lama flee into exile. June will see the 10th anniversary of deadly anti-Chinese riots in Xinjiang that has led to the interment over the past two years of an estimated 1 million members of the Uighur and other majority Muslim ethnic minorities.

The detentions are just one manifestation of Xi’s renewed drive to assert a role for the party in all aspects of Chinese life, private and public. Those range from establishing party organizations in private and foreign funded companies to reinstalling Cultural Revolution-era loudspeakers in rural areas that broadcast party propaganda and cannot be shut off except by the authorities.

To Zhang Lifan, a commentator and veteran observer of Chinese politics, that feels a little like desperation.

“Xi’s power peaked at the time of the constitutional revision last year, but the centralization of power may not be as complete as he thinks,” Zhang said. He cites as one example Xi’s need to issue five sets of orders before officials in the northern province of Shaanxi agreed to begin demolishing luxury villas constructed in a mountain resort area.

“As more and more problems crop up, questions about his governing ability held in private will be placed on the table,” Zhang said.