What Xi Jinping has accomplished over the past year doesn’t look like an old-fashioned Communist Party putsch. There aren’t red banners in the streets or blaring loudspeakers. But Chinese and Western analysts agree that Xi has achieved a remarkable consolidation of power.
Since taking over as party chief in November 2012 and president last March, Xi has transformed what was a colorless collective leadership into an aggressive instrument of control and reform. “Xi Jinping marks the arrival of a golden age for Chinese neo-authoritarianism,” commented Chinese scholar Xiao Gongqin in a November 2013 interview with The New York Times.
The “princeling” son of a famous revolutionary and a fan of the movie “The Godfather,” Xi has used all the levers of power in this one-party society. Like so much in modern China, Xi’s reforms are a study in contradiction. He proposes at once that market forces have a “decisive” role in the Chinese economy and that state ownership play a “leading” role.
“The old way is unsustainable,” an official told a conference, which was organized by the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. (of which I am a trustee). But the official stressed that “we should not expect that reforms led by the Communist Party will weaken the party’s leadership.” Quite the opposite; Xi wants to enhance the party’s power.
This consolidation of power has been so decisive that it’s easy to forget how wobbly China looked just 18 months ago.
When Xi finally took the stage as party leader in November 2012, he made an emphatic inaugural speech: “Inside the party, there are many problems that need to be addressed, especially the problems among party members and officials of corruption and taking bribes,” he said. He displaced Hu from the military commission, a sign of his strong power base. Soon after, Xi announced his “Chinese dream,” whose four attributes tellingly included a “strong China.”
The Chinese leader accelerated his reform plans with a “Third Plenum” meeting last November. He created two special committees, a “leading small group” on economic reform and a “national security commission” to oversee China’s huge military and security bureaucracy. The plenum gave Xi even tighter control.
The challenge for Xi is to oversee the maturation of China’s economy.
“Xi wants to show that he can save the Titanic,” a leading American scholar told a Shanghai gathering. He likened Xi’s power putsch to Yuri Andropov’s attempt to reform the Soviet Communist Party in the early 1980s; that effort backfired during Mikhail Gorbachev’s “glasnost” era and the unraveling of the Soviet empire.
Xi evidently thinks he can reform the party without destroying it. Indeed, one China expert told the conference that the party has instructed its members to watch a lengthy video chronicling the fall of the Soviet Union – lest they repeat the same mistakes. Xi’s tricky problem is simultaneous loosening and tightening.
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.