OPINION: Xi's Power Moves Trace Back to Fall of Bo Xilai

OPINION: Xi's Power Moves Trace Back to Fall of Bo Xilai

What you need to know

Xi's power play has its roots in the fall of Bo Xilai.

Calling Xi Jinping’s successful efforts to remove the term limits on the office of president a “power grab” is wide of the mark.

The phrase conjures association of swiftness and violence, or at least of something that is uneasily held.

Xi’s grip on power is by contrast absolute, embodying leader of the Party as General Secretary, the state as President, and the military as Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

With the March 11 vote and the repeal of two-term limits on the presidency, he now has the option to hold onto all three offices indefinitely, disregarding the possibility of a coalition forming against him that has sufficiently heavyweight political support.

As has been pointed out, the roles of Party leader and head of the People’s Liberation Army never had term limits, and these two offices combined wield greater power than that of president anyway -- Xi's move has brought the three positions into line, blurring the lines between Party and state to the point they are indistinguishable.

'Outcry' overdone?

Only five of the almost 3,000 delegates at Sunday’s vote in the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress failed to support the motion – comprising two “no” votes and three abstentions.

These votes may well have been sanctioned as shows of dissent permissible under what the Party calls “democracy," rather than genuine expressions of opposition. There was certainly no reaction to calls from intellectuals and activists for lawmakers to vote against the measures en masse.

Shows of dissent from activists and political thinkers within China are disparate and while commentators have been quick to satirize Xi’s actions online, drawing comparisons with Qing dynasty emperors and Winnie the Pooh, their ability to coalesce and form a movement is effectively stymied by the Party’s ever improving implements of censorship and control.

Credit: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
A student dressed in Winnie The Pooh costume to mock Chinese President Xi Jinping protests in Taipei in September 2017. The cartoon bear, whose portly appearance matches that of China's president, is sometimes used as a substitute for Xi online in China in order to evade censorship

So far, despite headlines denoting a public "outcry" over the measures, open letters from commentators and business leaders, and the censored online backlash, there is little sign that Xi’s constitutional changes will muster the kind of opposition that led to the release of Charter 08, under which prominent lawyers and activists called for and end to one-party rule and authoritarianism in 2008.

The release and signing of Charter 08 by more than 10,000 petitioners led to the immediate arrest, detention and subsequent death in prison last year of one of its authors, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. The chilling effects of this ruthless suppression of dissent still resonate.

Granted the ongoing effort to suppress commentary on Xi's play and the NPC vote on Chinese social media smacks of a government unsure of how its people will respond, but the prospect of having Xi rule China for an indeterminate amount of time appears to hold no prospect of disrupting Party unity.

And maintaining Party unity, and by extension that of the country, is the impetus for Xi’s actions.

Xi's march to power

Xi’s consolidation of power has been overwhelming and impressive, having quickly entered overdrive upon his taking the reins from Hu Jintao as China’s leader in 2013.

His tenure has been defined by a massive anti-corruption drive, which in the early days was so rigorous and terrifying that it saw sales of popular gifts (or bribes) like expensive cigarettes, top-notch bottles of maotai (rice liquor), high-end watches and other luxury items plummet as officials paused to take stock of what was happening.

The answer was a root-and-branch overhaul of Party discipline that also served as a means for Xi to eliminate potential opponents. The purge was overseen for the first five years of Xi’s presidency by right-hand man and leader of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Wang Qishan.

The disciplinary oversight body has now been given even greater investigatory powers as a result of the NPC vote via the establishment of supervisory bodies allowed to seize members of government and workers and detain them for six months without access to their families or lawyers. The action has rightly been described as jettisoning "the last pretence of the rule of law" in China.

So far, the anti-corruption campaign has punished an astonishing 1.5 million officials, including former Politburo Standing Committee members like Zhou Yongkang, provincial and municipal leaders, and the heads of powerful companies like Sinochem Group and China Telecom. Charges primarily relate to bribe-taking but encompass all manner of moral transgressions, including frequenting private clubs and playing too much golf. Several dozen military generals have also faced censure or been removed from office.

The campaign has apparently commanded support from Party elders – even if one of them (Jiang Zemin) almost fell asleep during Xi’s three-hour speech at the 19th Party Congress. It may well have been motivated by those leaders, too, which if true is an important contextual counterbalance to the idea that Xi is set on pursuing one-man rule in the maniacal manner of Mao Zedong.

Casting our minds back to the 18th Party Congress, five years earlier in 2012, the upper echelons of the Party were reeling from the fallout attached to the removal of Bo Xilai as Party head of Chongqing Municipality.

Joseph Fewsmith’s piece for China Leadership Monitor on the circumstances surrounding Bo’s removal provides a fascinating recollection of how difficult it is to read the currents of power within the Communist Party of China. Fewsmith notes that the Bo case represented the biggest challenge to Party unity since the expulsion of former Premier Zhou Ziyang for his support of the Tiananmen student protesters.

Fewsmith also recalls that on the announcement of Bo's fall, Xi had penned an editorial in the Party’s thought-leading journal Seeking Truth, spelling out the importance of maintaining Party discipline and expelling Party members found guilty of corruption.

Bo’s unsanctioned attempt to contest central power from his position in China’s outlying regions and its focus on galvanizing popular support around the idea that the Party had a corruption problem unnerved the central leadership.

Fewsmith suggested: “There is reason to believe that the rules governing elites politics will change over time because of the passing of the era of strong leaders. Bo’s challenge may be the first of many new challenges in the future, or the reaction to it may reinforce the old, consensus-based rules.“

In fact, the Party under Xi has reverted to the era of strongman leaders. Bo’s actions potentially presaged similar attempts to unsettle their cabal in future, reinforcing the idea that a weakening of power at the center will invite unwanted challengers.

In this light, the Bo Xilai case could be viewed as the turning point at which the Party doubled down on protecting internal unity and rejected consensus transitions of power. Indeed, former Premier Wen Jiabao vociferously stated that corruption was the largest danger to the Party before he stepped aside as part of the peaceful transition of power undertaken during the 18th Party Congress.

That said, decision-making within the CCP remains marvelously opaque. The absence of a leader strong enough to enforce a favorable leadership transition, as Deng Xiaoping did in installing Jiang Zemin as Party General Secretary and nominating Hu Jintao as his successor, has revealed the weakness of the checks and balances in the Party’s structure.

The question now is whether Xi’s intention is to rule “indefinitely” or to oversee a peaceful transition of power to a well-trained successor further down the line. In the meantime, assessing Xi's interim goals is a task foreign policy analysts in particular would do well to focus on given Xi's trumpeting of a more aggressive China on the world stage, and the installation of numerous foreign affairs heavyweights in the newly appointed Politburo Standing Committee.

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