As Xi’s star rises, can the cen­ter hold?

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Chi­nese Com­mu­nist chief Xi Jin­ping’s as­cen­sion to the high­est ti­tle in the party hi­er­ar­chy for­mal­izes his po­si­tion as its pre­em­i­nent fig­ure, an­a­lysts said, mak­ing him the coun­try’s most pow­er­ful leader in a gen­er­a­tion and invit­ing com­par­isons with Mao Ze­dong. The rul­ing party’s dec­la­ra­tion that Xi is the “core” of its lead­er­ship saw some ob­servers ar­gue it her­alded the be­gin­nings of a per­son­al­ity cult, smack­ing of the adu­la­tion that once sur­rounded Com­mu­nist China’s found­ing fa­ther, who ruled for three decades.

Oth­ers saw it as a cru­cial step to en­force gen­uine re­form in the world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try and sec­ond-largest economy, in­clud­ing lib­er­al­iz­ing mar­kets and strength­en­ing the le­gal sys­tem. Xi’s anoint­ment, by the rul­ing party’s top ech­e­lons af­ter a key meet­ing in Bei­jing known as the Sixth Plenum, was met with fan­fare by state me­dia. A pic­ture of the leader in a somber Western suit dom­i­nated the front pages of the coun­try’s ma­jor pa­pers Fri­day, and China’s na­tional broad­caster showed footage of Xi’s lec­tures dur­ing the meet­ing on a near-con­tin­u­ous loop.

A gush­ing ed­i­to­rial in the Com­mu­nist Party’s mouth­piece, the Peo­ple’s Daily, called the leader’s el­e­va­tion the “com­mon will” of the na­tion, lan­guage echoed by com­men­taries in many ma­jor news out­lets. The of­fi­cial Xinhua news ser­vice said the de­ci­sion was a for­mal recog­ni­tion of the crit­i­cal role Xi has played since tak­ing power in 2012, when he launched a mas­sive anti-cor­rup­tion drive that has shaken the party to its roots.

While the cam­paign has led to the pun­ish­ment of over a mil­lion of­fi­cials, it, too, has raised ques­tions about whether Xi is a re­former or is car­ry­ing out a ruth­less po­lit­i­cal purge. The doc­u­ment that de­clared Xi’s pri­macy also em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of col­lec­tive lead­er­ship and warned against the de­ifi­ca­tion of the party’s chiefs. “Pro­pa­ganda about lead­ers should be fac­tual and avoid flat­tery,” it em­pha­sized.

The mes­sage ap­peared to have by­passed the denizens of China’s so­cial me­dia, many of whom are thought to be by paid by au­thor­i­ties to lav­ish praise on the gov­ern­ment. “Res­o­lutely em­brace Xi Dada!” said one com­menter, us­ing a pop­u­lar nick­name for the leader that some say evokes an air of pa­ter­nal­is­tic au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. “With Xi Jin­ping as the core... we will def­i­nitely re­al­ize our Chi­nese dream,” it con­tin­ued, echo­ing the leader’s na­tion­al­is­tic call for the “Great Re­ju­ve­na­tion” of the Chi­nese na­tion.

The con­cept of a “core” leader was first put for­ward by China’s for­mer para­mount leader Deng Xiaop­ing in 1989, shortly af­ter na­tion­wide democ­racy protests turned into the bloody Tianan­men Square crack­down. The sit­u­a­tion was “un­sta­ble” at the time, said Xi Xian­glin, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Bei­jing Univer­sity, and Deng con­ferred the ti­tle on the coun­try’s new leader Jiang Zemin as a way to rally sup­port. The term, he said, de­scribes “a vir­tu­ous per­son who comes to re­solve dif­fer­ences of opin­ion within the party”.

Many loy­al­ists see Xi as a trans­for­ma­tive fig­ure, and Hu Xing­dou, an ex­pert on China’s gov­er­nance at the Bei­jing In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, said his new sta­tus could see him be­come “China’s (Ge­orge) Wash­ing­ton” and lead the coun­try “out of the shadow of chaos”. The gov­ern­ment had failed to de­liver on its pre­vi­ous com­mit­ments in such ar­eas as im­prov­ing rule of law and open­ing mar­kets, he said. “Con­versely, they have been vi­o­lated, and we have seen ma­jor set­backs.” With­out a strong leader, he said, “no one can make fi­nal de­ci­sions. Noth­ing can be ac­com­plished”.

Re­gional cadres be­gan us­ing the term “core” for Xi last De­cem­ber, but it then dis­ap­peared, sug­gest­ing that the Chi­nese pres­i­dent had en­coun­tered re­sis­tance to his ef­forts to fur­ther con­sol­i­date his power. The move comes ahead of a party con­gress next year when Xi will have an op­por­tu­nity to put his own al­lies into the top Polit­buro Stand­ing Com­mit­tee. Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Bap­tist Univer­sity said that calls for unity be­fore and at the plenum showed that the party was “far from be­ing mono­lithic and that Xi is fac­ing dif­fi­cul­ties and even head­winds as far as his pol­icy agenda is con­cerned”. “The bat­tle for the next party con­gress has started but it is far from be­ing over,” he said.

‘Power Hun­gry’

Not all are con­vinced Xi will use his new-found au­thor­ity for good. He is a “power hun­gry politi­cian”, said Willy Lam, pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at the Chi­nese Univer­sity of Hong Kong. “It’s what the psy­chol­o­gists call mega­lo­ma­nia: The more pow­er­ful you are, the more power hun­gry you re­main.” Lam be­lieves that Xi will try to re­main in power be­yond the two five-year terms al­lowed to the na­tional pres­i­dent by law. There is no for­mal rule on ten­ure for the gen­eral sec­re­tary of the rul­ing party, the post from which he de­rives his power. “The core can ask for 20 years,” he said. “This is a very bla­tant build­ing of the per­son­al­ity cult... a big step back for in­sti­tu­tional re­form.” Lam is not alone. For many, Xi’s new ti­tle brings to mind an age-old tra­di­tion. One com­menter on China’s Weibo mi­croblog ser­vice posted: “One coun­try, one em­peror. It’s the way it’s been for thou­sands of years.” — AFP

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