Change in China’s political dynamics under President Xi Jinping?

With the coming of Xi Jinping at the political helm of the Communist Party of China in 2012, there has been some structural shifts in both Beijing’s foreign policy and its domestic politics. This paper will try to look into the domestic politics of China and if there is the rise of power consolidation post-2013.

The National Peoples Congress (NPC) – China’s top legislature – had elected Xi Jinping as president in 2013, prior to which he had served as the party chief of Zhejiang province from 2002 to 2007. The first and the most significant initiative that was implemented by Xi after coming to power was the mammoth anti-corruption and anti-graft campaign on ‘tigers and flies’, resulting in 1.5 million government officials being found guilty of variety of corruption related charges. In his speeches prior to taking charge, Xi had pointed out that corruption had become prevalent on every level of society in China and, as pointed out by Willy Lam, ‘there was a good possibility that people would rise and over throw the government if the high level of corruption continued’. Therefore, it can be articulated that Xi opted to push on with the anti-corruption drive to hold on to the legitimacy of the Communist Party.

However, there has been speculations that the actual motive behind the anti-corruption drive is to eliminate Xi Jinping’s political rival which will help him to consolidate power and strengthen his position in the party. The arrest of Zhou Yongkang, former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and Bo Xilai, former member of the Politburo and potential rival of Xi, strengthens this narrative. The power consolidation by Xi Jinping under the anti-corruption drive is by removing rival factions from the Politburo, with 60% of the current Politburo having direct ties to Xi. This can also be the same for sensitive institutions like the military – which is a major source of hard power – as the anti-corruption drive has removed hundreds of top military officials. Therefore, the correlation of eradicating poverty and the anti-corruption drive gives Xi the legitimacy among the population and further helps him to strengthen and consolidate his power in the party.

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The restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has also been seen as another linchpin in Xi’s increasing drive towards power consolidation. He has dismantled the PLA’s seven military regions and four general departments, replacing it with a five major theatre commands. The theatre command is currently under the direct control of the Central Military Commission (CMC) which Xi is the head of, allowing him to oversee all matters involving the military. However, this has been pointed out by military analysts as a drive to strengthen China’s power projection and improve coordination among the various branches of the armed forces.

The restructuring has also been seen as a campaign to eradicate the corruption which has infested the PLA in recent years, mainly through the selling of ranks. But with the CMC gaining major power, Xi is taking direct command of the combat operations of the PLA – thus bringing it under his control. This has led to the official media naming him as Commander-in-Chief for the first time. The recent revision of the National Defence Law further strengthens the CMC, allowing it to mobilise military and civilian resources for the defence of national interests both at home and abroad. This new legislative amendment – which has come into force since the 1st January 2021 – will limit the State Council’s power on military policy. It can therefore be said that the authority of Xi – through the CMC – has become the consolidator of China’s military power.

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However, the biggest political initiative that has implemented Xi’s power consolidation was the eradication of the presidential term limit at the 19th National Party Congress. The limit in presidential terms to two five-year terms was introduced by Deng Xiaoping, one of China’s most charismatic leaders. The fundamental aim of this was to limit the over-concentration of power. Xi’s removal of this is thus completely contradictory to Deng’s political vision. It has been argued that Xi has also discarded Deng’s approach of collective leadership and has adopted Mao’s strongman politics approach, completely altering the political dynamics of China which had been set by Deng and followed by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. The alteration can also be seen in China’s foreign policy approach under Xi, with the abolition of Deng’s ‘hide and bide’ strategy and the adoption of a more proactive and assertive approach. Therefore, it can be articulated that the rise of Xi Jinping at the political helm of China has brought in structural changes in China’s political approach.

Featured image credit: “Xi Jinping, painted portrait _DDC2126” by Abode of Chaos is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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