The making of China’s ‘paramount’ leader

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January 26, 2016 12:20 AM

While President Xi Jinping has set out to fashion the China Dream of a moderately prosperous society by 2020, “disappearances” contradicting rule of law, bureaucratic inertia and paralysis affecting reforms, and rampant corruption may create a backlash

Xi has more titles and formal powers than any leader in the five generations of party leadership since the 1940s, including Mao. He now heads five of the most important Leading Groups—which has undercut the traditional importance of the Premier. Xi has more titles and formal powers than any leader in the five generations of party leadership since the 1940s, including Mao. He now heads five of the most important Leading Groups—which has undercut the traditional importance of the Premier.

Just three years into power, China’s President Xi Jinping (Xi is pronounced “Shee”) has captured global imagination like no other leader in the recent past—foisted with approbations ranging from “Big Brother Xi” to “Uncle Xi” to “Daddy Xi”, to those less complimentary—“CEO Xi”—China’s COE of Everything. China Hands are watching with bated breath as Xi has this year in hand before a plunge into the drama of the critical 19th Party Congress (the Party Congress is held every five years), scheduled to be held in 2017. While an assessment of Xi may be too premature—unconnected, unrelated events in China and outside such as the “disappearance” of the editor Lee Bo in Hong Kong, indication of several high-level officials in China due to corruption and the backlash of opinion against China in Taiwan following a public apology by a Taiwanese teenager ratifying “There is only one China” are ominous signs.

First, the recent spotlight on the spate of “disappearances” in Hong Kong—the sudden disappearance of the well-known publisher by the name of Lee Bo, editor at the publishing house Mighty Current, in Hong Kong (in January 2016) comes on the heels of the serial disappearances of staff members associated with the publishing house. In October 2015, two co-owners, Gui Minhai (who is a Swedish citizen) and Lu Bo, disappeared in Thailand and Shenzhen, respectively.

Mighty Current owns Causeway Bay Books and is known to churn out less-than-credible books with a thin storyline about China’s Communist Party leaders, often boasting overly sensational and salacious titles. Some sampler titles are: Secrets of Wives of Chinese Communist Party Officials, Jiang Zemin Under House Arrest and Xi Jinping to Collapse in 2017. A journalist with Singapore’s Straits Times suggests that most buyers for these books emanate not from Hong Kong but mainland China. Ironically, it seems censorship whets appetite on the low-down of socialist life.

It is widely rumoured that a book on Xi’s private life was in the offing—necessitating the disappearances—that too in Hong Kong, ruled under the rubric of “one party, two systems”.

What lies behind the disappearances? And is the “disappearance” in Hong Kong, in effect, an extension of what is happening within China?

Xi’s ascent as “paramount” leader has come on the back on two campaigns—“anti-corruption”, which is viewed very positively by the people, and “channel public opinion”. Both are concerted steps to bring back ideological focus that has gone into decline and address rising corruption. However, both have had unanticipated and unintended consequences by way of “disappearances” and “public apology”. So also a clampdown on the internet and the arrest of several high-level officials—to the point of bureaucratic paralysis.

“Channelling public opinion” ostensibly for nation building is traced to Xi’s August 19, 2013, speech at the National Ideological Work Conference in Beijing, an “important speech of 19th August”. Both Global Times and People’s Daily interpreted Xi’s speech of “the struggle for public opinion” so as to “effectively channel public opinion”.

Has this degraded to “disappearances” is the question on everybody’s lips. Though the disappearance of editor Lee Bo made global headlines, many bemoan that the same has been happening in China. The disappearances of several high-profile lawyers in China is well-known. This includes many lawyers of Fengrui Law Firm, prominent among whom is the female lawyer, Wang Yu, who was formally arrested on January 8, 2016. Well-known civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was detained in May and charged in June 2014—among others, lawyer Xu Zhiyong who headed the New Citizens Movement (arrested in August 2013), lawyer Cao Shunli (who died in detention in March 2014), labour activist Lin Dong (charged in April 2014), journalist Xiang Nanfu (detained in May 2014) and writer Tie Lu (charged in September 2014).

“Public apologies” have made a comeback in China. In an unprecedented step, the CCTV has been airing “public apologies” since 2013. Many confessionals have been aired—with despondents wearing orange prison-vests and yellow prison-vests—leading to the popular acronym “orange is the new black”. Actor Jackie Chan’s son Jaycee Chan and Jaycee’s friend Ko Chen-tung (both actors) were arrested in a drug bust—a remorseful Ko appeared on TV lamenting his experimentation with drugs.

Clampdown on the internet is also rising. China’s online population—the world’s largest, over 600 million at the last count—has seen stray incidents of rumour-mongering. Taking preventive action, popular bloggers such as Charles Xue (known as Xue Manzi) and Wang Gongquan—both otherwise called the two “Big V’s” with verified accounts on the micro-blog Weibo—have been done in. Xue had 12 million followers and Wang had 1.5 million. Beijing later clarified that Xue had been arrested for “soliciting prostitutes” and not for his popularity with netizens. Analysts scoff this, saying that discussion on both Weibo and Weixin (China’s WeChat) has been tightened.

Many have stepped in to warn of the downside. Journalist Qian Gang of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong warned of the consequences of the haphazard “public opinion struggle” in an article titled Parsing the ‘public opinion struggle’. Qian argued that the sword of the “public opinion struggle”, which once was turned “against the West, against religious cults and against separatism”, was now being turned “against domestic intellectuals and ordinary internet users”.

Another dramatic upheaval is China’s anti-corruption drive to net “tigers and flies”. More than 182,000 party officials and 30 high-level officials—the so-called “tigers”—have been netted. In an unprecedented step, the ancient tradition of sending Imperial envoys to provinces has been revived. Since 2013, several inspection teams have been despatched to provinces and state corporations. The campaign and the inspection teams have not spared even senior PLA Generals (such as Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong), political heavyweights (former security czar Zhou Yongkang and ex-railway minister Liu Zhijun) and top aides (Ling Jihua, former President Hu Jintao’s right-hand man and General Jia Tingan, secretary and right-hand man of former President Jiang Zemin), who have reportedly been taken into custody.

What does the above tell us about China’s political landscape?

One, China’s political landscape is undergoing tremendous upheaval and change—some for the good. Two, there is the clear resurgence, once more, of the “paramount” or “pre-eminent” leader in China—a departure and setback to the practice of “collective leadership” that had emerged in the post-Deng Xiaoping (1978-89) period. Mao (1949-76) was China’s “great helmsman”; successor Deng Xiaoping ruled behind-the-scenes despite formally stepping down from formal positions of power in 1989 until his death in 1997.

The post-Deng consensus marked the transition to “collective leadership” or “collective rule”—a political landscape marked by competition between several elite factions in the Communist Party such as Shanghai gang and Communist Youth League, leading observers to call such a dispensation as “fragmented authoritarianism” with leadership succession narrowly “institutionalised” (with limits on term and age).

What distinguishes Xi from his predecessors is donning all “three hats”—party (as General Secretary), state (President of the People’s Republic) and military (Chairman of the Central Military Commission) swiftly—as well as heading several supra-governmental bodies called Leading Groups which has led to an increase in power.

Semi-permanent bodies—Leading Groups—have been established to cut through bureaucratic morass. According to China watcher Geremie Barme, Xi has “more titles and formal powers than any leader in the five generations of party leadership since the 1940s, including Mao”. Xi now heads five of the most important Leading Groups—which has undercut the traditional importance of the Premier.

Three, the comprehensive “anti-corruption” drive may create paralysis and enemies—what with bureaucrats, cadre and the military constantly under watch. The ramifications of the drive are yet to unfold.

On top of all this, it is well-known that what happens in Hong Kong (for example, “disappearance”) is keenly followed by Taiwan. However, when it happens to Taiwan itself is a double whammy. The “public” apology that came from a 16-year-old Taiwanese wannabe K-pop singer Chou Tzu-yu from the Twice rock band, right on election day, helped further swing public opinion in Taiwan towards the Taiwanese opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and helped Tsai Ing-Wen (DPP) win resoundingly (56%) over the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang Party (KMT) candidate Eric Chu (31%). Ominous for China, this also indicates the pull (or the lack of) the “one country, two systems” dream that China has for Taiwan’s “return”.

Xi has set out to fashion the China Dream of a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020. Certainly, Xi has left no stone unturned as China has embarked on its 13th Five Year Plan (2016-20) guided by principles called Four Comprehensives—prosperity, deepening reform, rule of law and party discipline.

However, with the economy slowing down and hitting prosperity, “disappearances” contradicting rule of law, bureaucratic inertia and paralysis affecting reform, and rampant corruption pointing to lack of party discipline—Xi’s ambitious dream is probably hitting too many bricks in the wall.

Viswanath is a Singapore-based Sinologist and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. She is the author of Finding India in China

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