Xi Jinping’s ambitious power play

by Cary Huang / February 11, 2016 / SCMP
A subtle but significant change seems to be underway in Chinese politics – one that involves President Xi Jinping further cementing his position as a strongman leader.

He broke with precedent in diplomatic protocol last year when he sent his chief of staff, Li Zhanshu, to Moscow – rather than another diplomat – for talks with the Kremlin, including a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last month, another of his aides, Liu He, chatted by phone to US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew about China’s exchange rate policies – a duty usually carried out by China’s Vice-Premier Wang Yang.

Wang is more senior than Liu in the ruling Communist Party’s hierarchy, and, as Lew’s counterpart, has represented the mainland in the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue over the past three years.

The unusual move to grant enhanced powers to both Li and Liu suggests an important change in China’s dynastic-style of elite politics; the long-standing collective, consensus-driven form of leadership that has existed since the era of Deng Xiaoping (from 1978 until the late 1990s) is now giving way to a centralised system dominated by a strongman leader – Xi himself.

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Courtesy: EPA/SCMP.COM

In recent weeks, the party propaganda machine has geared itself up to promote such a change, with a push to designate Xi as being at the “core of the party’s leadership”, and a nationwide campaign calling for all officials to declare their “absolute loyalty” to his presidential position.

Analysts believe the campaign plans to strengthen Xi’s hand over the next 12 months – a time of political manoeuvring before the semi-leadership transition at next year’s 19th Party Congress when a large number of top officials are expected to retire.

“The latest campaign aims to strengthen Xi’s power by boosting his absolute status within the leadership,” said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Beijing’s Renmin University.

Zhang said since the end of the rule of the late chairman Mao Zedong, the centralisation of power in China had never reached the level now seen under Xi’s stewardship, with the president and party chief having acquired all the control that was possible.

Analysts expect Xi to make the reshuffle of party officials his priority in the next 12 months because the next congress will see five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) – everyone except the president and Premier Li Keqiang – have to retire because of their age.

Another six members in the 25-strong Politburo, the party’s second most powerful body, will also step down by then as they will all have passed the compulsory retirement age of 68 in 2017. Read more …

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