Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s moves to consolidate power may have pitted him not only against rival officials, but also the political system itself.
In early August, the state-run Xinhua news agency announced that the Communist Youth League, a long-time springboard for up-and-coming regime leaders, would be reformed. Now there is talk of—and some support for—structural changes at the top level of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The current system of Party rule, whereby the Politburo Standing Committee has supreme authority, has become a discussion point on Sina Weibo, a major Chinese social media site.
In comments worded carefully to avoid censorship, netizens participating in the topic voiced support for a presidential system of governance, in which the leader—Xi, in this case—wields authority. The support has come in tandem with calls for the rule of law, as well as denunciations of corruption.
Some mentioned the need for a “strong figure during the transition from rule of man to rule of law.”
“It’s only correct that the right system be run by the right person,” said an internet user from central China’s Henan Province, who cited as a lesson the unsuccessful early attempts at creating a Chinese republic. “Sun Yat-sen created a great system, but the real leader, Yuan Shikai, didn’t like it. However upset Sun was, he couldn’t do anything, since Yuan had power.”
The implications of such a change at, for instance, the 19th Party Congress scheduled for next year, would be significant. The Standing Committee of the Politburo has been the main organ of the Party and therefore of state control for decades, and curtailing its power or removing it entirely, as some suggest may be in the cards, would be a blow to the Party’s Leninist tradition.
Marxism-Leninism, the ideology of the CCP, holds that revolution must be directed by a vanguard elite, rather than a grass-roots effort or by an individual leader.
In practice, however, Leninism in both its Soviet and Chinese forms led first to dictatorship and the cult of personality, then rule by corrupt and ossified cabals.
Rumors that Xi has plans to reform or even abolish the Standing Committee aren’t limited to online forums. The presidential system has been a fairly common topic of discussion among internal Party intellectuals.
Wang Yukai, professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance in Beijing, told the Hong Kong-based broadcaster Phoenix Television in an exclusive interview that he could see the possibility of overturning the Standing Committee’s rulership as part of what would necessarily be a “systematic reform.”
“By all means, let’s not keep using this Standing Committee system,” said Mr. Chang from Beijing in a Weibo comment. “It’s brought great damage to the people.” Others backed this view with comments calling for rule of law.
“True rule of law has to be grounded in freedom and democracy,” said a netizen from Hainan, the island province near Vietnam. “Only when civil liberties have been returned [to the people] will technology flourish, people’s livelihoods be secured, and society be able to progress!”
“[A presidential system] would be unprecedented,” said a Weibo user from Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan.
“Don’t let me down,” a woman from Chengdu in southwestern China commented on Weibo. “I’ve placed a bet that [it will happen] in 2017 at the latest.”
Xi’s hard stance on corruption in the ranks of the Party, state, military, and industry resonates with the average Chinese, for whom the abuse of power by officials is a too-common occurrence. And in elite circles, there is speculation that Xi intends top-down changes for Chinese governance, made possible as he gains more prestige and privileges.
During the two meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference earlier this year, top Party theorist and Politburo member Wang Huning gathered over 40 intellectuals from prominent Chinese think tanks for a closed discussion on democratic and institutional reforms.
The National People’s Congress is the national legislature of China, but has a largely ornamental role, as it is closely controlled by the CCP. The People’s Political Consultative Conference is a political advisory body.
Xin Ziling, a retired editor at the China National Defense University in Beijing, believes that the timing of Wang Huning’s discussion indicates that the Xi administration is trying to move the state toward more rule of law and implement constitutional principles in government.
Some netizens believe that placing broad powers in the hands of an individual could open the door to greater reforms. “The presidential system would have the power to introduce democratic election of representatives to the National People’s Congress. It would become possible to nationalize the army,” said a netizen from Jilin Province in northeastern China.
By nationalizing the army, the Jilin netizen means putting it under the control of a civil government. The Chinese military is controlled by the CCP.
Luo Yu, the son of Chinese communist revolutionary leader Luo Ruiqing, has been outspoken in his calls for Xi to not only reform the system but also to jettison communism entirely. Luo recently emigrated to the United States and now lives in Pennsylvania.
“In July or August I suggested to Xi in a letter that the presidential system is his best choice. Later, many websites, professors, and people in the Party institutes also started talking about this system,” he said. “It would be a great sign if more people in the higher echelons [of the Party] would discuss it too.”
While Chinese intellectuals and individuals in internet chat forums see Xi as being able to use his position of president to move China toward the rule of law, whether this is Xi’s plan, and whether he could carry out such a radical change, remains to be seen.
“Hopefully it’s not another deception,” a user from Shenzhen in southern China wrote.