Party Theoretician Backs Xi Jinping as ‘Core Leader’

October 12, 2016 Updated: October 28, 2016

News analysis

Months after a handful of high-ranking Communist Party officials called for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to be considered the “core” of the regime’s leadership, several Party-controlled media are repeating the message.

According to experts, and given the overall political game Xi finds himself in, the media signalling suggests preparations for an extra degree of recognition as paramount leader of the Communist Party. The move would break with the status quo of over a decade, while matching with Xi’s recent actions to centralize power and fend off rivals with their own designs.

In an Oct. 9 editorial that appeared in Guangming Daily, the newspaper of establishment intellectuals, Communist Party theoretician Fan Dezhi argued that the “core” leadership was a fundamental feature of the Party, supported not just by previous leaders Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong, but in the teachings of Marx and Lenin. The article was widely republished in other mouthpiece media, including People’s Daily and Xinhua.

That so much energy would be poured into the matter of simple wording initially seems like a distracting footnote — but in fact the question of whether Xi Jinping is, or truly becomes, the “core” of the Communist Party is a crucial one. All previous Party leaders, except Xi’s immediate predecessor Hu Jintao, were granted the distinction. The title is a kind of official unofficial designation of having reached a pinnacle of power, meaning that less time must be spent in the endless compromise and consensus-building implicit in the alternative to rule by a “core leader,” which is “collective leadership.”

This style of collective leadership reigned during the era of Hu Jintao, though in hindsight many observers now believe the phrase is merely a useful expedient to conceal the influence of the former leader Jiang Zemin. If Xi Jinping wishes to break through the constraints of Jiang and his allies, three of whom still surround Xi on the Politburo Standing Committee, he himself needs to be crowned the “core” leader.

Fan’s article, titled “On Maintaining Core Consciousness From Three Dimensions,” asserted that indeed Xi Jinping is already the “core” of the Central Committee.

“With regards to the undertaking that is socialism with Chinese characteristics, the Communist Party of China is its core; regarding the Communist Party, the Central Committee is core, and regarding the Central Committee, the core is the General Secretary,” a tract from the winding piece reads.

Fan, who serves as in disciplinary and executive positions in the Party History Research Center attached to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, warned against divisions in the Leninist regime.

“Without centralized leadership, with each Party branch enjoying ‘sufficient autonomy’ to act as they please, then the Party has no option but to sink into disintegration,” he wrote. “It cannot become a solid and united organization or carry out unified action to achieve results in various types of struggle.”

Core, or Consensus?

Though the position of general secretary is the highest in the Party and its holder is also the Chinese head of state, the position does not grant dictatorial powers by default. Since coming to power, Xi has skirted around the authority and influence of other high-ranking Party members and the Central Committee by relying on the Party’s “Work Groups,” which are commissions that can be more easily controlled from the top.

The “core” idea gained prominence in Chinese politics in the 1980s and 1990s, when outgoing leader Deng Xiaoping granted the title upon his successor, Jiang Zemin. This distinction did not carry over to Hu Jintao, who replaced Jiang as general secretary in 2002.

Jiang and his allies continued to wield influence through informal and often heavily corrupt networks in the Party, military, security, and industrial complexes even after the leader’s retirement.

According to Zheng Yongnian, director of the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute, Hu’s time in office could be described as “feudal,” because other members of the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee had power to act independently of Hu and Wen Jiabao, who was premier at the time.

In an essay written this May for Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television, Zheng pointed to the so-called “Zhou Yongkang phenomenon,” where top officials like internal security head and Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, General Office chief Ling Jihua and military vice chairs Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong could be considered “Party oligarchs.”

“Jiang Zemin turned the concept of the ‘core’ into a system of divided labor in the Politburo Standing Committee,” says Li Tianxiao, a political commentator. “By confirming himself as the core, Xi is trying to abolish this system.”

Li said that separating the powers of individual Standing Committee members was a tactic used by Jiang Zemin to “suspend Hu Jintao,” that is, to undermine his authority as general secretary.

Since Xi Jinping came to power, Zhou, Bo, Ling, and Guo have all been purged, along with many regional and several national-level Party officials in an anti-corruption campaign that has also targeted their business ties. At the same time, propaganda has played up the need for in-depth reforms and revitalizing the Party’s ideology through an unorthodox emphasis on both socialism as well as traditional Chinese culture.

Looking Ahead

Various events in recent months, such as the legislative vote-buying scandal in Liaoning, or a media smear against the Party leader who heads the national legislature, point towards Xi’s increasing offensives against officials tied to Jiang.

From January on, various Party secretaries at the provincial level and up have voiced their support for Xi as a core leader.

In June, Xi protege Li Zhanshu, chief of national security and a member of the Politburo, formally called for Xi to be recognized as the core, becoming the first member of the 25-person leading body of the Communist Party to do so.

Zhang Lifan, a historian and political commentator in Beijing, told Bloomberg in February that the effort to confer the title on Xi was motivated by a “mid-term power transition” and that “in Chinese politics, what you seek can show what you lack.”

The actual extent of Xi’s political power is uncertain, and this lack of confidence, coupled with the upcoming Sixth Plenum of the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress at which the next generation of officials will be selected, may add motivation to Xi’s desire to cast himself as a leader second to none.