Xi Jinping’s Strongman Politics

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It was back in 2012 when People’s Republic of China (PRC) experienced shift from Deng’s idea of ‘collective leadership’ to the revival of Maoist idea of “strongman politics” under Xi Jinping. Some analysts view this from the lens of individualistic perspective where Xi’s personal vision, charisma, self-confidence, boldness, political shrewdness and his princeling background is considered as the main reason behind this shift. While others consider this shift as a result of broader political consensus between ruling elite who prioritized strongman politics amid mounting challenges to CCP’s legitimacy. In recent years CCP’s legitimacy was at stake due to policy deadlock resulting from party factionalism, massive corruption, economic slowdown, social inequality, environmental pollution, ethnic conflicts (Xinjiang, Tibet and inner Mongolia), aging population and growing competition with United States at international level.

There are few important evidences which show that power was ‘given’ to Xi Jinping opposed to the idea that he ‘grabbed’ the power. The most popular Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is considered as the hallmark of Xi Jinping’s personalistic ambitions but point to be noted here is that when Xi came to power he didn’t have enough authority to launch such campaign alone. There was a very famous statement from former general secretary Cheng Li, who calls Xi as weaker than Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin calling for a dire need for collective leadership in descion making. Xi could never have consolidated power to himself without the support of his peers, especially ruling elite who were expecting to share power with him.

This idea is further reinforced due to the lack of any evidence regarding the resistance from political elite against Xi’s power centralization. This is very evident from the behavior of incoming premier Li Keqiang whose political power was reduced the most but still he praised Xi Jinping which shows his clear consent regarding centralization of power. Unlike his predecessors who had to wait for years, Xi Jinping immediately became chairman of CMC and many Leading Small Groups (LSGs) which was impossible without the support of party elite. Another step was the reduction in membership of PSC from nine to seven thus eliminating factionalism from party politics. Most of the PSC members were conservative belonging to elitist camp leading to homogenization of party in descion making. In short, party elite were well aware of the fact that existing dictum of ‘collective leadership’ was insufficient in solving problems of contemporary China so there was a need for strongman politics.

Xi Jinping also made it very clear during his inaugural speeches that party was going through turmoil and severe legitimacy crisis. Xi Jinping was somehow right in his convictions amid rising revolts against weak regimes as it was happening in Middle East (Arab Spring). Soviet Union’s collapse along with the weakened Chinese ideology as well as bureaucratic structure created such circumstances where the idea of Strongman politics was crucial. Another important fact to be noticed here is that before Xi came to power a concept was prevailing about party that it was ‘divorced from people’ and Xi claimed the strengthening leadership was mainly to get back the lost trust of people on party. All the party leaders implicitly acknowledged the fact that collective leadership failed to abolish these dangers. This anxiety among leaders was not something new as Hu Jintao also manifested concerns regarding ‘unprecedented new problems, new situations and new challenges. He talked about four dangers which PRC was facing at that time and Corruption being the biggest of all. Rooting out corruption was Xi’s first step when he came to the power as he considered this danger most lethal which can destabilize country. Deng Xiaoping who was considered as the founder of the idea of collective leadership also knew the limitations to this idea in the wake of ‘Tiananmen Square Incident of 1989’. But still he didn’t abolish this idea but came up with the idea of ‘Core Leader’ during the period of Jiang Zemin leading to elite cohesion. He was unable to implement the idea of strongman politics because the memories of cultural revolution under Mao were still fresh in the minds of people.  From weakening ideology to corruption, environmental degradation and economic slowdown, everything in PRC is associated with the party and its weakening legitimacy.

A notion is prevailing in international arena that Xi Jinping is rewriting Chinese history under his authoritative strongman leadership. But according to my opinion there is no certainty with which we can say that this style of leadership will be favored by Xi’s peers in coming decades. Xi’s centralized power can be problematic for his fellow politicians who have lost their patronage and chances for promotion. According to a very famous political scientist, Milan Svolik, between 1946-2008 two-third of the authoritarian regimes fell down due to intra-party elite split. At a time where the image of China is rising in the eyes of international audience, Xi should take some steps to deal with ‘over centralization’ by sharing some of his power to avoid any turmoil at home.

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