China Communist Party Raises Xi’s Status Ahead of Reshuffle

  • Urges unity behind ‘core’ president, strengthening his hand
  • Plenum starts countdown to major leadship overhaul next year

Xi Exalted as China's 'Core' Leader

China’s Communist Party declared President Xi Jinping as its “core,” a designation that strengthens his hand ahead of a twice-a-decade power reshuffle next year.

The announcement was made at the end of a four-day party conclave in Beijing, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said, citing an official communique. The semantic change is significant in China’s elite politics, which has for more than three decades stressed collective leadership to avoid the Mao Zedong-style personality cult blamed for fueling the social chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

The party’s communique called on members to “closely unite around the CPC Central Committee with Xi Jinping as the core.” At the same time, it said collective leadership “must always be followed and should not be violated by any organization or individual under any circumstance or for any reason.”

The designation gives Xi an elevated status lacked by his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Mao was often referred to as the party’s “head” or “great helmsman.” The “core” concept appears to have been introduced by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to anoint then-little-known Jiang Zemin as his successor in the aftermath of the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 1989.

‘Common Aspiration’

“The new title will pave the way for Xi to install his people ahead of the plenum next year,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian who previously worked at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “It technically gives him the absolute power inside the party.”

Bloomberg News reported in February that several provincial-level party bosses had begun publicly proclaiming Xi’s central status and pledging to uphold his leadership. Little more was heard about the push until this month, when a magazine affiliated with the party’s People’s Daily newspaper carried a report on a survey of 15,600 citizens, saying a majority supported bestowing higher standing on the president.

Identifying Xi as the core was “in line with the common aspiration of all party members, all the soldiers and people from all ethnicities across China,” China Central Television said, citing a People’s Daily commentary. The designation was needed to drive the country’s development and guarantee the Communist Party’s leadership, the state broadcaster said.

To read more about the party’s closed-door conclaves, click here

The party also approved a host of new disciplinary measures, bolstering its anti-graft watchdogs and establishing a code of conduct for cadres and institutions. The code of conduct pledged greater scrutiny of senior leaders, up to and including members of the Politburo’s supreme Standing Committee. The moves serve to institutionalize Xi’s four-year-old anti-graft campaign, which has helped him consolidate power while punishing more than 1 million officials.

The meeting was the wider party elite’s last scheduled chance to discuss political plans before the congress, in which five of the seven Standing Committee members are due to retire. The months ahead are expected to bring intense behind-the-scenes politicking, as Xi narrows the field of potential successors in 2022, when his own tenure is slated to end.

Such party gatherings are carefully choreographed affairs. This week’s plenum -- with its party discipline theme -- rounded out Xi’s four top policy priorities, dubbed the “four comprehensives.” Previous plenums focused on expanding economic reforms, improving the legal system and increasing national strength.

‘Strategic Design’

“All priorities have been put on the table and deliberated,” said Zhu Lijia, a public affairs professor at the Chinese Academy of Governance in Beijing, a research institute under the State Council. “This is President Xi’s strategic design for the country.”

The meeting confirmed that the next congress -- the 19th since the party’s founding in 1921 -- would convene in the “second half of the year.” The events are usually held in the fourth quarter of the year. The last congress in 2012 saw Xi elevated to party chief and military leader and set up his ascension to the presidency.

The more than 350 full-and-alternate Central Committee members approved two documents on party discipline. One, a code of conduct, updates a landmark 1980 document that Deng used to enshrine collective leadership and consensus-based decision-making after the Cultural Revolution. The other amended a 2004 internal disciplinary rule, strengthening the party’s graft-busting bodies.

The new disciplinary measures detailed dozens of behaviors that would run afoul of inspectors, including being “two-faced,” conducting cover-ups, inflating achievements, forming political cliques, currying favor or flattering bosses. It even stipulated that leaders must be honest while promoting their work and should avoid excessive compliments.

Joseph Fewsmith, a political science professor at Boston University who studies China’s elite politics, said the party’s statement showed an effort to balance Xi’s new status with the institution of collective leadership.

“Xi will have a smooth path to the 19th Party Congress and will be able to promote the people he wants to promote,” Fewsmith said. “Now we will see how he will use this power.”

— With assistance by Ting Shi, and Keith Zhai

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