Written by Kerry Brown.

There are three ‘P’s’ that the Fourth Plenum outcome on law make clear about the Xi style of leadership. The first is that it is populist. The second is that it is driven by increasingly programmatic politics. Finally, it is driven increasingly by the personality of its central leader as a key means of selling its various messages.

The Fourth Plenum communique is populist in the sense that it is attempting to continue delivering messages that will go down well with its core constituency, the ones which are the target for so much of its policy thrust at the moment, namely the emerging, urban and aspirational middle class who are at the centre of the vision to deliver a better quality, more service sector orientated and innovative economy within the next decade. This group might number up to 700 million. Many are property owning, and a good proportion are originally from rural areas. These are the people whose consumption habits China will increasingly rely on to produce growth. They are people who need to continue feeling that the future will be good, and that the investments they are making into their country and the current governing system are worthwhile. It is clear that the anti-corruption campaign goes down well with them, and comes across as a sort of anti-elite politics with Chinese characteristics. Ironically, it harks back to a previous period of populism when the Party was also being daily eviscerated over its bureacratism and cliquism – the Cultural Revolution from 1966. But this iteration is way more forensic and so far much more benign. As the Plenum statement issued on 24th October stated, the main task in this context is to ‘build a law abiding government’ and to improve accountability and ‘legitimacy of major decision making’.  That means keeping the emerging middle classes happy, by giving them what they want – strong property rights, more legal safeguards over their material assets, and a sense that the government and party is on their side. Much of this, and the Third Plenum last year, talks to this constituency, trying to show that the wealth and goods of the last few years of growth and development belong to the people, not just networks in the Party. That, at least, is the populist message that the political elite are trying to convey.

The other is that they have a plan and are in control. This brings us to the second P, programmatic politics. Since coming to power in 2012, this leadership has been clearing out a space in which to deliver on the core mission – moderate prosperity by 2021. But that date also has a Party meaning – the hundredth anniversary of CPC existence. What better way to celebrate this than have it coincide with the final arrival of modernity to China, and show that this was only possible because of the Party? This structures almost everything that the Xi leadership now does – it is, in effect, their big prize. So economic programming was dealt with in the Plenum 2013, with its core message of efficient growth through perfecting the market. In 2014, the Plenum concentrated on legal construction – the delivery of a modernizing society and a more sophisticated economy through better rules, better administration, and a clear sense that there is a reform process for legal modernity that parallels that for the economic one. There can be few governments in the world that have put so much effort and political capital into constructing an enabling framework.  The question now is whether this can actually work.

Which brings us to the third P – personality politics. Xi Jinping’s face and personality seem to be plastered everywhere at the moment – from art talks to disquisitions on China’s role in the world, to his pronouncements on political developments in China. The Fourth Plenum, like its predecessor last year, might be the statement of a consensus position, but it is clearly being sold through the new leadership granting Xi a prominent role as government policy salesman in chief. He is the one who is being placed at the centre of all these messaging endeavours. This too has a Maoist- tinge to it – the idea that having the message and the policy ideas is only half the battle – the rest is about who sells it, and how they are empowered to do so. Clearly, Chinese leaders and the political elites around them don’t want a Mao Mark Two, able to become so dominant that they train their fire back on the very people that once put them in place. But they do appreciate the amazing propaganda skills of the regime founder. So Xi as the centre of this new era of personality politics is becoming increasingly prominent. The only issue now is whether he has the self control to not let this go to his head and start acting like he is a new Mao. Power does strange things to people, so the outcome of this particular part of the trinity of P’s is not so clear.

The Fourth Plenum is part of a process to appeal to the great emerging middle class of China, in order to achieve the programme of moderate prosperity by 2021. It is an attempt to sell the message that the Party is not a clique driven entity, but able to appeal across society and share out some of the goodies of wealth creation and prosperity. Smashing up some of the greedy networks which grew up in the early 2000s appeals hugely to this middle class and is the most tangible symbol that the Xi leadership is trying to speak to them and keep them onside. ‘Moderate prosperity’ is an unexciting phrase, but it conceals something startling and radical. The mission of this leadership in many ways can be described in a single phrase – to create a bourgeois China. Surely this is one of the greatest paradoxes of the modern age – that the Party of revolution and disruption is now going all out to create a property owning, finance sector working, higher consuming middle class. And that alone shows that for all their dabbling with the techniques of Maoist style leadership politics,  their political aims belong to another realm, and the only Cultural Revolution we are likely to see in China in the future will be for the middle classes to have more opera, theatre, and libraries to develop their tastes and spend their money, not struggle sessions and mass mobilization campaigns.

Kerry Brown is Professor and Director of the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney. He is a CPI Fellow and CPI blog Regular Contributor. He tweets @BkerryChina

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