Written by Hans H. Tung.

Xi Jinping’s first term since 2012 has dazzled many seasoned observers of Chinese politics. There were open trials of prominent political figures who used to be worshipped in China’s political pantheon. There was an anti-corruption campaign that swept across upper and lower echelons within the Chinese bureaucracy. There were also new social initiatives launched to engage newly emerging opinion leaders and tighten up the government’s control over the society. These new developments defy much of the conventional wisdom. Was it all because of, as some suggested, the leadership style of Xi Jinping that such a great transformation in Chinese politics could happen? Or, were there any more systematic and non-personal factors that could account for these changes? I believe that the answer should lie somewhere beyond the personal background and factors of Xi’s position, but in the institutional matrix of the Chinese authoritarian regime instead.

During the eight years under Hu, people tended to juxtapose Hu Jintao with the then premier Wen Jiabao and called the government the ‘Hu-Wen’ administration, to show that there was a division of labour (read: power) between them along with other standing members of the Politburo. Even during the years of Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, people also called the government, Jiang-Li (when Li Peng was the premier during Jiang’s first term as China’s president) or Jiang-Zhu (after Zhu Rongji succeeded Li Peng as the Premier) administrations.

This convention, however, has been totally ignored after Xi took power in 2012. It only took several months for people to realise that China’s collective leadership had almost come to an end and it was now Emperor Xi who played solo. Following the establishment of two important new organizations, the Central National Security Council (CNSC) of the CPC and The Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (CLGCDR), during the third plenary session of the 18th CPC central committee, most China watchers realized that the current Premier, Li Keqiang, had been sidelined.  It was now primarily Xi who called the shots in most important decisions regarding either national security, or domestic reforms. At the same time when Xi tried to consolidate his power by creating the CNSC and CLGCDR, he also launched an anti-corruption campaign that has seen both prominent CPC leaders and ordinary cadres arrested and tried. Xi’s political move to purge several factional leaders and their henchmen implies strongly that he no longer wants to share power with other factions as Hu Jintao did. Furthermore, the very fact that the anti-corruption campaign so far has gone beyond China’s political pantheon — the Politburo —- means that the campaign is not just about personal feuds or power struggles, but is also about making profound and systematic changes in China’s power-sharing arrangements. More critically, the creation of the CNSC and CLGCDR further shook the institutional underpinnings of China’s collective leadership. While we don’t have to go so far as to announce the death of the collective leadership system, Xi needs no support from other prominent elites within the party, it is nevertheless undeniable that the rule of the game among elites since Jiang Zemin has been fundamentally changed.

Moreover, it was not until early 2015 that we began to observe Xi’s moves in the social arena. On May 29, the Politburo passed a new (provisional) regulation, The Regulation on CCP Leading Party Members’ Groups (Provisional) [Zhongguo Gongchandang Dangzu Gongzuo Tiaoli (Shixing)]) that aims to further regulate and fortify the leading party members’ groups  ([Dangzu], DZ) that have already been established in non-party organizations such as government agencies and quasi-government associations, and expand the party’s outreach to social organizations (e.g., NGOs) that have hitherto been left “relatively untended” by the CPC.

While this new regulation was announced to be only provisional, it soon gave rise to a wide concern among NGOs over being further squeezed politically owing to the party’s organisational penetration if it’s fully implemented. Technically, however, it probably takes some grand social engineering and mobilisation to create Pongos (Party-Organized Non-Governmental Organizations) by setting up DZs in NGOs. This is because most NGO members are not Party members, and it’s even more unlikely to have Party members assume leadership positions in them. Is Xi going to ask current NGO leaders to join the CPC? Or, is he going to take over NGOs by dispatching party members to be their leaders? It waits to be seen which approach Xi is going to take, or if this regulation is going to a “tiger without teeth.” Regardless, this new policy endorsed by the Politburo heralded a diversion of institutional investment from the power-sharing to co-opting institutions and an attempt to co-opt potential opposition in the society by creating new institutional channels for social elites to be incorporated by the Party.

Combining both analyses on Xi’s restructuring of China’s elite politics and the new initiative in social co-optation completes my depiction of the institutional trajectory Xi’s political manoeuvring has taken. However, I by no means try to argue that Xi will definitely succeed in transforming China in the way that he wishes. It’s yet to be seen if Xi might hit the wall one day and will have to make compromises with more allies similarly to his predecessors. This is a big gamble that Xi is taking right now and an important test for social scientists to know how sticky the previous political equilibrium can be. In the current period of a disequilibrium, the old structure has been eroded but is yet to be dismantled. If Xi makes it and gains a broader support base from the society owing to social co-optation, he will be able to create a new leadership model for China. If he fails during this term, then we shouldn’t be surprised to see a “Hu Jintao junior“ in charge in the 19th Party Congress to be held later this year (2017).

Hans H. Tung is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at National Taiwan University. Image credit: CC by Foreign and Commonwealth Office/Flickr.