Looking back at how major international magazines commented on Xi Jinping’s rise as General Secretary in 2012 is a helpful exercise in understanding what the international community was expecting. According to reports, expectations from ‘The Economist’ or ‘Foreign Affairs’ were for democracy, reform, and a strong China because a weak one would have been a far bigger problem. Xi was labelled as too reliant on former General Secretary Jiang Zemin. In general, he and the Prime Minister-to-be Li Keqiang would have had to wait until the 2017 Party Congress to be strong enough to advance their policies.
Contrary to expectations, Xi did not miss any chances to promote his agenda. In November 2012, he had already announced a massive anti-graft campaign and the nationalistic ‘China Dream’ — a plan to become a ‘rich, strong, democratic, civilized and harmonious socialist modern country’ by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.
Moreover, by October 2013, only one year after becoming Party Chief, at the first relevant meeting after the power transition was completed, Xi started a centralisation process that put him in charge of most decision-making bodies, even in the economic field—a domain that was traditionally shared with the Prime Minister. However, such a move merely anticipated the events of the 2017 19th Party Congress. To the surprise of many, Xi suddenly accelerated the centralisation process, adding his name and political vision to the Party Constitution and changing the PRC Constitution to allow him to stay in power beyond the presidential mandate’s ten-year limit. After the forty-year-long reduction of the paramount leader's importance in favour of a more collegial leadership brokered by the upper echelon of the Party (i.e., the Politburo Standing Committee), Xi reinstated one-person governance tightened by intra-party discipline and ideological orthodoxy. His tenure has been characterised as catch-all rulership that severely weakens competing Party factions, constrains the power aspirations of multi-billionaires, brings the Party-State back into the economy and reduces any significant space for the opposition. If the West requested a more Western-style democracy in 2012, what Xi is delivering is a stronger autocracy, keen to maximize decision-making powers to address external and internal threats.
Power Centralisation: Why and How?
In light of Xi’s return to one-person rulership, two questions come to mind: why did he get all this power, and how did he gain enough legitimacy to succeed?
The first answer is quite simple. Xi’s goal was to collect all the political strength he needed to face unprecedented threats. As his eponymic contribution to the Party Constitution states – “Xi Jinping’s Thought of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” –, Xi sees his political activities as a struggle to govern China in a changing world shaped by the decline of the West. Under these circumstances, Xi feels that China needs to reform the economic development model, reduce exports and investments, and increase domestic consumption and innovation (the ‘new normal’ and the ‘dual circulation’ model). However, this transition affects several political and economic-vested interests within the Party that might slow reforms down.
Moreover, Xi’s ambitious foreign and industrial policies have alarmed Europe and the United States. As the Biden administration made abundantly clear, Xi’s policies have indeed stimulated concerted international responses aimed at containing China. Therefore, the choice to centralise power and urge party cadres to huddle around the General Secretary, the Party, and the nation comes almost naturally, primarily as it is motivated by a historical willingness to reinstate China’s place in the world. Simply put, official Party history highlights how the Qing Empire was the most advanced civilization in the world until foreign, Western aggressors caused the decline of the State. According to this view, the process started with the First Opium War and eventually led to the end of the Imperial China and to nearly forty additional years of instability. Only the foundation of the PRC in 1949 granted stability after a century of submission, and Xi’s claim is to let China resume the prominent role it once had.
These considerations touch upon the second point: how did Xi manage to become the “Chairman of Everything” in five years alone? Adopting a nationalistic stance is a first, crucial element. Calling for the ‘China Dream’ to complete modernization by 2049 and erasing the ‘Century of National Humiliation’ memory are additional legitimation strategies that have built consensus around Party policies.
Moreover, the concurrently promoted anti-graft campaign has weakened opposing factions within the Party. However, while, in the first half of his tenure, Xi announced a positive agenda for the future – to achieve the China Dream –, from 2018 onwards (when the ‘trade war’ started and Western criticism over the centralisation process grew), Xi was dealt a good hand by exploiting the card of foreign attempts to undermine China’s right to rise.
With power centralization came political personalisation, linking China’s and Party’s success with Xi Jinping’s own success. In sum, undermining the leader would mean damaging national ambitions. This point thus leads us to the last issue around Xi’s legitimation: was the shift towards centralisation and authocratisation Xi’s crusade, or was it shared and intentionally pursued by a larger group within the Party? Although understanding this point will help grasp whether expectations in 2012 about China’s reform path were right, China Watchers are still debating. Was Xi a ‘black swan’ that crushed all hopes for democracy and market reform, or was there already consensus to establish a strong China and a strong Party?
The Party at the Core
The solution might come right from the 100 years celebrations. Xi has in mind the rise of China back at where the country stood before the ‘Opium Wars’, and this will happen only with a strong Party in charge. Under Xi’s Presidency, ideas around the adoption of liberal-democratic governance have been wiped out. To make China successful, the Party has to be successful, and therefore the Party itself must be a priority.