The recent centralisation of authority around Xi Jinping, and moves to reinforce conformity within Chinese society, have more to do with preparations to confront a host of emerging economic, social and political issues than the formation of a new cult of personality, writes Adrian Budd.
At the end of February 2018 the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) proposed that the limit of two consecutive terms in office for the state president and vice-president be removed from the country’s constitution. The National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, rubber-stamped the change almost unanimously a few days later. The chief beneficiary of the change is Xi Jinping — state president, CPC leader and head of the armed forces.
Other changes to China’s party-state power structures point in the same direction. After Mao Zedong’s death the CPC leadership sought to weaken the regime’s identification with a single leader. A convention developed under which the composition of the CPC’s key leadership body — the standing committee of the Politburo — balanced regional and sectoral interests within the framework of a collective leadership.
The latest Standing Committee appears to be following this convention, but since Xi became party leader in 2012 the Standing Committee has delegated decision-making to smaller “central leading groups”, comprising top party and government bureaucrats. Xi heads the key “deepening reform” group, while other Standing Committee members have been appointed to similar leading groups and therefore owe their political advance to Xi. Reinforcing the centralisation of power around Xi is the establishment of a new body, the National Supervisory Commission, charged with enforcing stricter discipline in the party.
These political-institutional developments have led mainstream commentators to refer to a new personality cult around Xi. One illustration is the elaboration of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Unanimously approved by the October 2017 CPC Congress, it was incorporated into the CPC constitution at the end of the Congress. Of the CPC’s previous leaders, only Mao and Deng Xiaoping are named in the constitution.
The content is largely as banal as the title is prosaic. Few politicians, in China or elsewhere, could disagree with the bulk of Xi Jinping’s 14 points, which include national development, scientific innovation, environmental sustainability and national security within a peaceful international environment.
But at the heart of Xi’s message — widely disseminated by the party-state on the internet, on billboards, in schools and the media — is the CPC’s leadership “over all forms of work” and its “absolute leadership” over the armed forces.
And, as both a warning to party members and a bid to bolster its legitimacy in wider society, CPC discipline is to be improved. Over 20 universities plan to launch research institutes dedicated to “Xi Jinping thought” while, more generally, the state has issued new guidelines on education to encourage children to develop “affection” for the CPC.
In recent years Xi’s rivals have been purged from the top political, military, business and security posts. Beyond the elite, workers’ rights activists, feminists, democracy campaigners and environmentalists have faced the heaviest political repression since the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Lawyers have been imprisoned, media criticism has been suppressed, and policing of the internet has been increased. Émigré Muslim Uyghur oppositionists in the western Xinjiang province, like Tibetans before them, have been hunted down and repatriated.
At the time of the 1949 revolution CPC membership was comprised predominantly of peasants and workers, albeit under the dominance of a middle class Stalinist leadership.
Today its 88 million members comprise mega-rich business people, managers, technicians, teachers and students (who comprise around 40 percent of members). For them it is a vehicle for social and political advance, but for both members and wider society it is also an agent of social control.
Under Xi, the CPC’s culture of conformism has deepened. Although the mainstream Western press reports that some officials and rank and file bureaucrats express doubts about Xi in private, it also notes a worsening climate of fear. This in turn provokes aversion to risk and potential policy paralysis.
It also means that the mistakes, including grandiose and wasteful projects, of both national and local leaders are not challenged except by a growing chorus of online oppositionists. Conformism within the CPC ultimately contains the seed of explosive social protest.
But if the ruling party faces internal difficulties, its power and influence continue to reach into every corner of society. Roughly one in ten adults is a member, and almost everybody else knows someone in the party and understands the patronage and influence that membership brings.
Party cells operate in all remaining state-owned enterprises, but since the mass privatisations of the last two decades the state has pressurised private firms to establish them too. Tencent, a huge digital/high-tech private conglomerate and the fifth largest firm in the world, employs 7,000 party members — a quarter of its staff — over half of which occupy key roles. A key function of these cells is to police workers.
Like Xi, the privileged children of an earlier generation of party leaders have a sense of entitlement and expectations of personal reward. But to explain the centralisation of power and growing authoritarianism by reference to Xi’s personality is to explain very little.
Factionalist analysis is also limited. There are intra-elite tensions, and mutterings of discontent about the gradual reversal of years of reform under Xi, within the top ranks of the CPC. Regional party bosses and state-owned enterprise bosses have built up power networks based on patronage and corruption.
Gradations of opinion
There are also gradations of opinion between those who want rapid economic liberalisation (including privatisation of remaining state-owned giants) and those who see state regulation, including moderately enhanced welfare, health and pension spending, as a necessary insurance against social protest and instability and a contribution to economic development.
China’s ruling class is not homogeneous, but it does share a broadly common outlook — all the key leaders since Deng Xiaoping have been committed to a combination of economic liberalisation and political regulation of firms and markets under single-party authoritarianism. The CPC is now interwoven with the new corporate elite in a dense web of relationships. The power that its leaders wield has been passed down in hereditary fashion, and they in turn pass it to strategically placed children (especially in the high-tech and communications sectors).
At the centre of this power structure are perhaps 100 people who are descendants from elite figures of the past including Mao and Deng. They are overwhelmingly supporters of Xi. Authoritarian centralisation may appeal to Xi personally, but it is better explained as a response to emergent problems for China’s capitalism and a preparation for future instability.
Maoism’s popular legitimacy rested primarily on fulfilling its promise to end the century of humiliation at the hands of European powers, and of Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, and to achieve independent national development. Since Mao’s death, 40 years of economic expansion have helped cement the CPC’s legitimacy — three-quarters of a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty and it is reported that one person in three knows someone who has made great personal leaps forward.
So, why are China’s rulers anxious about regime legitimacy?
Since 1978 inequality has accelerated rapidly while CPC officials have grabbed a large part of the fruits of economic transformation. According to a Bloomberg report in 2012, the wealth of Xi Jinping and his wife was in the hundreds of millions of dollars and the then prime minister, Wen Jiabao, was reported by the New York Times to be worth $2.7 billion. More generally, corruption and cynicism have become rampant in the CPC.
The mass of society is well aware of China’s glaring inequality and, partly as a consequence, is increasingly indifferent to the CPC and its claim to represent all sections of society. They tolerate it while improvements in their economic lives persist and there is stability, but millions are also angered by the corruption that links business and the party-state, particularly at local and regional levels.
Officials widely use state power in the interests of private capital, which in turn rewards them for the favours it receives. Examples include the sale of communal land to private developers and the non-enforcement of environmental regulations on firms.
The threat to CPC legitimacy from widespread corruption explains the commitment to improving CPC discipline in Xi Jinping thought and the anti-corruption crackdown in recent years. This has ensnared over half a million officials, including over 10 percent of central committee members, senior military figures and state-owned enterprise executives.
Xi is walking a tightrope. He cannot leave corruption untouched in the face of popular anger, but risks creating political enemies among officials who resent the revival of a populist “red culture” that has accompanied the crackdown and, Xi hopes, will add a veneer of Maoist legitimacy to his leadership. By curtailing the property development that is often linked to corruption, China’s rulers also risk exacerbating the slowdown in economic growth, which in turn is further threatened by tighter financial regulation to deal with dangerously high levels of debt.
Corruption and inequality pose immediate problems for China’s rulers, but at the core of Xi’s crackdown are longer-term concerns about popular struggle.
Western leaders have long harboured a belief that China’s expanding corporate elite will ultimately challenge CPC rule and usher in political liberalisation. In reality, the economic and political elites both benefit hugely from their relationship of structural interdependence within the system of capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
The pressure on private firms to allow party cells is partly a CPC reaction to the possible emergence of an organised private capitalist class, as well as a means to monitor foreign-owned firms, but the party-capital nexus makes a challenge to CPC rule a very remote possibility. The real concern for China’s rulers is the increasingly conscious and combative working class.
An earlier article in the Focus on China series noted that the model of rural migration and low wages cannot be sustained. As the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin among others highlights, labour shortages in some cities and sectors have occurred, and workers have won pay rises and other benefits in recent years. In many parts of the country, local authorities have had to double the minimum wage in the last five years. A shift in the balance of power in the workplace is beginning to take place.
This shift resonates beyond the workplace. Students from a dozen universities have challenged the law by supporting workers at Shenzhen’s Jasic Technology engineering firm who faced mass arrests in August for organising an independent union. The dispute at Jasic, two of whose executives sit on the Shenzhen city council and have strong connections to the CPC, is of potentially great significance.
Firstly, it is part of an emerging struggle for political demands that challenges the limits imposed by the official state-run union confederation, which if it fights at all does so only over wages and conditions. These limits have been challenged this year by the organisation across provinces and regions of coordinated strikes and protests.
Secondly, the Shenzhen students are not alone — students more generally are increasingly involved with workers’ struggles, despite pressure from universities and clamp-downs on student activities (including Marxist reading groups). Many have worked with labour rights NGOs, which have faced restrictions under Xi, and also alongside women in the #MeToo movement highlighting sexual assault and harassment.
Students’ orientation on workers’ struggle has parallels with May 1968 in France. A parallel with Italy also suggests itself. During the long postwar boom, the migration of peasants and rural workers with no union background from the south diluted the northern labour movement, already weakened by fascism. But the early 1960s strike-wave reflected the integration of southern workers into the northern working class, and the “hot autumn” of 1969 saw the largest general strike in history up to that point.
In China, as the flow of migration has become a trickle, and as migrants have gained in confidence as they have become more settled, independent working class action is growing. The scale remains relatively limited, but the conditions for a Chinese “hot autumn” are developing.
Machinery of coercion
The state’s crack-down on the Jasic workers underlined that the CPC party-state wields an immense machinery of coercion. But it also retains important bases of support. The advantages of CPC membership benefit tens of millions; the newly affluent middle class has advanced under state capitalism; and the state can claim that hopes for a better life in an independent China are safe in its hands, at least for the time being. But will this combination of coercion and consent be sufficient in the years to come?
Nationalism has long been used by the world’s rulers to deflect workers’ anger towards imagined foreign enemies. Xi’s “China dream for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is designed to do just that. But his grandiose rhetoric about China’s global power — riding “the mighty east wind of the new era” so that China would “cleave through the waves and sail to victory” — has been criticised inside China for provoking Trump’s tariffs. A serious trade war would increase the downward pressure on economic growth.
Although China’s official “Marxism” is contradicted by social reality, China’s rulers understand that economic growth will not last forever. In recent decades they have adopted a new reverence for Confucianism to bolster their legitimacy and claim the mantle of millennia of Chinese culture.
Confucianism emphasises harmony and unity, order, and respect for the sovereign. In abstract, these are useful tools for state ideologues, whose implicit message is “don’t rock the boat” and “we will look after you”. But religious ideas can also be moulded into radical critique, and connect with popular anger and alienation.
As economic (and other, including environmental) problems unfold, many will ask “how do we achieve harmony between the multimillionaire leaders and mass of peasants and workers?” They will ask how China’s vast inequality and corruption, and the environmental squalor that millions endure but which elites can escape, relate to other Confucian values, such as justice, integrity, and benevolence. The answers that Chinese workers give to these questions will be very interesting. We hope we do not have too long to wait for them.