The Chinese Communist Party and its paramount leader have legitimacy problems. One can expect that Xi Jinping will strengthen his legitimacy when the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party opens in Beijing on Oct. 18, but the legitimacy of the Party itself will be left as an unresolvable problem.
The rule of the paramount leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has more or less depended on the balance and support of the different factions inside the Party leadership. In most cases, this balance and support were represented in the makeup of the Politburo and its Standing Committee.
The Politburo is made up of 25 officials who oversee the CCP. The Standing Committee currently consists of seven Politburo members, including the general secretary who serves as the committee’s head. The Standing Committee actually runs the Party.
The need for support from among different factions is why one much talked-about speculation—that Xi Jinping will do away with the Standing Committee and rule by himself alone—is very unlikely.
Since the establishment of the Politburo in 1927, the Party has never done without a Politburo and a Standing Committee, and even the strongest of all CCP leaders, Mao Zedong, needed alliances in the Politburo to get and keep power.
One reason Xi is thought likely to disband the Standing Committee is to lay the groundwork for extending his rule of China beyond the customary two 5-year terms. But if Xi does want to change the rules so that he stays in power past 2022, he doesn’t need to change the structure of the Party leadership to do so. Changing the Party’s structure could do him more harm than good.
‘Xi Jinping Thought’
One way that China’s paramount leaders establish their personal legitimacy is by enshrining their doctrines in the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party. Hong Kong newspaper Oriental Daily reported that “Xi Jinping thought” will be written into the Party Constitution in the coming 19th National Congress. If Xi does this, he will in effect be proclaiming victory in the contest that has defined his first five years in power.
So far, among Xi’s predecessors, only Mao Zedong has had his thought added to the Party Constitution under his name. Deng Xiaoping has a “theory” linked to his name. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had their ideas entered into the Party Constitution, but without their names attached to those ideas.
“Mao Zedong thought” can be described as “continuing the revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat.” It is remembered for bringing tremendous man-made disasters and suffering.
The core of Deng Xiaoping’s theory is “to open markets and reform the economy.” Stated more simply, it is the idea that “white cat or black cat, whoever catches the mouse is a good cat.” Deng’s “white cat, black cat” policy led to improvements in the Chinese people’s livelihoods and partially conflicted with Mao’s thought.
Jiang Zemin’s idea was called the “Three Represents,” which is more commonly known as “ruling by encouraging corruption.” Jiang’s doctrine is completely opposite to Mao’s continuing revolution and is responsible for the corruption of the whole bureaucratic system.
Hu Jintao’s “Scientific Outlook on Development” simply doesn’t mean much.
The result of these additions is a contradictory hodgepodge, and if Xi adds his thought to this mess, it will do nothing to make the CCP’s guiding ideology more coherent.
But describing Xi’s thought at this point is not easy. In any case, Xi’s thought is not his real legacy.
Xi’s real legacy is the anti-corruption campaign, which has gotten rid of many members of Jiang Zemin’s faction.
Jiang forced all officials to be corrupt in order to gain promotions, and he justified this practice with his Three Represents theory. Jiang was the second-longest-ruling leader in the history of communist China, from 1989 to 2002, and he made every corrupt official his potential supporter. With this faction he built, he was able to rule from “behind the screen” during Hu Jintao’s 10 years in office, extending Jiang’s time in power to 2012.
During Xi’s first 5-year term, he has ended Jiang’s rule from behind the screen, put most of the Jiang faction’s core members in jail, and tried to stop Jiang’s corrupting policies.
Since Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and other policies are the opposite of Jiang’s corruption and policies, adding just the name of Xi’s thought to the Party Constitution will proclaim his victory over Jiang and strengthen his power and position within the Party leadership, even though it will not add much theory to the CCP’s ideology.
In order for Xi Jinping to further solidify the legitimacy of his rule, he needs to control the succession of Party leadership, or else power might drain away to the one who will follow Xi as head of the Party.
Deng Xiaoping initiated a new rule. He not only chose Jiang Zemin as his successor, but also chose Hu Jintao as Jiang’s successor.
This was the beginning of what is called the “skipping a generation arrangement.” Thus, in 2007 at the 17th National Congress, which took place between Hu’s two terms, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang entered the Standing Committee of the Politburo as the new generation designated to succeed General Secretary Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao. This was achieved by a compromise among factions, and Hu had little say in who his successor would be.
With this expectation, whoever is 10 years younger than Xi who is added to the Standing Committee will be considered the successor of either Xi or Li. But Xi has shown he will not tolerate such an assumption.
He did so by ousting a Politburo member named Sun Zhengcai on charges of corruption and on the more serious charge of “losing political stance.” Less than 20 days before the 19th National Congress, Sun was purged and handed to the judiciary to be prosecuted.
Sun had been designated by Party watchers as the rising star whose appointment to the Standing Committee at the 19th National Congress would herald his accession to power at the 20th National Congress.
By purging Sun, Xi showed the Party leadership not only who is boss, but that Xi won’t follow the rules his predecessors made for him. And Xi kept the door open for his rumored continuation in power beyond 2022.
The Meaning of Anti-Corruption
Using the anti-corruption campaign to bring down Sun Zhengcai indicates the problem with the campaign. Its hidden message is that despite the corruption of individuals, the Party itself is good and has the ability to solve its own problems. The anti-corruption campaign promises to save the Party.
Sun’s fall raises a question: If the rising star and hopeful future Party leader couldn’t resist the temptations of corruption, who can?
Last year, the propaganda department of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission and the state-run CCTV presented a TV series about the anti-corruption campaign called “Forever on the Road.” Even the commission knows that the anti-corruption campaign is endless. It won’t solve or even reduce corruption; the Party is beyond repair.
At the 19th National Congress, Xi almost certainly will maintain or enhance his current position, decisively facing down his challengers within the Party and his challengers from outside the Party, relying on his support from within.
However, this only means Xi has solved the problem of his own legitimacy within the Party. All his measures can’t solve the fundamental problem the Chinese Communist Party faces: What is the basis of its legitimacy to rule China? This is a much bigger problem, which can’t be solved inside the Party—not by changing the Party rules, not by defeating other factions, and not even by the anti-corruption campaign.