Xi moving to one-man rule

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Xi moving to one-man rule


You Sang-chul

Hu Angang, a professor at Tsinghua University and champion of Chinese-style socialism, argues that what makes the Chinese governance system unique and superior to democracy is its “collective leadership.” In China, he claims, there are seven presidents in contrast to the usual single chief executive in most countries. He is referring to the powerful seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party.

The Standing Committee - scaled down to seven from nine during the once-in-a-decade leadership change during the 18th Congress of the party last year that placed Xi Jinping as the head of the committee - commands over the vast land and population of China with a clear division of labor to deliver effective decision-making. Because decision-making procedures pan out through a pool of wisdom instead of relying on one single president and because the Committee works as an organ rather than individually, the collective leadership system proves to be more democratic and productive than the American executive system, he explains.

Hu put his thoughts and studies into writing and published the book “China’s Collective Leadership System” in July last year. But his long-held beliefs and lifelong research may go down the drain because President Xi looks more like a one-man president than the coordinator and guide of a multi-member leadership system.

Xi began to manifest his more individualistic leadership style, compared to recent predecessors, from late last year. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who made a state visit to China in December, was originally invited to a banquet hosted by Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, but the host was replaced by the president at the last minute. Xi also presided over the Communist Party’s key meeting on economic reform initiatives instead of leaving it to the premier. In fact, Xi has been making most of the statements and major decisions lately. In December, Xi also laid out guiding concepts to tackle the problems in the troubled Xinjiang Autonomous Region in a Politburo Standing Committee meeting.

It is an unusual scene, given that Yu Zhensheng, a member of the politburo, is specifically in charge of ethnic and religious issues in the Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions, as the head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Xi became the head of new important panels created during the third plenum of the 18th Communist Party’s Central Committees - the State Security Committee and Central Reform Leading Group - in November. Xi can now wield influence over diplomatic, intelligence and military affairs and has full control over economic reforms.

China has a long tradition of balancing ruling power between the emperor and chancellor or prime minister, dating back to the Qin and Han dynasties, more than 2,000 years ago. Since the collective leadership framework was crafted by Mao Zedong in 1956, the role of the general secretary of the party - or president - has been to oversee state, foreign and security affairs, while the No. 2 - the prime minister - is in charge of the economy and other administrative works.

Specific roles in leading government organs are taken by other politburo members. The general secretary is commonly referred to as the “first among equals.” The prime minister is excluded from the group, led by the general secretary to avoid giving the impression of a hierarchy within the standing committee. But in the newly created reform group, Xi was named the chief and Li his deputy.

Xi is now commander of the National People’s Congress, the State Council and the Central Military Commission, along with the new reform and state security commissions. He has become the most powerful leader since Mao, with more titles than Deng Xiaoping. Why has Beijing chosen to vest so much power into one person instead of relying on its safe collective leadership system?

The biggest reason is the urgent need for reform to the Communist Party, dogged by corruption and factionalism, through unwavering and clean-cut reform actions. Xi in October declared that the reform drive is irrevocable, that the country had entered into a “deep water zone,” adding that if the reforms wavered, the economy would become irredeemable. To push ahead with reforms, the powerful and the elite will have to give up influence and their stake in state-owned enterprises and vested interests in almost every part of the country. Without unity and singularity in power and authority, the expansive and ambitious mission could be interrupted and challenged. The consolidation of power and authority behind Xi is, therefore, necessary to make the monumental changes crucial for China’s future.

Deng empowered the shared, collective leadership system to prevent an omnipotent dictatorship as in the Mao days. Under the presidency of Hu Jintao, China was actually ruled by nine leaders, not a single man. But that collective system may have reached its limits with the Zhou Yongkang debacle. For now, China may be welcoming the single-man rule to usher the country toward its ambitious goal of becoming the center of the world.

*The author is the JoongAng Ilbo’s specialist on China.

By You Sang-chul
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