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The Chinese Communist Party, with Xi Jinping at the Core

A ChinaFile Conversation

In late October, the Chinese Communist Party anointed Xi Jinping as a “core leader.” While the position doesn’t come with any formal responsibilities, its symbolism is important. According to The New York Times, it shows that senior Party officials, “willingly or not,” have “bowed to [Xi’s] dominance.” How significant is this move, and what does it say about Xi’s position at the top of the Party? —The Editors

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In the Communique of the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.), published October 27, 2016, Xi Jinping was mentioned as the core of the Party. However, it is not clear what this new designation exactly means, nor how it will affect China’s elite politics in the next 11-12 months.

Despite the media hype of Xi as the core of the Party, there is no clear evidence that this core has been officially “established” (queli). At a meeting for propagating the “spirit of the Sixth Plenum” in Beijing on November 2, 2016, Liu Yunshan, the man in charge of the Party’s propaganda machine, pointed out that the Plenum had confirmed (mingque) that Xi is the core of the Party Center and the core of the entire Party.

However, the Sixth Plenum had no agenda for a resolution on establishing Xi as the core of the Party. The focus of the four-day meeting was on producing two documents: one on the “norms of intra-Party political life” and one on the “regulations on intra-Party supervision.” The Plenum also adopted a resolution on the opening of the 19th Party Congress.

Moreover, in the communiqué, Xi’s name was mentioned seven times, and his designation as the core was mentioned twice. In the sixth paragraph of the communiqué, Xi was described to have been the core of the Party Center since 2012. In the last paragraph, the Plenum called for all C.C.P. members to be closely united around the Central Committee with “Comrade Xi Jinping at the core.” Xi’s new designation is a description, and nothing more.

Third, as a counter-balance to this new description, the communiqué also paid a lot of attention to the significance of intra-Party democracy and collective leadership, and it warned against the personality cult of top leaders such as Xi.

Most significantly, Xi’s signature slogan, the Chinese dream (zhongguo meng), was ostensibly omitted in the communiqué, even though Xi himself mentioned this term twice in his explanation to the Plenum a few days earlier.

Yes, with this new designation, Xi has become a bit less vulnerable than before, because it would be too costly to replace a General Secretary who has been confirmed as the core of the Party. But it is far from clear how this new designation will make Xi a more dominant player in the forthcoming 19th Party Congress.

In Chinese, “core leader,” or hexin lingdao, has a slightly retro feel, creating all sorts of recollections of times past. In the mid-1990s, I was sitting in an apartment in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia watching the Chinese Central Television (CCTV) seven o’clock news. About that time, the state media had started adding the term “core leader” to then Chairman Jiang Zemin. My friend, a local cadre, huffed and declared grumpily that this was yet further proof that the Cultural Revolution was on its way back, with all the associated idolatry of Mao Zedong. Happily, he proved over-pessimistic. The 1990s rambled to their chaotic but happy conclusion. After a fashion, Jiang shuffled off at least the outward shackles of power. There were no struggle sessions or mass campaigns anything like there had been three decades before. In many ways, we might almost remember this era as a relatively liberal one.

For most Chinese, Xi’s “core leadership” means about as much as the usual propaganda pouring fourth from the central organs. Even current ideological czar and enforcer Liu Yunshan complained at a Central Party School in the middle of the last decade about how cadres, when exposed to most official discourse, tended to switch off and doze with their eyes open. Yes, Xi and his colleagues have made big efforts to sharpen the ways the Party engages and speaks to the public. But “core leader” is no “China Dream”—a term that has, since its appearance in 2013, at least had enough catchiness and resonance to migrate across to advertising for Chinese liquor and real estate.

This raises the question, therefore, of for whom this title is meant to have meaning, and why it has been redeployed. Evidently it meant enough to Xi for him to accept it. Presumably there had been a Politburo meeting where all this had been agreed. And no doubt unanimity rung around the room. Within the élite itself, this term has some kind of utility. The only other people who seem excited by it are, of course, those outside of China. Maybe the one important aspect that can be gained from all of this is that the “man of the people” populism of Xi from a couple of years before, with him wandering into small backstreet eateries and ordering pork buns or kicking footballs around Chinese pitches, has receded into the past. He now figures as a more portentously “historic” figure, more remote, perhaps ever so slightly more imperial. Logically, though, a core needs to be the core of something. And the question is whether what surrounds this one is just the very tight, small band of leaders at the center, or the mass of Chinese people who will be judging whether he really needs this title, and what, if anything, it actually means.