Daewoo Professor of international affairs, Director, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and Director, Rajawali Foudation Institute for Asia, Harvard Kennedy School.
With his centralization of power, Secretary General Xi Jinping is considered the most powerful leader since Secretary General Deng Xiaoping.
Dr. Saich is a specialist on China and Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University. During his lecture at the Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, he focused on Xi’s path to power and the trends following the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China.
Dr. Saich said, to date, Xi consolidated power to maintain his authority. Noting that Xi will definitely have another five-year term, Dr. Saich outlined that “the question is, with power in hand, what will he do next?”
In 2012, when Xi Jinping was inaugurated, the Chinese political landscape slowed and the economy stood on the precipice unsure of its next move. Xi considered the issue serious and decided to focus on consolidating the Chinese Communist Party.
One of the challenges of 2012 was to consolidate the political power of the Chinese Communist Party in the context of internal conflict.
“Xi Jinping prioritized the balance of power among people within the party. The only way to concentrate power in one’s own hands is to remove the opposing factions and strengthen his support groups,” said Dr. Saich.
To this end, observing China last year, Dr. Saich added that all major developments centered around consolidating Xi’s power.
He outlined 5 important events:
At the sixth plenum, Xi was officially recognized as the nucleus of the Chinese leadership. Nuclear leaders are elected leaders and then elected a nucleus of leadership. Nuclear leaders have the power to veto internal disagreements and make their own decisions.
At another event in January this year, five former senior leaders were disciplined with alleged corruption for engaging in “political conspiracies.”
“It is remarkable that anti-corruption is used as a political tool to purge factions, as long as the Party does not address ideological issues. Xi’s position did not hesitate to use the charge of “engaging in political intrigue” to show his power, surpassing old practice,” said Dr. Saich.
A third event took place in March 2017 when the Communist Party Central Committee officially acknowledged Xi’s influence over economic reform, minimizing the role of Prime Minister Li Keqiang.
At the beginning of 2015, the “Four Comprehensive” doctrines of Xi were officially announced and promoted in the mass media: “building a rich and comprehensive society, deep reform comprehensive management, comprehensive management of the country, [and] comprehensive management of the Party.”
Another important political move was the elimination of the Chongqing Party Secretary before the 19th Congress.
“Sun Zheng Tai is considered a rising star of Chinese politics, a potential candidate to succeed the post of General Secretary,” said Prof. Anthony.
In short, during his first term, his priority was to consolidate the Party’s power and his control.
Moving forward, there are 6 related political priorities of Xi.
The first is to revive and expand the spread and promotion of traditional Chinese culture, especially Confucian thought, to enhance the legitimacy of the government. His moves seek to marry the idea of Confucian thought with the Party, implying that the Party represents the traditional values of the Chinese nation. Doing so makes it difficult to criticize the Party, because a citizen would implicitly criticize Confucian thought and culture itself.
“This is surprising because during my school years, Chinese leadership in the 70s led a propaganda campaign to boycott Confucianism as an old, backward force,” commented Professor Saich.
Second is to continue emphasizing Marxism and the underlying ideology of the Chinese political system.
The third is representing government as a simpler, familiar being closer to the people in order to break this divide of senior officials as elites. One image showed at the presentation featured Xi Jinping eating popular dishes. As opposed to the lavish lifestyles of previous leaders, he chose the traditional Chinese meal. After Xi Jinping went to eat at a certain restaurant in Beijing, the restaurant became famous.
Fourth, another effort made clear was that of the anti-corruption campaign being a factional struggle.
“Looking at the history of the three recent leaders, the rival who took the position of Secretary General was accused of corruption and removed. The most effective tool to purge factions is allegations of corruption. Under Xi Jinping, the anti-corruption campaign aims at strengthening the legitimacy of the Party,” said Professor Anthony.
Fifth, tighten control over the state and society. President Bill Clinton famously said, “Trying to control the Internet is like trying to nail jello into the wall.” Dr. Saich promptly showed a picture where someone had successfully nailed jello to the wall.
“The Chinese Communist Party not only wants to control the Party but also control the masses. Newspapers are censored. Even Chinese universities are banned from using English material. It shows a contradiction: on the one hand, China wants to turn universities into world class, but not to research, read, and publish documents in English, how can that be achieved?”
Finally, it promotes nationalism and “aggression” in sovereignty claims.
“China is trying to tie the interests of the Party into national interests. It makes the patriotic critique of leadership policy unreasonable. National party opposition or any opposition party is national opposition. That makes it difficult,” he analyzed.
Democracy in Moderation?
A reader wonders about democracy in China: How did an institution and regime like Xi Jinping build public support for the state and the party controlling power? There should be a challenge to giving up individual interests, the pressures of the people, the institution of democracy itself.
Saich commented, if someone is 45 years old or older, then life in China is better: there is more food, higher income, among other things. The general person does not notice or mind who has what control because your standard of living has increased.
Currently, civil society sectors are extinguished by the Party’s authority.
“Thanks to the Party’s ingenuity, the Party persuaded the people that there was no ruling party,” said Dr. Saich. It is difficult to have a civil society framework. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party offers incentives for voicing responses but does not come to the same end as a Western democracy.”
They also put in place mechanisms to encourage greater transparency and anti-corruption feedback. Saich added, “In general, no party member will mess around. But my friends are university professors. Intellectuals in China are very dissatisfied with the current leadership. The problem is that the Chinese Communist Party does not believe in the people.”
If you believe that Internet users are forbidden, close Facebook, do not allow college to use English documents, what are you saying about the people.
Saich concluded for all of its power and might, he saw a scared Chinese Party: “It shows signs of a weak Party. Xi is afraid of something. Obviously, no one knows what will happen. But now people are more supportive of Xi. That is the only option. But if there were a second choice, they could choose.”