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Chinese president Xi Jinping

by | Jun 5, 2022 | fresh

Read the articles by Lee (2017) (Attached) and Gueorguiev (2017) (Attached) which are required reading for this week, as well as current news articles about Chinese president Xi Jinping.  What appears to motivate Xi’s increasing power?  What is he trying to accomplish?  What are the implications of Xi’s ambitions for U.S. foreign policy? If you were a foreign policy advisor to the President of the United States, what recommendations would you make regarding the United States’ relations with China?

One-man rule is cited as a common source of regime break-down—what Milan Svolik (2012) refers to as “failures inpower-sharing.” The reason why power-sharing under author-
itarian rule is so hard is self-evident: in the absence of democratic com-
petition there is little to deter incumbent leaders from abusing their
office at the expense of other elites. Against this backdrop, China’s post-
Mao period stands out as an example of relatively effective power-shar-
ing, or what the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) refers to as
“collective leadership.” During this 40-year period, we have observed
between three and six peaceful transitions of power, from one incum-
bent to another. (1)

Rapid concentration of power in President Xi Jinping has raised serious
questions about the efficacy and durability of Chinese power sharing in-
stitutions, leading some observers to conclude that “collective leadership
[in China] is dead.” (2) In this article, I push back on such claims by re-
viewing China’s leadership norms and institutions as well as how they
are being challenged. Building on the work of Slater (2003), I start from
the premise that personalisation and institutionalisation under autocracy
are not a zero-sum game. In the case of China, ambiguous leadership in-
stitutions, coupled with elite complicity, have in fact facilitated Xi’s
power grab.

Instead, I argue that the dangers of personalisation are more likely to con-
cern future governance challenges. First, departure from collective decision-
making procedures, coupled with increasing censorship, is likely to
discourage critical voices from participating in the political discourse. This
chilling effect will make it harder for the regime to anticipate future chal-
lenges and avoid unnecessary policy blunders. Second, anti-corruption
purges, combined with an apparent desire to seed loyalists, has either dis-
couraged or prevented younger contenders from moving up through the
ranks, effectively thinning out the pipeline of future leaders. This potential
shortage of qualified contenders will affect the Party irrespective of whether
Xi remains in office.

Chinese elite politics under Xi Jinping

In explaining the CCP’s durability, scholars point to China-specific leader-
ship institutions, norms, and procedures, which in theory facilitate stable
power sharing. In particular, prior research points to: organisational frag-
mentation that prevents incumbents from monopolising power (Lampton
and Lieberthal 1992; Xu 2011), age and term limits that prevent incumbents
from entrenching themselves in office (Ma 2016; Nathan 2003; Shirk 2002;
Manion 1993), along with procedures for collective decision-making that
incorporate lower levels through reciprocal accountability (Shirk 1993; Hu

Recent consolidation and personalisation of power around Xi Jinping raises
serious questions about each of the above. Over the last five years, Xi has
resurrected the titles of “Core Leader” (Miller 2016), immortalised his ide-
ological “thought” into the CCP constitution (Miller 2017), (3) and revised
the national constitution to remove term limits for the office of the presi-
dency. (4) How did Xi Jinping accumulate such an unprecedented amount of
personal power and what does it mean for the future of elite politics in

I begin by outlining the boundaries of collective leadership and examine
just how far Xi has pushed them. Like Slater, who examined packing, rigging,
and circumventing of Malaysia’s leadership institutions under Mohamad
Mahathir, I focus on challenges posed by Xi Jinping towards the separation

N o . 2 0 1 8 / 1 – 2 • c h i n a p e r s p e c t i v e s p e e r – r e v i e w e d a r t i c l e 17

1. Hua Guofeng briefly succeeded Mao Zedong before relinquishing control to Deng Xiaoping. Deng
initially designated two successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. After helping bring both down,
Deng fully handed the reigns to Jiang Zemin. Jiang relinquished power to Hu Jintao in 2002, who
then handed it to Xi Jinping in 2012.

2. For example, see: Jeremy Page and Chun Han Wong. “Xi Jinping Is Alone at the Top and Collective
Leadership ‘Is Dead’,” The Wall Street Journal, 25 October 2017, www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-
xi-elevated-to-mao-status-1508825969 (accessed on 15 November 2017).

3. The CCP added Deng’s name and thought to the constitution after he died in 1997.

4. “China’s National Legislature Adopts Constitutional Amendment,” Xinhua, 13 March 2018,
www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-03/11/c_137031606.htm (accessed on 15 March 2018).

China p e r s p e c t i v e sSpecial feature

Dictator’s Shadow
Chinese Elite Politics Under Xi Jinping


ABSTRACT: President Xi Jinping is arguably the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao. Recent constitutional revisions and a mid-
term leadership reshuffle has only substantiated the fear that Xi, like Mao, has no intention of handing over power to a future successor. Does
Xi’s rise signal an end to collective leadership and does a stronger president translate into a weaker party? In this article, I review the methods
by which Xi has come to consolidate power as well as the implications for Chinese elite politics in the future. Drawing insights from the compa-
rative literature, I question the zero-sum relationship between executive and institutional strength. Although Xi has certainly amassed unpre-
cedented personal power, it has not necessarily come at the expense of the Party. Instead, the dangers of Xi Jinping’s power grab are more likely
to result from a chilling effect on dissenting opinions and thinning out of the leadership pipeline, each of which is likely to undermine gover-
ning capacity over the medium to long-term.

KEYWORDS: China, Authoritarian Regimes, Elite Politics, Power Sharing, Collective Leadership, Institutions, Succession.

of powers, norms surrounding succession, and procedures for collective de-
cision-making in China. Although each of these features are aimed at con-
straining despotic rule, each is also subordinate to the primary goal of
political domination by the CCP. As such, we should allow for the possibility
that personalisation of power can occur even if a ruling party’s key institu-
tions are still intact (Slater 2003).

Circumventing the separation of powers

The 17th Party Congress Communique from 2007 defines collective lead-
ership as “a system with a division of responsibilities among individual lead-
ers to prevent arbitrary decision-making by a single top leader.” (5) In stark
contrast, the first PB meeting of the 19th Congress in October 2017 con-
cluded that “centralised and unified leadership by the Party is the highest
principle of the leadership.” Most recently, Xi Jinping’s outgoing anti-cor-
ruption czar, Wang Qishan, penned an essay in People’s Daily outlining
“problems with separating party and state,” and explaining why future chal-
lenges would require doing away with this division. (6)

Anticipating Wang’s thesis, Xi Jinping is actively blurring the divisions between
politics, economics, and military affairs since stepping into office in 2012. This
distortion of boundaries is clearly visible in the number and span of leadership
positions currently held by Xi Jinping, referred to by some as the “chairman of
everything.” (7) By Cheng Li’s (2016) count, Xi now holds a total of 12 top posts
in the country’s most powerful leadership bodies (see Table 1).

With the exception of the core titles of General Party Secretary, Presi-
dent, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the remaining
positions fall into the category of “leading groups,” which are informal
bodies of extreme power—often having more influence than respective
ministries. The mere presence of so many leading groups seems itself a
contradiction to collective leadership, separation of power, and constitu-
tional authority more broadly. Yet, this is precisely what they are designed
to do, i.e., overcome bureaucratic or organisational barriers, pool resources,
and push through policy agendas (Miller 2008). Whether intended or not,
CCP leaders, beginning with Mao, (8) have routinely taken advantage of the
leading groups to bypass opposition and assert control; Xi Jinping is just
the latest.

What is perhaps different, however, is how Xi’s leading groups cross-cut
and overlap multiple policy arenas, some of which have traditionally fallen

under the purview of other Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members
and State Council ministers. For instance, the vaguely named Central Lead-
ing Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms conceivably oversees
anything from financial markets to environmental regulation. At the same
time, however, Xi has not appropriated portfolios that were not his for the
taking. As Table 1 summarises, seven of Xi’s titles have precedents, insofar
as they were previously held by Hu Jintao, and by Jiang Zemin before him.
The remaining five offices were conjured up during Xi’s first term in office,
and there is nothing in formal or informal party guidelines that discourages
such action. For instance, the National Security Commission gives Xi indirect
control over both foreign and domestic security, without expressly taking
over those portfolios. Similarly, Xi’s most recent title, Commander-in-Chief
of “PLA Joint Operations,” lays claim to new political territory, as there were
no formal “joint operations” under previous administrations.

In other words, rather than overtly breaking down fences, Xi Jinping ap-
pears to be re-drawing the bounds and meaning of institutional power-shar-
ing. To be sure, the point here is not in any way to downplay Xi’s political
bravado, but rather to highlight the nuanced signalling game Xi is playing.
Put differently, if Xi wanted to demonstrate his dominance and the end of
collective leadership, he might simply appropriate the National Energy Com-
mission (headed by Li Keqiang) or the Central Commission for Discipline In-
spection (CCDI, now run by Zhao Leji). He has not done so, at least not yet.
Instead, Xi has circumvented collective leadership through the institution
of informal leading groups, a practice that predates his tenure and collective
leadership more broadly.

18 c h i n a p e r s p e c t i v e s • N o . 2 0 1 8 / 1 – 2

5. Hu Jintao, 以改革创新精神全面推进党的建设新的伟大工程 (Yi gaige chuangxin jingshen
quanmian tuijin dang de jianshe xin de weida gongcheng, Promoting comprehensive Party building
in the spirit of reform and innovation), 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress, 15 October 2007,
cpc.people.com.cn/GB/104019/104098/6379184.html (accessed on 15 November 2017).

6. Wang Qishan, 开启新时代 踏上新征程 (Kaiqi xin shidai ta shang xin zhengcheng, Opening a
new era, stepping out on a new path), People’s Daily, 7 November 2017, paper.people.com.cn/
rmrb/html/2017-11/07/nw.D110000renmrb_20171107_1-02.htm (accessed on 15 November

7. For instance, see: Javier Hernandez, “China’s ‘Chairman of Everything’: Behind Xi Jinping’s Many
Titles,” The New York Times, 25 October 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/25/world/asia/china-
xi-jinping-titles-chairman.html (accessed on 15 November 2017).

8. In 1966, Mao Zedong installed loyalists to the Central Leading Small Group on the Cultural Rev-
olution to oversee a mass youth uprising and a widespread purge of his rivals and CCP elite more
broadly. During his tenure, Jiang Zemin repeatedly refashioned the Taiwan Affairs Leading Group,
at times leaning on generals or diplomats, reflecting changes in his Cross-Straits strategy (Hsiao

Special feature

Table 1 – Leadership Positions Held by Xi Jinping

Leadership body Title Tenure since Precedent

Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Gen. Secretary 2012.11 Y

Central Military Commission of the CCP Chair 2012.11 Y

Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs Head 2012.11 Y

Presidency of the People’s Republic of China President 2013.03 Y

Central Military Commission of the PRC Chair 2013.03 Y

Central Leading Group for Foreign Affairs, National Security Head 2013.03 Y

Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Work Head 2013.03 Y

PRC National Security Committee Chair 2013.11 new

Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Chair 2013.11 new

Central Leading Group for Network Security and Information Techology Head 2014.02 new

Leading Group for Deepening Reform of National Defense and Military Head 2014.02 new

PLA Joint Operations Command Center Cmdr. in Chief 2016.04 new

Note: Based on Li (2016) and expanded upon records from China Vitae Research Library.

Even if there is still some separation of power at the very top, Xi is dra-
matically reshaping the way power is organised just below. These effects
are most vivid within the military. Though often seen as an arm of the CCP,
the PLA has traditionally enjoyed a measure of autonomy from the political
state, at times acting in violation of or even contradiction to the aims of
the leadership (Cheung 2001). Since Xi took office, however, thousands of
military personnel, including hundreds of senior officers, have been purged
and the traditional system of regional command, a vestige of the PLA’s land-
based limitations, has been scrapped and replaced with five theatres under
the direct oversight of the Central Military Commission (CMC), headed by
Xi. (9) The CMC itself was downsized from 11 members to seven, (10) and in
December 2017, the CCP Central Committee (CCOM) announced that the
People’s Armed Police Force (PAP), a force of more than 600,000 overseen
by both the State Council and the CMC since 1982, would be put under the
direct command of the CMC alone, beginning on 1 January 2018.

Consolidation within China’s cabinet mirrors that of the military. As of
March 2017, the State Council, chaired by Premier Li Keqiang, has been re-
duced from 35 members to 27. As in the case of the military, the merger of
prominent ministries and the creation of new agencies and administrations
is being touted on grounds of modernisation and efficiency. (11) This claim is
not unwarranted. For instance, the recently proposed Banking and Insurance
Regulatory Commission, a State Immigration Administration, and an Inter-
national Development Cooperation Agency each address policy arenas that
have only really emerged over the last decade.

At the same time, and just as in the case of military restructuring, it is
hard to ignore how changes within the governing cabinet are blurring the
boundary between state and party. The Financial Stability and Development
Committee (announced in November 2017), for instance, combines eco-
nomic oversight with policymaking powers, each of which has traditionally
been housed in separate kitchens (Naughton 2017). (12) Even more dramat-
ically, a new National Supervision Commission (NSC) merges and absorbs
the functions of the Ministry of Supervision (a state institution) within that
of the CCDI (a party organ). (13) This new branch of government not only ce-
ments Xi Jinping’s signature anti-corruption crusade as permanent fixture
of the party-state, its institutional rank—equal to that of the State Council
and higher than the judicial organs—circumvents the most paramount di-
vision of power and rule of law. (14)

Rigging the transfer of power

The transfer of power in Chinese leadership politics has been guided in re-
cent decades by three reinforcing norms, none of which are formally or
legally outlined in the CCP’s or the PRC’s constitution (Wang and Vangeli
2016). The first, and arguably the most important, concerns age and term
limits. The second and third are about the nomination and the grooming of
future leaders, respectively. Below, I briefly review the origins of these suc-
cession norms and the degree to which they are being followed today.

One of Deng Xiaoping’s pivotal reform efforts was rejuvenating the CCP
ranks by persuading revolutionary leaders into retirement (Manion 1993).
Although Deng refrained from adopting a specific age threshold for top
leaders, age restrictions for provincial and ministerial-level leadership posi-
tions, along with fixed term limits, were adopted into the constitution. These
efforts gradually culminated into norms for retirement, with lower-level
leaders facing mandatory retirement at 60 and mid-level leaders in the Cen-
tral Committee at 65 (Nathan 2003). The norm for top leaders is not in-

scribed in any rule book, but precedent suggests that incumbents may con-
tinue to serve when they are still 67, but not if they have reached 68, a
practice widely known as the “seven-up, eight-down (qi shang, ba xia)”
rule. (15) In practice, this norm, combined with the age demographics of
upper-most leadership cohorts, has also constrained top leaders to two
terms in office, which happens to coincide with the state positions.

Rather than violating the age-based retirement norm, Xi is taking full ad-
vantage of it. Although many expected 69-year-old Wang Qishan, a key Xi
ally and principal agent of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, to stay in the
PBSC, he officially retired from his party portfolio during the 19th Party
Congress. (16) This, of course, did not prevent Wang from taking over the vice-
presidency, a position that carries no age restriction. Furthermore, all 16
members from the 18th PBSC who had passed the age threshold were re-
tired, freeing up slots for Xi loyalists, including the elevation of 67-year-old
Li Zhanshu to the PBSC.

Another, more ambiguous, set of norms concerns the selection and
grooming of successors, a perennial source of friction and uncertainty in
non-democratically constituted regimes. The CCP is thought to have made
in-roads into this problem by extending the succession process across over-
lapping generations, whereby leaders-in-waiting take on key roles within
the PBSC in advance of their expected promotion (Ma 2016). This staggered
approach has two important implications. First, it means that future leaders
are well-socialised into the leadership structure before taking formal posi-
tions. Second, it implies that although incumbents are constrained from di-
rectly naming their own successors they have considerable influence in
nominating contenders to succeed one generation later.

Importantly, therefore, adherence to the “seven-up, eight down” age norm
implies that all members of the 19th PBSC, including Xi, are too old to carry
on the mantle of General Party Secretary after 2022. (17) Xi’s predicament
aside, the key takeaway of the 19th Party Congress was thus the curious
absence of any leader-in-waiting. A surprise constitutional overhaul, con-
ducted behind the scenes of the 2018 national legislative session, helped
clear things up by removing term limits for the office of President (also held
by Xi Jinping). As with the vice-presidency, the presidency carries no age re-

N o . 2 0 1 8 / 1 – 2 • c h i n a p e r s p e c t i v e s 19

9. “China’s Military Regrouped into Five PLA Theater Commands,” Xinhua, 1 February 2016, www.xin-
huanet.com/english/2016-02/01/c_135065429.htm (accessed on 15 November 2017).

10. Charlotte Gao, “Has Xi Fully Consolidated His Power Over the Military?” The Diplomat, 8 January
2018, thediplomat.com/2018/01/has-xi-fully-consolidated-his-power-over-the-military/ (ac-
cessed on 15 January 2018).

11. Government Overhaul Plan, mp.weixin.qq.com/s/_mG6KoJHKvXPpE6YE3zh9w (accessed on 15
March 2018).

12. “China Establishes Financial Stability and Development Committee,” Xinhua, 8 November 2017,
www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-11/08/c_136737949.htm (accessed on 15 November 2017).

13. There is no question as to the CCP’s predominance within the NSC. At the national level 14 out
of the 17 leadership members come with affiliations to either the Central or provincial Disciplinary
Inspection Commissions (DIC). At the provincial level more than 170 of the roughly 300 provincial
committee members have ties to provincial DICs. Author’s calculations based on provincial reports.

14. See: Charlotte Gao, “China Plans to Amend Its Constitution,” The Diplomat, 28 December 2017,
thediplomat.com/2017/12/china-plans-to-amend-its-constitution/ (accessed on 18 January

15. Wang and Vangeli (2016) refer to this as the “Li Ruihuan Clause” because it was the uncomfortable
task of retiring Li Ruihuan in 1997—then 68 years old—that encouraged members of the 15th
Congress, with strong pressure from Jiang Zemin, to lower the formal retirement age of top leaders
from 70 to 68.

16. See: Wang Xiangwei, “Despite Retirement, Xi’s Right-Hand Man Wang Qishan is Still Within Arm’s
Reach,” South China Morning Post, 2 December 2017, www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/arti-
cle/2122250/despite-retirement-xis-right-hand-man-wang-qishan-still-within (accessed on 15
December 2017).

17. Zhao Leji, the youngest member, will be 65 in 2022 and can look forward to no longer than one
more term in the PBSC, which ought to disqualify him from the top spot.

Dimitar D. Gueorguiev – Dictator’s Shadow: Chinese Elite Politics under Xi Jinping

striction, meaning that Xi Jinping can comfortably and legally retain his po-
sition as head of state after 2022. A future accommodation for Xi to hold
concurrent control of the Party’s General Secretary position beyond 2022,
despite his advanced age, will thus be easily defendable.

Packing the balance of power

In addition to institutional divisions and succession norms, many point to
the role of factional politics as providing a de facto balance of power (Cai
and Treisman 2006). Factions revolve around CCP leaders, who play the role
of patrons, leveraging their position of power to cultivate personal networks
of clients (Nathan 1973). Importantly, CCP norms around the transfer of
power facilitate factional competition by creating room for more than one
patron at a time; namely, the incumbent leader and the predecessor. That
is, by preventing incumbents from hand-picking their own successor but al-
lowing them to appoint prospective leaders who might one day succeed
their successor, CCP norms extend the shadow of the incumbent at least
two generations ahead. In theory, this iterative process ought to ensure
some balance of personal power within the top echelon of leaders (Ma
2016). Ironically, although Hu Chunhua is highly unlikely to be promoted in
the future, his presence as one of only three PB members young enough to
be named General Secretary in 2022 is at least a symbolic nod to the idea
of staggered succession, insofar as he is widely seen as having been Hu Jin-
tao’s nominee from 2012.

The present PBSC features representatives from each of China’s most
powerful factions. Premier Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Wang Yang both
hail from the Chinese Communist Youth League and are seen as having
ties to former General Secretary Hu Jintao’s “League faction” (Tuanpai

团派). Han Zheng is most closely associated with former General Secre-
tary Jiang Zemin’s “Shanghai clique,” while Zhao Leji and Li Zhanshu are
both seen as part of Xi’s emerging “New Zhijiang army.” The seventh
member, Wang Hu-ning, is a low-profile academic who has connections
with each of the above groupings, having helped pen Jiang’s “Three Rep-
resents,” Hu’s “Scientific Development,” and Xi’s “Socialist Evolution”
theories, each of which is now enshrined in the CCP constitution.

Although the PBSC appears roughly balanced, as already noted, ac-
cording to the “seven up, eight down” rule, practically the entire current
PBSC will have to retire in 2022. The fulcrum of balance is therefore
more likely to be found in the enlarged PB, which is heavily stacked in
Xi’s favour. Among the 18 current PB members who are not in the stand-
ing committee, only three could convincingly be described as members
of either Hu’s or Jiang’s respective cliques, compared to nine who could
be labelled as part of Team Xi (see Table 2). (18) Such groupings are prob-
lematic, both conceptually and analytically. Specifically, identifying a
factional affiliation often boils down to determining a person’s ex-
pressed or perceived loyalty towards a patron (Shih 2008). The problem,
of course, is deciding whether those expressing loyalty to an incumbent
leader are genuine clients, since not demonstrating such allegiance is
not much of an option.

Which individuals made it into the PB is also only half the story. The
recent career jolts to three leaders tied to Hu Jintao is a case in point.
Sun Zhengcai’s removal just before the 19th Congress—at only 54 years
old and an obvious Hu protégé—alongside the unceremonious early re-
tirement of Li Yuanchao and the quiet demotion of Liu Qibao, two
prominent Tuanpai kingpins, signal with very little ambiguity that Hu
Jintao’s remaining influence within the CCP leadership is token at
best. (19) In short, while the current PB reflects some semblance of bal-
ance, when we parse through the optics, it becomes quite clear that Xi
Jinping has taken full advantage of his position to tip the scales sharply
in his favour.

Dampening dissent

The relative ease with which Xi Jinping has refashioned and reconstituted
the institutional infrastructure raises questions about the internal proce-
dures underpinning collective leadership; namely that of Inner-Party Democ-
racy (Lin 2002; Hu 2010). The concept, admittedly vague, rests in the belief
that lower levels of power, despite being selected by the top leaders, exercise
some influence over top leaders and decisions through a process referred
to as “reciprocal accountability” (Shirk 1993). Although reciprocal account-
ability has not been directly demonstrated in China, the process by which
the CCOM ratifies PB decisions and appointments is codified in the consti-
tution. (20)

20 c h i n a p e r s p e c t i v e s • N o . 2 0 1 8 / 1 – 2

18. There is no clear-cut way to measure factional alignments. While some look at home town and
schooling experience, others prioritise common work experience. I treat the incumbent leader
during entry into the central committee, widely seen as the inner circle of the CCP, as a key indi-
cator for a possible factional tie. Then, I consider shared working experience and personal con-
nections as confirmation. In the absence of confirmatory links, I do not assign a factional tie.

19. Both Li and Liu were prominent members of the Chinese Communist Youth League, the organisa-
tional base for Hu Jintao’s Tuanpai faction. While Li has gone into early retirement, Liu and Zhang
have been demoted from the PB positions in the 18th Congress to CCOM positions in the 19th,
without much explanation.

20. Central Committee members have exercised institutional power vis-à-vis PB members in other
communist systems such as the Soviet Union in 1957 and 1964, and by a no-confidence vote in
Vietnam in 2014.

Special feature

Table 2 – 19th Party Congress Politburo
(Standing Committe Excluded)

Member Age Jiang Hu Xi

Hu Chunhua 54 ✔ 2007
Ding Xuexiang 55 ✔ 2017
Chen Min’er 57 ✔ 2012
Li Qiang 58 ✔ 2017
Huang Kunming 61 ✔ 2017
Li Hongzhong 61 – – – 2017

Li Xi 61 ✔ 2017
Cai Qi 62 ✔ 2017
Chen Quanguo 62 ✔ 2012
Guo Shengkun 63 ✔ 2012
Chen Xi 64 ✔ 2012
Yang Xiaodu 64 ✔ 2012
Liu He 65 ✔ 2012
Wang Chen 67 ✔ 2002
Xu Qiliang 67 ✔ 2002
Sun Chunlan 67 ✔ 2007
Yang Jiechi 67 – – – 2007

Zhang Youxia 67 – – – 2007

Note: I treat the incumbent leader during entry into the central committee as a key
indicator for a possible factional tie. Then, I consider shared working experience and
personal connections as confirmatory. In the absence of confirmatory links, I do not
assign a factional tie. Based on records from China Vitae Research Library.

Whereas the 17th and 18th congresses were each preceded by an internal
election, (21) selection in the 19th Congress was conducted by “face-to-face”
consultation, with Xi Jinping personally meeting with 59 senior and retired
leaders to seek their “suggestions.” Other senior leaders also held one-on-
one sessions with 290 ministerial cadres and senior military officers. (22) To
understand what this means procedurally as well as politically, it is worth
briefly digressing for a review of internal polls and consultation.

There are two aspects to internal CCP election procedures that set them
far apart from elections typical in Western democratic contexts. First, they
are secret, so the outcome can never be independently verified. Second,
Chinese internal elections are not contests among competing candidates.
Instead, they operate as straw polls, based on a menu drafted …

Journal of Contemporary China, 2017
Vol. 26, no. 105, 325–336

An Institutional Analysis of Xi Jinping’s Centralization of Power

Sangkuk Lee

Center for Security and Strategy, Korea institute for Defense analysis, Seoul, South Korea

Xi Jinping swiftly centralized political power shortly after the 18th Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) National Congress in 2012, opposing what
was predicted when he was elected general secretary. This action also
compromises China’s long-term efforts to avert an over-concentration of
power among a few elites. This study deals with Xi’s strong ascent to power,
defined as the result of institutional change in China’s political power game
from the perspective of new institutionalism. The author identifies triggers
of institutional change, ideas and norms introduced for changing informal
institutions, and the actual transformation of formal institutions, arguing
that Xi took advantage of social demand for reform coordination as well
as some top elites’ serious political misbehavior to commence institutional
change for the centralization of political power. To do so, Xi introduced new
reform ideas – systemic thinking and top-down design, originating from
complex systems theory – in the name of coordinating and comprehensively
deepening reform. Xi eventually succeeded in justifying the centralization
of power and the establishment of central organizations to deepen reforms
comprehensively and coordinate internal and external security. As a result,
Xi seized power while practically nullifying the principle of division of work.


One of the major characteristics of China’s elite politics during the era of ‘‘Reform and Opening up’’ is
that the power of China’s political elites came to be shaped more by political institutions than any other
factor, such as personal networks. This phenomenon has been perpetuated and intensified by the efforts
of top political leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping, in the reform era. That is, China’s top leaders pushed for
institutionalizing political elites’ power games by establishing political norms and regulations for the
selection, promotion, resignation, and responsibility of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres.1
As the political game has been institutionalized through the reform leadership’s efforts, the power of
China’s political elites has become determined by their official position and responsibility, authorized
by formal institutions, under the condition of a deficiency of personal charisma and prestige similar
to that which empowered previous revolutionary leaders including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.2

Particularly with Deng Xiaoping’s strong drive, as shown in his 1980s speech, ‘On the reform of the
party and state leadership system’,3 China’s top leaders initiated vigorous institutional reforms to ensure

1for details, see Wang yang, The Building of Institutions for the Party’s Cadres in the New Era [新时期党的干部制度建设] (Beijing:
CCp history publishing house, 2006), pp. 89–176.

2David Shambaugh, ‘the dynamics of elites politics during the Jiang era,’ The China Journal 45 (2001), p. 109; Shiping Zheng, ‘the
new era in Chinese politics,’ Issues and Studies 41(1), (2005), pp. 195–196.

3Deng Xiaoping, ‘on the reform of the party and state leadership system’ [‘党和国家领导制度的改革’], Selected Works of Deng
Xiaoping, Volume 2 (Beijing: Central party literature press, 1994), pp. 320–342.

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CONTACT Sangkuk lee [email protected]

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326 S. LEE

that power could not be overly centralized and concentrated in the hands of a few individuals who act
arbitrarily. Specifically, China’s reform leadership reinstated the system of combining ‘collective leader-
ship’ (集体领导) and ‘division of work with individual responsibility’ (个人分工负责), e.g. for party, admin-
istrative, legal, and military affairs. Since then, China’s power politics has been significantly influenced
by the rule of collective decision-making by consensus, with a division of policy responsibility among
the individual members of the CCP’s Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC). Indeed, the
‘collective leadership system’ and ‘division of work’ have been incorporated in the Party’s authoritative
public documents, including successive party constitutions, political work reports issued at the Party’s
National Congresses, and speeches by top leaders throughout the reform era.4

This political institutionalization of decentralized power in Chinese politics has accordingly affected
the estimation of power of China’s new political leadership, elected in the 18th Party National Congress.
Specifically, some forecasts for Xi Jinping, the Party’s new General Secretary, was that his power would
be significantly more fragile because of the collective leadership system and division of work as well as
his weak personal network with other power elites. Further, there were even predictions that Xi would
be the weakest leader since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.5

However, Xi’s political power, evident within a few years of his inaugural speech as the Party’s General
Secretary, is profoundly different from the aforementioned expectations. Many expert commentaries
on Chinese politics evaluate that Xi Jinping not only consolidated his political power swiftly but also
exerted his influence over more varied policy areas than any previous general secretary in the reform
era, even to the point of Xi’s power surpassing ‘‘the paramount leader,’’ Mao Zedong. These new assess-
ments of Xi’s power are mainly based on analyses of his heading newly introduced as well as existing
organizations for the transformation of modes of exercise of political power. It is estimated that after
making institutional rearrangements for policy decision-making at the central party level, Xi Jinping
could exert significant influence on an almost full range of policy areas: not only the extant duties of
General Secretary – foreign policy, national security, and military affairs, but also domestic security, the
economy, society, and legal affairs, which were assigned to other PBSC members in the past.6 Thus Xi’s
wielding of immense power over broad policy areas significantly surpasses previous leaders’ intentions
and efforts to avert an over-concentration of power and to ensure a decentralization of power during
the 30-year period of the reform era. In this sense, Xi Jinping’s centralization of power can be depicted
as an unusual phenomenon in Chinese reform-era politics.

With this premise, this study will address what factors have contributed to Xi Jinping’s seizure of
power beyond the initial forecasts. In so doing, it will utilize institutional change theory from new
institutionalism. This is because, as previously discussed, Xi’s grip on power depended considerably on
the rearrangement of institutions for policy decision-making at the central level, or transformations in
modes of Chinese top elites’ exercise of power.

4alice miller, ‘the 18th Central Committee leadership with comrade Xi Jinping as general secretary,’ China Leadership Monitor 48,
(2015), p. 1.

5for some predictions for Xi’s weak power, see William a Callahan, ‘Who is Xi Jinping, and where will he lead China?,’ CETRI Website,
8 november 2012, accessed 18 September 2016, http://www.cetri.be/Who-is-Xi-Jinping-and-where-will?lang=fr; Jiang Xueqin,
‘West should prepare for confusing new Chinese leader,’ CNN, 7 november 2012, accessed 18 September 2016, http://globalpub-
licsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2012/11/07/west-should-prepare-for-confusing-new-chinese-leader/; alice miller, ‘prospects for solidarity
in the Xi Jinping leadership,’ China Leadership Monitor (april 2012); fang yuan, ‘Xi to be ‘weak’ president,’ RFA, 12 november 2012
available at http://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/xi-jinping-11122012110129.html; akio yaita, Xi Jinping: The Weakest Leader
in Communist China [習近平:共產中國最弱勢的領袖] (taipei: Common Wealth magazine, 2012); robert lawrence Kuhn,
How China’s Leaders Think, 2nd ed.(Singapore: Wiley & Sons, 2011), p. xiv.

6See Gao yi, ‘analysis: how Xi Jinping can get to be like Deng Xiaoping?’ [‘分析:怎样的习近平才能是邓小平?’], BBC (18 august
2014), accessed 18 September 2016, http://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp/china/2014/08/140818_deng_xi_comparison_poli-
tics; Chris Buckleynov, ‘Xi Jinping’s rapid rise in China presents challenges to the u.S.,’ The New York Times (11 november 2014),
accessed 18 September 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/12/world/asia/president-xi-jinping-makes-it-his-mission-to-em-
power-china.html; Jeff mason and Steve holland, ‘obama says China’s Xi has consolidated power quickly, worrying neighbors,’
Reuters (4 December, 2014), accessed 18 September 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/04/us-usa-china-obama-iduSK-
Cn0Jh21420141204; Willy lam, ‘Xi Jinping: a 21st-century mao?,’ Prospect Magazine, 21 may 2015, accessed 18 September 2016,

Xi Jinping: A 21st-century Mao?


West should prepare for confusing new Chinese leader

West should prepare for confusing new Chinese leader






Xi Jinping: A 21st-century Mao?


According to new institutionalism, institutions are comprised of two basic dimensions. The formal
pillars consist of constitutions, laws, directives, regulations, and other rules that constrain, regularize,
and force agents’ behavior. The non-formal pillars establish principles, such as values and norms that
prescribe the goals of agents’ behavior and the appropriate ways to pursue them. The non-formal pillars
also include culturally shaped and taken-for-granted assumptions through which a certain reality is
perceived, understood, and given meaning by agents.7 From the perspective of new institutionalism,
institutions are endowed with properties of self-enforcement and perpetuation by relevant agents. This
is because many types of institutions are produced through bargaining and political conflict between
individuals and organizations for their own benefit,8 or because agents’ taken-for-grantedness makes
extant institutions self-enforcing.9

Thus, institutional change and rearrangement is frequently triggered by an exogenous shock, the
occurrence of a crisis, or an existing institution’s failure.10 Under the condition of a certain trigger’s action,
some stakeholders such as policy-decision makers and political elites turn to legitimizing and justify-
ing the necessity of institutional change. Sometimes social brokers, such as expert advisers and think
tanks, engage in the process of institutional change by introducing ideas and programs for institutional
redesign. Policy decision-makers as stakeholders make efforts for institutional transformation by inter-
acting with these social brokers.11 The characteristic of institutional change, whether it is fundamental
or partial, depends significantly on political context – for example, the existence of high veto players
who can mobilize institutional or other means of blocking change, and the stratagems of institutional
challengers to overcome the resistance of the veto players.12

With these theoretical guides for institutional change, this study endeavors to illuminate the institu-
tional rearrangement of China’s policy decision-making to explain the phenomenon of Xi’s centralization
of power after the 18th Party Congress. The study focuses on the triggers of institutional change, ideas,
and norms introduced to justify changing institutions, and the transformation of formal institutions.
To achieve this analytical goal, in the next section this study tries to identify what made what factors
caused China’s political elites to form a consensus on resolving the failure of the decentralized power
system and the necessity of centralizing political power. The third section deals with what ideas and
norms have been mobilized to justify or legitimize institutional change by Xi Jinping as an institutional
challenger. These analytic works proceed by identifying the major social brokers who support and
spread the discourse of institutional change. The transformation and its effect on formal institution are
analyzed in the fourth section. These issues are addressed with a focus on Xi’s stratagems for complying
with the party constitution regulating a ‘collective leadership system’ and ‘division of work’ as well as
minimizing other top elites’ (potential) opposition and resistance. The final section summarizes the new
findings in the previous sections and discusses the implications of this analytic result on China’s politics.

Chinese Political Elites’ Reaching Consensus on Remedying the Decentralized Power

The negative effects of decentralized power on China’s political environment were already present
from the Hu Jintao era of the mid-2000s, while the requirement of coordinating internal and external

7W. richard Scott, Institutions and Organizations: Ideas, Interests, and Identities, 4th ed., (thousand oaks: SaGe publications,
2013), pp. 55–85.

8Douglass C. north, Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge university press, 1990),
p. 36; avner Greif and Christopher Kingston, ‘institutions: rules or equilibria?,’ in norman Schofield and Gonzalo Caballero, eds.,
Political Economy of Institutions, Democracy and Voting (Berlin: Springer, 2011), p. 14.

9James mahoney and Kathleen thelen, Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power (new york: Cambridge
university press, 2010), p. 10.

10marc Schneiberg, ‘Combining new institutionalisms: explaining institutional change in american property insurance,’ Sociological
Forum, 20(1), (2005), pp. 93–137.

11John l. Campbell, Institutional and Globalization (princeton and oxford: princeton university press, 2004), pp. 102–103.
12Wolfgang Streeck, and Kathleen thelen, ‘introduction: institutional change in advanced political economies,’ in Wolfgang Streeck and

Kathleen thelen, eds., Beyond Continuity: Institutional Change in Advanced Political Economies (oxford: oxford university press,
2005), pp. 1–39; James mahoney and Kathleen thelen, Explaining Institutional Change: Ambiguity, Agency, and Power, pp. 14–37.

328 S. LEE

securities was proposed persistently in the reform era.13 That is, some of China’s officials and adminis-
trative experts raised concerns that the leadership system of ‘collective leadership’ and ‘division of work’
caused China’s poor governance and administrative performance, including ministry selfishness, inef-
fectiveness of policy decision-making, irresponsibility of officials, and procrastination of reform.14 Thus,
they proposed establishing a new organization for reform coordination at the central party or central
government level. Furthermore, they asserted that this organization should precede Chinese reforms in
the social and economic sectors by coordinating individual ministries’ and local government interests.15

The demands of installing a coordinating organization to deepen reform smoothly were voiced loudly
before and after the 18th CCP National Congress of 2012 by some of China’s high-ranking officials and
administrative experts from leading internal and external think tanks. They accentuated that ministerial
and regional self-centeredness should have been overcome by introducing a new central government
organization in order to further deepen China’s reform.16 Specially, a research report titled ‘‘China 2030’’,
jointly published in February 2012 by the Development Research Center of the State Council, Finance
Ministry, and World Bank, emphasized that ‘‘a high-powered reform commission needs to be established
by – and with the full support of – the highest level of government,’’ while pointing out a variety of
obstacles, like Chinese officialdom’s vested interests, to advancing reform.17

While these voices for solving the problems of the decentralized power system were rising, a series
of unexpected political events gave Chinese politics a shock shortly before the 18th Party Congress
in 2012. That is, the Party’s Chongqing Secretariat, Bo Xilai was removed from the Party as well as the
Politburo in September 2012. Bo was considered an effective candidate for membership of the PBSC at
the 18th Congress in 2012, since, as a member of the Politburo, he was armed with the Chongqing devel-
opment model, the ‘‘Singing Red Song’’ campaign, and a strong personal network among princelings.18
However, Bo was dismissed from the Party on a charge of abuse of power, graft, serious party disciplinary
violation, and attempting to establish a politically independent ‘‘kingdom’’ in Chongqing.19 In addition,
the chief of the Party’s General Office, Ling Jihua was reported to have committed a variety of abuses
of power and corruption in March 2012. He was considered very close to General Secretary Hu Jintao.

13See David m. lampton, ‘Xi Jinping and the national Security Commission: policy coordination and political power,’ Journal of
Contemporary China 24(95), (2015), pp. 4–9; fan Chuangui, ‘the profound and figurative meaning of proposing overall national
security outlook’ [‘‘总体国家安全观’提出之背后深意’], Legal Daily (21 april 2014), p. 4.

14alice l. miller, ‘prospects for solidarity in the Xi Jinping leadership,’ China Leadership Monitor 37, (2012), pp. 9–11; David m.
lampton, Following the Leaders: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping (Berkeley, los angeles, and london: university
of California press, 2014), p. 68.

15for details, huang Xiaohua, ‘Chi fulin member: establishing central reform coordination organization’ [‘迟福林委员:建立中央
改革协调机构’], Hainan Daily (13 march 2008), p. 2; Kuang Xianming ‘the goals and missions of the eleventh five-year reform:
the overview of meeting for reform situation’ [‘十一五’改革:目标与任务 – 改革形势分析会综述’], Review of Economic
Research,76(2005), pp. 17–22; Gao Shangquan, ‘Some opinions on report of government work (draft for comments)’ [‘对《政
府工作报告(征求意见稿)》的几点意见’], Reformdata.org (february 2005), accessed 18 September 2016, http://www.
reformdata.org/index.do?m=wap&a=show&catid=301&typeid=&id=5141; Gao Shangquan, ‘accelerating reforms in key areas:
pushing for China’s economic transformation’ [‘加快重点领域改革 推进中国经济转型’], China Reform, 12 (2010), pp. 42–43.

16for examples, see Geng Kuanmou, ‘Chu fulin: a top-down design transmits three signals, a reform organization at central level should
be established’ [‘迟福林:顶层设计释放三个信号 应建中央层面改革协调机构’], People’s Daily Online, 12 march 2012,
accessed 18 September 2016, http://theory.people.com.cn/GB/148980/17355259.html; an (unknown) editorialist, ‘Coordination
mechanism for improving system reform’ [‘完善体制改革的统筹协调机制’], South China Daily (19 february 2013), p. 2; 陈佳
贵主编, Report On China’s Economic System Reform 2012 to Build a Mature Socialist Market Economy [中国经济体制改革报
告 2012: 建设成熟的社会主义市场经济体制] (Beijing: economy management publishing house, 2012); ren Zhongyuan, et al.,
‘unveiling: comprehensive interpretation for reform roadmap’ [‘揭幕:改革路线图全解读’], New Century, 44 (2013), accessed 18
September 2016, http://www.cb.com.cn/index.php?m=content&c=index&a=show&catid=26&id=1023059&all; Wang Zhangjiang,
‘a series of conversations on scientific development: do not make top-down design deformed’ [‘科学发展系列谈:莫让’顶层
设计’走形’], China Youth Daily, 2 July 2012, p. 2.

17the World Bank & Development research Center of the State Council, the people’s republic of China, China 2030: Building a
Modern, Harmonious, and Creative High-Income Society (Washington: the World Bank, 2012), pp. 66–67.

18Xiansheng tian, ‘When Chongqing challenges Beijing: the Bo Xilai case,’ in Xiaobing li and Xiansheng tian, eds., Evolution of Power:
China’s Struggle, Survival, and Success (lanham: lexington Books, 2014), pp. 323–350.

19Wang yuanyuan, ed., ‘Bo Xilai expelled from CpC, public office,’ The Xinhua News Agency, 28 September 2012, accessed 18
September 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2012-09/28/c_131880079.htm; Cheng li, ‘the Bo Xilai crisis: a
curse or a blessing for China?,’ Brookings, 18 april 2012, accessed 18 September 2016, http://www.brookings.edu/research/









Moreover, a member of the 17th PBSC, Zhou Yongkang was accused of unreasonable power extension
by utilizing the authority of the Central Political and Legal Affair Committee (CPLAC) authority, e.g. by
controlling China’s courts and the procuratorates.20 After their news releases, Ling Jihua was relegated
to head of the United Front Work Department from chief of the Party’s General Office, one of the Party’s
most powerful organizations, in July 2012. Additionally, according to the Party’s official newspaper, The
People’s Daily,21 the Party’s investigation over the Zhou Yongkang case commenced with the launch
of an investigation into charges of the corruption of Tao Yunchun as early as March 2012. Tao was the
head of the China National Petroleum Corporation and considered one of Zhou Yongkang’s associates.22

Meanwhile, a CCP official theory periodical, ‘Seeking Truth’ (Qiu Shi, 求是) presented a drawback of
China’s decentralized power system by citing a Chinese political scientist in August 2012. Remarkably,
this journal directly criticized the system of combining ‘collective leadership’ and ‘division of work with
individual policy responsibility’ among the individual members of PBSC. With pointing out the impact
of the Bo Xilai scandal on China’s politics, the journal argued that the decentralized power system had
led to the ineffectiveness of government system, the corruption of government officials, their political
irresponsibility, and damage to national interest.23

With the civilian voices for reform coordination as well as the unexpected political scandals, the
18th Party Congress suggested that the Party would push for centralizing political power. This fact
was in evidence in Hu Jintao’s work report for the 18th Party Congress of November 2012, written after
extensive discussion and consultation within and among Chinese political elites.24 Specifically, the work
report for the 18th Party Congress placed greater emphasis on enforcing party discipline and upholding
centralized leadership than any other report in the reform era. Remarkably, the work report excluded
the concepts of collective leadership and division of work that had been stressed in successive party
reports from the 15th Congress of 1997 to the 17th Congress of 2007.25 Moreover, the report underlined
that ‘the Party ‘should improve the mechanism for coordinating structural reforms and conduct major
reforms in a holistic way according to the overall plan’’26 in the section on ‘‘deepening reform of the
administrative system’’. These statements regarding the centralization of power represent an historical
first in the Party’s work reports.27 In addition, the work report emphasized that ‘the Party ‘should improve
the national security strategy and its work mechanism,’’ while pointing out the importance of political
security, economic security, social security, ecological security, and military security.28 This suggests that
the consensus of the Chinese political elites over institutional rearrangement was formed in order to
precede reform effectively and to enforce national security capabilities.

20Sun Chun, ‘ling Jinhua’s entering the pBSC is hopeless, making efforts to enter the politburo,’ [‘令計劃入常無望 努力入局’], China’s
Secret Report, 1 (october 2012), pp. 14–20; Zhou yongkun, ‘the history and evolution of the political and legal affair Commission’
[‘政法委的历史与演变’], Spring and Autumn Annals, 9 (September 2012), pp. 7–14.

21‘a whole record for the investigation into the Zhou yongkang case for two years’ [‘周永康案查办两年全纪录’], People’s Daily
Online, 30 July 2014, accessed 18 September 2016, http://politics.people.com.cn/n/2014/0730/c1001-25370099.html

22after the 18th party Congress, the party’s General Secretary, Xi Jinping publically criticized Bo Xiali, Zhou yongkang, and ling Jihua
for violating the party’s political discipline (政治纪律) and political rules (政治规矩) thus putting the party in much greater peril by
pointing out that they built ‘‘an independent kingdom’’ (独立王国) for their personal interests at their jurisdiction. See Zhong Zuyi,
‘resolutely safeguard the authority of the party Central …


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