1. How has Xi Jinping changed or manipulated the political system for his own ends, according to Gueorguiev?2. What ramifications do these changes have for the future of elite-run politics, and politics in general, in China?3. Why is the environmental policy process in China different from the norm in other states?4. What happened to create what Chen and Lees call “Authoritarian Environmentalism” in China? How is this manifested through the new green urbanization initiatives?5. What do both of these articles tell us more generally about the role of the state in China, and its strengths and weaknesses?


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S peci al feature
per spectives
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 midterm 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 comparative literature, I question the zero-sum relationship between executive and institutional strength. Although Xi has certainly amassed unprecedented 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 governing capacity over the medium to long-term.
KEYWORDS: China, Authoritarian Regimes, Elite Politics, Power Sharing, Collective Leadership, Institutions, Succession.
ne-man rule is cited as a common source of regime breakdown—what Milan Svolik (2012) refers to as “failures in
power-sharing.” The reason why power-sharing under authoritarian rule is so hard is self-evident: in the absence of democratic competition there is little to deter incumbent leaders from abusing their
office at the expense of other elites. Against this backdrop, China’s postMao period stands out as an example of relatively effective power-sharing, 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 incumbent to another. (1)
Rapid concentration of power in President Xi Jinping has raised serious
questions about the efficacy and durability of Chinese power sharing institutions, leading some observers to conclude that “collective leadership
[in China] is dead.” (2) In this article, I push back on such claims by reviewing 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 institutions, coupled with elite complicity, have in fact facilitated Xi’s
power grab.
Instead, I argue that the dangers of personalisation are more likely to concern future governance challenges. First, departure from collective decisionmaking 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 challenges and avoid unnecessary policy blunders. Second, anti-corruption
purges, combined with an apparent desire to seed loyalists, has either discouraged 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.
No.2018/1-2 • china perspectives
Chinese elite politics under Xi Jinping
In explaining the CCP’s durability, scholars point to China-specific leadership institutions, norms, and procedures, which in theory facilitate stable
power sharing. In particular, prior research points to: organisational fragmentation 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 ideological “thought” into the CCP constitution (Miller 2017), (3) and revised
the national constitution to remove term limits for the office of the presidency. (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
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.
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/chinasxi-elevated-to-mao-status-1508825969 (accessed on 15 November 2017).
The CCP added Deng’s name and thought to the constitution after he died in 1997.
“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).
p e e r – r e v i e w e d a r t i c l e 17
S p e ci a l feat ure
Table 1 – Leadership Positions Held by Xi Jinping
Leadership body
Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party
Central Military Commission of the CCP
Central Leading Group for Taiwan Affairs
Presidency of the People’s Republic of China
Central Military Commission of the PRC
Central Leading Group for Foreign Affairs, National Security
Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Work
PRC National Security Committee
Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms
Central Leading Group for Network Security and Information Techology
Leading Group for Deepening Reform of National Defense and Military
PLA Joint Operations Command Center
Tenure since
Gen. Secretary
Cmdr. in Chief
Note: Based on Li (2016) and expanded upon records from China Vitae Research Library.
of powers, norms surrounding succession, and procedures for collective decision-making in China. Although each of these features are aimed at constraining 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 institutions are still intact (Slater 2003).
Circumventing the separation of powers
The 17th Party Congress Communique from 2007 defines collective leadership as “a system with a division of responsibilities among individual leaders 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 concluded that “centralised and unified leadership by the Party is the highest
principle of the leadership.” Most recently, Xi Jinping’s outgoing anti-corruption czar, Wang Qishan, penned an essay in People’s Daily outlining
“problems with separating party and state,” and explaining why future challenges 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, President, 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 constitutional 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 Leading 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 appears to be re-drawing the bounds and meaning of institutional power-sharing. 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 Commission (headed by Li Keqiang) or the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (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.
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).
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
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/chinaxi-jinping-titles-chairman.html (accessed on 15 November 2017).
In 1966, Mao Zedong installed loyalists to the Central Leading Small Group on the Cultural Revolution 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
china perspectives • No.2018/1-2
Dimitar D. Gueorguiev – Dictator’s Shadow: Chinese Elite Politics under Xi Jinping
Even if there is still some separation of power at the very top, Xi is dramatically 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 landbased 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 reduced 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 International 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 economic oversight with policymaking powers, each of which has traditionally
been housed in separate kitchens (Naughton 2017). (12) Even more dramatically, 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 cements 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 division of power and rule of law. (14)
Rigging the transfer of power
The transfer of power in Chinese leadership politics has been guided in recent 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 succession 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 positions, 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 Central Committee at 65 (Nathan 2003). The norm for top leaders is not inNo.2018/1-2 • china perspectives
scribed in any rule book, but precedent suggests that incumbents may continue 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 advantage 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 vicepresidency, a position that carries no age restriction. Furthermore, all 16
members from the 18th PBSC who had passed the age threshold were retired, 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 overlapping 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 positions. Second, it implies that although incumbents are constrained from directly 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, conducted 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 re9.
“China’s Military Regrouped into Five PLA Theater Commands,” Xinhua, 1 February 2016, www.xinhuanet.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/ (accessed 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 rou …
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