Photo Credit: South China Morning Post
By: Michael Daly, Columnist
In late October, China’s top leadership gathered in Beijing for the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee in Beijing. This year’s iteration of the annual meeting of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership focused on intra-Party governance. At this meeting, President Xi Jinping further consolidated his power and sought to institutionalize his wide-ranging and contentious anti-corruption campaign. Both of these trends likely portend a continuation of Xi’s aggressive regional expansion and burgeoning tendency to act coercively vis-à-vis China’s neighbors.
Key Takeaways from the Sixth Plenum
The meeting of China’s most prestigious leaders produced two key deliverables. First, the CCP honored President Xi with the title of “core leader.” Xi joins Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and Mao Zedong as the leaders on whom this title has been bestowed. There are two narratives regarding the importance of this designation. Some China-watchers allege that it will significantly enhance Xi’s ability to impose his will upon the direction of Chinese domestic and foreign policy.[i] Whereas the CCP labeled Jiang as “core” of the “third generation” of Chinese leaders, Xi has attained the generic status of “core” of the Party at large, seemingly earning his title in a way that Jiang did not.[ii] Moreover, according to this narrative, Xi’s bolstered status will enable him to increasingly impose his will on factional opponents within the CCP and erode the traditional norms of collective leadership the CCP has established.[iii] In contrast, proponents of the second narrative assert that Xi’s new designation is more of a return to normal; Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, is the only president in the history of the CCP not to be given “core” stature, due in part to his reputation as a perennially weak leader.[iv] Whatever the ultimate significance of Xi’s “core” leader status, it certainly appears to signal progress in Xi’s ongoing efforts to consolidate power.
The second key takeaway from the Sixth Plenum is that Xi released two documents addressing the proper behavioral norms of CCP members in political life and intra-Party regulation efforts, respectively.[v] These documents indicate Xi’s desire to gain greater compliance with central government policy initiatives at the local level—a problem that has traditionally plagued Chinese governance.[vi] As Xi outlines, “management of officials, especially high-ranking ones, is imperative to strengthening Party building.”[vii] The documents also seek to institutionalize Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, a tool he has historically used to purge factional opponents that pose a threat to his rule.[viii] Toward that end, Xi excoriated senior officials who have “resorted to political conspiracies” to oppose Xi’s leadership and have “form[ed] cliques to pursue selfish interests.”[ix] In this manner, Xi’s documents send a clear message to his subordinates that neither corruption nor opposition to his dictates will be tolerated.
Hence, the trend emerging from the Sixth Plenum is Xi’s continued consolidation of power.[x] This trend will likely correlate with a continuation of the aggressive foreign policy Xi has implemented during his tenure.
Xi’s Consolidation of Power Before the Plenum
To understand why the Sixth Plenum will likely perpetuate China’s regional aggression, it is necessary to explore how Xi Jinping’s amalgamation of power has run consistent with an increasingly bellicose foreign policy. Since taking office in 2013, President Xi has gradually overturned the norms of collective leadership that the CCP has spent decades developing.[xi] He appointed himself Chairman of the Central Military Commission, making him the first leader since Mao to simultaneously hold that position as well as President of China and Chairman of the CCP. His anti-corruption campaign has systematically targeted prominent CCP leaders such as former security chief Zhou Yongkang who pose a threat to Xi’s ability to enact desired policies. Moreover, Xi has instituted a series of “leading small groups” that he chairs and fills with factional allies.[xii] In the context of foreign policy, Xi created a “National Security Council” that has diminished the role of the Foreign Ministry and the military in major policy decisions and streamlined Xi’s capacity to implement his desired foreign policy.[xiii]
Alongside Xi’s consolidation of power has been a noticeably more aggressive foreign policy.[xiv] Under Xi, China unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea in 2013, transformed the geopolitical situation in the South China Sea with its construction and militarization of seven man-made islands, and ceased diplomatic contact with Taiwan following Tsai Ing-wen’s electoral victory and subsequent refusal to endorse the so-called “1992 Consensus” concerning relations between the nations. It is no coincidence that as Xi consolidates power, he guides Chinese aggression abroad. Xi has positioned himself as the man responsible for irreversibly ending the effects of the “century of humiliation,” leading China’s national rejuvenation, and achieving the “China Dream.”[xv]
Why the Sixth Plenum Signals a Continuation of These Trends
In this context, two factors lend credence to the assertion that the Sixth Plenum will ultimately continue Xi’s consolidation of power and aggressive foreign policy. First, both the CCP-run press and the vast majority of Chinese people demonstrate consistent support for Xi’s quest to reclaim China’s great power status.[xvi] Indeed, a 2014 survey reported that President Xi enjoys over 90 percent approval rating on both domestic and foreign policy.[xvii] Hence, Xi has the requisite public support to cement his grip on power and guide China’s foreign policy as he wishes. Second, the CCP has traditionally relied on economic growth and nationalism as its two sources of governing legitimacy.[xviii] As China’s economy continues its downturn after decades of sustained double-digit growth, Xi is likely to stoke nationalism to offset the financial challenges that businesses and households face.[xix] Such increased nationalism will fuel China’s aggression abroad. The two deliverables from the Sixth Plenum enhance Xi’s capacity to unilaterally execute potentially escalatory policy. Hence, as a new administration in Washington enters office, it should expect little change in Xi’s diplomatic posturing and the burgeoning military challenge China poses to US forces in the region.
[i] Chris Johnson and Scott Kennedy, “Now China’s ‘Core’ Leader, Xi Jinping Looks to Dominate Leadership Shuffle,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 28, 2016, https://www.csis.org/analysis/now-chinas-core-leader-xi-jinping-looks-dominate-leadership-shuffle?utm_source=The+Sinocism+China+Newsletter&utm_campaign=129e1fe116-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2016_11_08&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_171f237867-129e1fe116-29607517.
[ii] Johnson and Kennedy, “Now China’s ‘Core’ Leader, Xi Jinping Looks to Dominate Leadership Shuffle.”
[iii] Johnson and Kennedy, “Now China’s ‘Core’ Leader, Xi Jinping Looks to Dominate Leadership Shuffle.”; Chris Buckley, “Xi Jinping is China’ ‘Core’ Leader: Here’s What it Means,” The New York Times, October 30, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/31/world/asia/china-xi-jinping-communist-party.html?utm_source=The+Sinocism+China+Newsletter&utm_campaign=129e1fe116-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2016_11_08&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_171f237867-129e1fe116-29607517&_r=0.
[iv] Ankit Panda and Shannon, China’s 6th Plenum: Why You Should Care, podcast audio, The Diplomat’s Podcast on Asian Geopolitics, Accessed October 30, 2016; Minxin Pei, interview by Eleanor Albert, “A Looming Power Struggle for China?” Council on Foreign Relations, October 28, 2016, http://www.cfr.org/china/looming-power-struggle-china/p38446.
[v] Johnson and Kennedy, “Now China’s ‘Core’ Leader, Xi Jinping Looks to Dominate Leadership Shuffle.”
[vi] Christina Lai, “In China’s Sixth Plenum, Xi Strives to Polish Image Abroad,” Asia Times, October 26, 2016, http://www.atimes.com/chinas-sixth-plenum-xi-strives-polish-image-abroad/.
[vii] “Xi Spells Out Party Codes on Stricter Governance,” Xinhua, November 3, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-11/03/c_135801399.htm?utm_source=The+Sinocism+China+Newsletter&utm_campaign=129e1fe116-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2016_11_08&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_171f237867-129e1fe116-29607517.
[viii] Johnson and Kennedy, “Now China’s ‘Core’ Leader, Xi Jinping Looks to Dominate Leadership Shuffle”; Ting Shi, “Xi’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Signals Power Play for 2017,” Bloomberg, July 4, 2014, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-07-03/corruption-crackdown-helps-xi-position-to-shape-future-leaders.
[ix] “China’s Xi Lashes Out at Political Cliques, Election Fraud,” Xinhua, November 2, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-11/02/c_135800986.htm?utm_source=The+Sinocism+China+Newsletter&utm_campaign=129e1fe116-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2016_11_08&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_171f237867-129e1fe116-29607517.
[x] Panda and Tiezzi, China’s 6th Plenum: Why You Should Care.
[xi] Johnson and Kennedy, “Now China’s ‘Core’ Leader, Xi Jinping Looks to Dominate Leadership Shuffle.”
[xii] Robert Blackwill and Kurt Campbell, “Xi Jinping on the Global Stage,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 2016, 6-7, http://www.cfr.org/china/xi-jinping-global-stage/p37569.
[xiii] Blackwill and Campbell, “Xi Jinping on the Global Stage,” 6.
[xiv] Blackwill and Campbell, “Xi Jinping on the Global Stage,” 16.
[xv] Nectar Gan, “What is the Chinese Communisty Party’s ‘Sixth Plenum’ and Why Does it Matter?” South China Morning Post, October 24, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2039427/what-chinese-communist-partys-sixth-plenum-and-why-does; “Spotlight: New CPC Discipline Rules Could Be An Example For Parties Around the World,” Xinhua, November 9, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-11/09/c_135816604.htm.
[xvi] Chun Han Wong, “Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Extreme Makeover,” The Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/xi-jinpings-extreme-makeover-1463069291; “Xinhua Insight: Plenary Session Offers Glimpse Into CPC’s Inner Workings,” Xinhua, November 4, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-11/04/c_135805602.htm.
[xvii] Dexter Roberts, “Xi Jinping Is The World’s Most Popular Leader, Says Survey,” Bloomberg, December 18, 2014, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-12-18/xi-jinping-wins-the-popularity-conest.
[xviii] Blackwill and Campbell, “Xi Jinping on the Global Stage,” 24-27.
[xix] Blackwill and Campbell, “Xi Jinping on the Global Stage,” 24-27.