These days, the slightest sign of Xi Jinping accruing more power sets off an avalanche of speculation. Is this the final irrefutable sign that we are, indeed, looking at an authentic autocrat? Xi’s quick amassing of a suite of powers in his first year as president was taken as the first sign of his power hunger. Then the anti-corruption struggle from 2013 onwards, with its cast of culprits and villains, was often read as a huge clean-up of his so-called opponents. Finally, the simple words ‘core of the leadership’ were added after Xi’s name at the Communist Party annual plenum in late October, the key moment when the leadership publically lays out its policy and strategic ideas for the year ahead. Surely now one can make the case that Xi is truly a modern autocrat – a figure as hungry for power as his predecessor Mao Zedong?
Before getting too excited, it is worth thinking a bit about what ‘core of the leadership’ means. The term was never used contemporaneously about Mao or Deng Xiaoping. During his life, the notion of Mao being the ‘core’ of any leadership would have been meaningless. He was the leadership, period. For Deng, the problem was simply that his powers were very real, but elusive in terms of formal positions. He never occupied the position of party secretary, or president, only serving as a vice premier till 1982. Thereafter, he was chair of the Central Military Commission till 1989. After this, he was head of the China Bridge Association. But everyone knew he was the most influential person in China, deep into the mid-1990s. The only way of communicating this was either to confer on him, as many outside China did, the title ‘paramount leader’ – or by adding ‘core of the leadership’ within domestic discourse.
‘Core of the leadership’ is actually symptomatic of something that also raised its head during the Deng era. Following three decades of almost complete dominance by one leader, reforms after Mao’s death created a looser, more amorphous leadership structure. How best to try to express this without giving the impression that the leadership had become unfocused or undisciplined? Language like ‘core’ seemed to achieve this.
It was most frequently used in the mid-1990s, the era of Jiang Zemin, when official pronouncements about him stressed that the country was in the third generation of elite leadership, and that Jiang was at the heart of this. For someone whose ascent had been so contested during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, it was at least one way of conveying legitimacy on him. It showed that his era was part of the consistent story of the Communist Party since coming to power in 1949.
The reason why there has been such excitement about Xi being called ‘core’ of the leadership this year is that the term simply slipped out of common currency after Jiang’s retirement. From 2002, Hu Jintao never had the term connected with his name in standard state discourse. Many at the time felt this was a sign of his weakness and a lack of legitimacy. But there was another explanation: that the story of the leadership was already well enough understood and established, and there was no need for this sort of term. It was surplus to requirements.
Its comeback is noteworthy, because in many ways it sounds very clunky in contemporary Chinese discourse. It is understood what a president is, or a party secretary, or a minister. What precisely is a ‘core’? The most benign interpretation is simply that it betrays an innate conservatism in this leadership. They are unafraid of using slightly nostalgic language. Maybe it is also respectful too – a way that Xi is trying to link himself more directly to previous leaders, showing continuity.
None of that makes this move the compelling proof that Xi is drunk on power, daubing himself with every kind of title and accreditation that he can. So far it is impossible to state this – and it would be contradictory to do so. The point of ‘core’ in the past was to stress in fact that elite leaders were working in a collective, and were not out on their own. They were first among equals. That’s a different kind of message than to leap to the conclusion that Xi is somehow a man on a mission to build up power only for himself. A ‘core’ is not something wholly self-sufficient and all-dominating. It is the heart of something larger
Professor Kerry Brown, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme.