China needs a wise strongman

Since taking power in late 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has surprised many with his strong powerbase and assertive diplomatic moves, in some ways pushing the boundaries set by the late Deng Xiaoping. Straits Times China Bureau Chief Kor Kian Beng examines the Xi brand of politics and diplomacy.

For the long-term good of China, and his own legacy, President Xi Jinping should aim higher and build a more robust political system that can prevent the abuse of power during and after his tenure.
For the long-term good of China, and his own legacy, President Xi Jinping should aim higher and build a more robust political system that can prevent the abuse of power during and after his tenure. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who already wears many hats, acquired his ninth last month as chair of a reform-oriented military taskforce. He was promptly nicknamed Jiu Ba Dao, or "Nine Knives", the pen name of a popular Taiwanese author-director.

Looking beyond the cheeky monicker, many wonder whether the power moves portend a re- emergence of strongman politics, thought to have ended with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's death in 1997.

To be sure, opinion is divided.

Analysts in the "aye" camp point to the unusually big number of hats that Mr Xi wears: State President, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief, Central Military Commission (CMC) chairman, and head of at least six high-level committees looking into such areas as cyber security, national security and foreign policy.

The analysts also cite unprecedented moves that Mr Xi has made to show how much stronger he is compared to his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.

The war against corruption that Mr Xi waged soon after he took power in November 2012 breaks an unwritten rule in that it also targets very high-level CCP members, such as the retired Zhou Yongkang of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). And a similar campaign in the military appears to have retired CMC vice-chairman Xu Caihou in its sights.

Analysts also point to Mr Xi's ability to roll out ambitious reform pledges at the CCP's policy summit last November.

Then, there is a seeming revival of Mao Zedong-era practices. Earlier this month, 18 senior generals declared their backing for Mr Xi in a collective show of support not seen in over three decades.

But analysts who disagree believe that Mr Xi's ability to gather power stems more from a collective will by the current leadership team to find ways to overcome vested interest groups and push through much-needed reforms.

Failure to reach consensus on major matters among the apex PSC and retired political elite is often cited as a factor for the lack of meaningful political and economic reforms during the 10-year rule of president Hu Jintao and his premier Wen Jiabao.

Professor Alice Miller of the Hoover Institution, in a paper last month on how strong Mr Xi is, argued "that the continuity in stress on collective leadership in Chinese state media treatment of the leadership from the Hu period into the Xi era underscores this conclusion".

"Rather than reflecting a campaign of personal aggrandisement and power-mongering by the new top leader, the leadership trends since the 18th CCP Congress suggest instead a leadership collective around Xi that enjoys a mandate for a concerted push at new reform after the frustrations of the later Hu years," she wrote.

Agreeing, Nottingham University analyst Steve Tsang said Mr Xi "has managed to assert himself more effectively than his predecessors all the way back to Deng".

"But this does not make Xi a strongman. He is essentially the first among equals - though an assertive and powerful one.

"If he were a strongman he would have had his way with Zhou Yongkang. He has not managed to do that."

However, after what has been deemed a disappointing Hu-Wen decade, there may well be a strong case for China to have a strongman now, albeit one who uses his powers wisely.

There is a sizeable groundswell of support here for a leader able to rally the various factions to push through needed reforms, such as reducing the state's role in the economy which would hurt powerful state-owned enterprises.

Also, the CCP, beset by rampant graft, could do with a strong, charismatic leader who can improve the party's image and rally people and cadres behind it.

But this would require changing the leadership structure - one that rules by consensus on major matters and is balanced by various factions - that Deng put in place precisely to prevent the rise of another Mao and the onset of another catastrophe such as the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

Under the "rule by consensus" system, Mr Hu and, before him, Mr Jiang cemented their power base through the Communist Youth League and the so-called Shanghai clique respectively. Their rule was also marked by concessions given to other factions to achieve consensus.

Wuhan University analyst Qin Qianhong believes changes are already afoot to make Mr Xi an executive president, similar to that under the American system. He also believes that the groups Mr Xi helms aim to circumvent the apex PSC by ceding decision-making powers to the President. He cites how Mr Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan enjoy unprecedented publicity at home and during their travels overseas, much like a US First Couple.

But though China could do with a strong leader now, one unencumbered by the need to keep making concessions to win consensus, the hope is that both China and Mr Xi, drawing lessons from the past, will introduce checks and balances to prevent a repeat of catastrophic errors under Mao. Past leaders had used their powers largely to purge opponents and protect their own people, advance safe reforms, and leave a great and unblemished legacy.

For the long-term good of China and his own legacy, Mr Xi should aim higher and build a more robust political system that can prevent the abuse of power during and after his tenure.

He has several factors in his favour, including a public largely on his side, thanks to a well-oiled propaganda machinery. He was handed the reins of the CCP and CMC from the get-go. Mr Jiang became CCP chief in 1989 but did not have full control until Deng died in 1997. Mr Hu became CCP chief in 2002 and had to wait two years for Mr Jiang to step down as CMC chair.

Of course, Mr Xi will need to tread carefully. Mr Jiang, 87, remains a formidable force behind the scenes and Mr Hu's Communist Youth League proteges, particularly Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua, are set to dominate the next PSC.

Still, a stronger CCP chief in Mr Xi has produced welcomed changes: less emphasis on the pursuit of rapid economic growth and a stronger focus on tackling perennial problems like income inequality and environmental pollution.

But even as his power grows, President Xi should be mindful of how he wields his "Nine Knives". After all, a knife can cut both ways.

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