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Where Does President Xi’s Power Come From?

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China Power

Where Does President Xi’s Power Come From?

As he pursues anti-corruption and reform, Xi is drawing power and confidence from some unusual sources.

Where Does President Xi’s Power Come From?
Credit: Xi Jinping image from Kaliva / Shutterstock

As Chinese President Xi Jinping furthers his progress on anti-corruption and reforms, some observers, pundits, and even the public have raised concerns over two critical issues. First, hunting too many ‘tigers’ might damage the public’s faith in the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership. Second, there are suspicions that Xi may intend to amend Deng Xiaoping’s idea of “collective leadership” and seek a more decisive or even autocratic role as the CCP’s top leader.

These are meaningful concerns that demonstrate the complexity and delicacy of Chinese politics, particularly with regard to this round of anti-corruption moves. But the more direct and meaningful question is: Where does Xi’s power come from? This is a very important point, as it connects to discussions of the overall political legitimacy of CCP leadership. Instead of a full analysis, I intend to give some preliminary ideas that might help us to understand the roots of Xi Jinping’s confidence, power, and political obligations as he carries out his ideas for the governance of China.

First, Xi has based his governance on an embrace of personal dreams. Ever since his emergence in China’s top leadership, Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized the term “dream,” connecting his ideas for governing China with an acknowledgement of Chinese citizens’ ideals, pursuits, and dreams. This gives us good reason to believe that Xi Jinping has a strong streak of revolutionary idealism. This is not a put down; rather, I believe that it is exactly the character of revolutionary idealism (or, simply put, a strong personal dream) that differentiates a true statesman from a politician.

Xi spent over 40 years working his way up from a primary-level office (similar to community councils in the West) before becoming China’s top leader. This 40-year career not only taught Xi the necessary knowledge, skills, and political savvy, but also gave him a true understanding of Chinese people’s real lives and their real hardships. This understanding in turn further solidified his own vision for governing the huge country by incorporating “personal dreams” into the overall “China dream.”

Second, Xi is recalibrating China’s “collective leadership.” One of the most important and significant characteristics of China’s elite politics is “collective leadership,” which was created (and later violated) by Mao Zedong, restored by Deng Xiaoping, and further implemented by the following generations of Chinese leaders. This “collective” mechanism was designed to prevent the overconcentration of power in the hands of any individual among China’s top leaders. As Yi Edward Yang has argued, collective leadership paved the way for an institutionalized political process within the CCP, but at the same time the need for consensus can delay the Party’s response to crises.

This model poses some complex problems. Western analysis quite often lumps China’s collective leadership and factional politics together, seeming to indicate that “collective leadership” in practice means reaching political compromise among different political factions. Chinese and Western scholars have different opinions regarding whether Chinese “collective leadership” is actually a product of “factional politics.” For his part, Xi Jinping has already shown his strong political will to reject and fight various factions within the party, especially in the context of his anti-corruption campaign. In particular, Xi has spoken out against local strongmen (小山头), cliques (小圈子), and criminal gangs (小团伙). As Xi fights against factionalism, it is essential for him to take up a relatively stronger role within China’s “collective leadership” in order to move forward smoothly and decisively. Of course, Xi must successfully reconcile the long-standing political traditions of the CCP with his ambitious new vision.

It remains unclear whether a limited concentration of power within China’s “collective leadership” model can help overcome the system’s shortcomings. Regardless, political compromise among different factions should not be a primary power source for current and future Chinese leaders; on this front Xi is trying to make some changes.

Third, Xi gains power from the public’s expectations and support. Discussing his anti-corruption campaign, for example, Xi explained that China’s leaders understand clearly both the Party’s mission and the people’s expectations. By responding to people’s calls for true anti-corruption measures, Xi fosters both public expectations and public support. Xi’s relatively firm and decisive responses have further consolidated his central role in this anti-corruption storm. So far the concerns about the CCP losing political legitimacy have been submerged by nation-wide support from the general public, even though there have been complaints among certain groups.

But in addition to support for Xi’s policies, public support also comes from Xi Jinping’s individual image (including his China dream, as discussed above). Xi has shown the public a different image than his predecessors. The song “Xi Dada Loves Peng Mama,” which was widely circulated among Chinese netizens, reflects Xi Jinping’s extremely high popularity among the Chinese public. The public indeed welcomes a more “real” political figure, one that lives, loves, and laughs just like regular people do.

All told, Xi is drawing power from different sources than his predecessors. Right now, China is in a critical period of internal and external transitions. Domestically, China faces economic and social transitions. Externally, there is the possibility of a global power shift from the United States to China, although this remains unlikely in the near term. Xi Jinping’s primary concerns are and should be those domestic issues, which (not coincidentally) serve as the primary source for his confidence and power.