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In China, a Tale of 2 Plenums: ‘Core Leader’ Vs. Collective Leadership

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In China, a Tale of 2 Plenums: ‘Core Leader’ Vs. Collective Leadership

Media highlight Xi’s new “core” status, but documents from the Sixth Plenum emphasize on “democratic centralism.”

In China, a Tale of 2 Plenums: ‘Core Leader’ Vs. Collective Leadership
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ VOA

From October 24 to 28, 2016, the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was held in Beijng’s Jingxi hotel behind closed doors. One of the major developments during the plenum was that the Central Committee officially gave “core leader” status to President Xi Jinping. Since then, analysts and journalists alike have focused on Xi’s anointment as the core leader and attempted to interpret its significance. Many analysts suggested that Xi’s new status as a core leader would confer on him greater power to ignore past norms and eventually become the most authoritative figure in the party, similar to Mao Zedong. Some analysts went a step further and argued that the core leader status was a clear indication that no one could dissent or resist Xi and if some did so, they would be punished. Accordingly, some even concluded that Xi has effectively “overturned the consensus driven collective leadership model.” To such analysts, Chinese politics after the Sixth Plenum could be best described as the rise of Xi Jinping and the demise of the collective leadership system.

The anointment of Xi as a core leader indeed constitutes a major development in Chinese politics, but the documents released from the Sixth Plenum indicate that such media narratives might be greatly exaggerated. While Xi may have earned the core leader status, the collective leadership system will most likely continue within the CPC at least nominally, if the documents released after the plenum serve as any guide to how the Party will operate in the years to come.

After the plenum, the CPC issued four different documents, all of which explained at length the importance of collective leadership and democratic centralism. First was the communique of the Sixth Plenum (hereafter referred to as the Communique). Then there were the two new documents passed at the plenum: “Some Norms Regarding Intra-party Political Life Under New Circumstances” (hereafter referred to as Norms) and “Regulations Regarding Intra-party Supervision” (hereafter referred to as Regulation). Fourth was Xi Jinping’s own explanation and interpretation of the Norms and the Regulations. Few analysts and media outlets have yet offered a careful analysis of these documents, and even those that did almost exclusively emphasized the meaning of the “core” leader and overlooked other aspects of the documents, especially the sections on collective leadership and democratic centralism.  This article is an attempt to summarize and analyze the main points of the four major documents and specifically how they describe the collective leadership system.

The Communique devoted two major paragraphs to emphasizing the importance of collective leadership and democratic centralism. The Communique underscored that “democratic collective leadership is the Party’s fundamental organizational principle.” It further added that “no organization, no single person should be able to undermine this system [collective leadership] for any reason under any circumstance.” In addition to highlighting the importance of collective leadership, the Communique stated that “intra-party democracy is the life of the Party.” It advocated each Party member’s right to know, right to participate, right to supervise, and right to equal treatment in accordance with the Party constitution and rules. The Communique also warned against anyone who dared to suppress or undermine intra-party democracy. Given such strong emphasis on collective leadership, the CPC most likely made a certain degree of trade-off between Xi’s status as a “core leader” and maintaining the collective leadership system.

The Norms also highlighted the importance of democratic centralism and collective leadership. Besides the general points indicated in the communique, the Norms specifically opposed a nominal collective leadership system, in which the collective leadership exists in name only and one single person dictates important decisions in reality. The Norms also guaranteed the right to whistle-blow for every Party member and prohibited the Party from retaliating against whistleblowing in the form of discrimination and suppression. The Norms strongly advocate intra-party democracy as a means to guarantee every member’s right to contribute to the Party’s decision-making process and prevent the rise of one single dominant figure in the Party.

The Regulations also stated that intra-party supervision must be implemented in accordance with democratic centralism, which manifests itself in the form of top-to-bottom supervision, mutual supervision, and bottom-to-top supervision. The Regulations further stated that there are no limits or exceptions to intra-party supervision. In the context of collective leadership, the Regulation aims to strengthen the collective leadership through enhanced supervision by all Party members toward each other and especially toward those in leadership positions.

In his personal explanation of the Norms and Regulations, Xi did not make a special emphasis on the collective leadership system, but he referred to the earlier Norms enacted in 1980 as the lessons of the “excruciatingly painful Cultural Revolution.” As someone who personally suffered through the Cultural Revolution, Xi may well be aware of the risk of undermining the collective leadership system and opening a greater possibility towards repeating the painful period of Chinese history.

In the aftermath of the Sixth Plenum and the release of the four major documents, only a few analysts have taken note of this important repetition and emphasis on collective leadership and democratic centralism. Some suggested that the plenum’s seemingly contradictory decision to anoint Xi with the core leader status while reiterating the importance of collective leadership is an attempt to achieve a “delicate balance between collective leadership and personal authority.” Along the same line, another analyst viewed the plenum’s documents and their emphasis on collective leadership as an indication that Xi did not get his way completely.

Analysts are sharply divided when it comes to how to understand the Sixth Plenum. The tale of two plenums provides us with very different stories surrounding Xi Jinping and the collective leadership system. The mainstream view has been about the rise of Xi as a core leader and the demise of the collective leadership system. The contrarian view has been about the delicate balance of a strong yet restrained leader. Although so much of the media narrative has reaffirmed the mainstream view, documents from the plenum clearly support the contrarian view that Xi, while enjoying a greater status as a core leader, would nonetheless be constrained by the collective leadership system. While it may be an impossible task to predict Xi’s future and the fate of the collective leadership system, a careful reading of the primary documents may serve as a useful guide into how the CPC will operate running up to the 19th Party Congress next year.

To move beyond the analysis of the plenum documents themselves, China watchers will have to pay close attention to whether Xi’s personnel changes correspond with the plenum’s emphasis on collective leadership. Xi’s decisions to promote two provincial officials who wore loyalty badges during the Two Sessions earlier this year have caused concerns over whether Xi is cultivating a personality cult and potentially filling important positions with his loyalists. From now until the 19th Party Congress next year, China watchers should focus on whether the CPC lives up to the commitments it made in the plenum documents. After all, the future of the collective leadership will depend on what Xi does, not what Xi says.

Benjamin Lee is a James C. Gaither Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program.