The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Xi Jinping’s China: Concentrating and Projecting Power

January 19, 2017

President Xi Jinping (right) and Premier Li Keqiang (left) arrive at the Great Hall of the People. © Feng Li/Getty Images
President Xi Jinping (right) and Premier Li Keqiang (left) arrive at the Great Hall of the People. © Feng Li/Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping moved to consolidate his position as a “core” leader during the second half of 2016, but his domestic and external triumphs could bode ill for the region. Kazuyuki Suwa reviews key domestic and foreign-policy developments and their implications for Japan and other countries in the region.

*     *     *

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his allies in Beijing had ample cause for self-congratulation during the summer and fall of 2016, but the regime’s domestic and external triumphs could bode ill for regional peace and stability. Below I review some key developments on China’s political and foreign-policy scene and discuss their implications for Japan and other countries in the region.

Internal Politics: Xi Tightens His Grip

The Sixth Plenary Session of the Communist Party of China’s 18th National Congress was held in Beijing from October 24 to October 27. Three important points emerged from the party communiqué and various media reports published during and after the Sixth Plenum. [1]

Birth of a “core” leader

The first was the party’s official identification of President Xi as a “core” leader, as seen in the phrase “the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core.” Although primarily symbolic, this formal designation of Xi as the “core” of the party's leadership suggests that his efforts to consolidate and centralize political power have been successful.

Defining the relationship between China’s top leader and the “leadership collective” of each era has been an ongoing dialectical issue within the CPC, particularly following the Mao Zedong era. In the age of “reform and opening” ushered in by Deng Xiaoping, the term hexin , or core, was used to express the concept of a collective leadership structure in which the top figure served as the center of gravity or nucleus. Regardless of the reality, this description was applied retroactively to “the first generation of party leadership with Comrade Mao Zedong as its core” and “the second generation of party leadership with Comrade Deng Xiaoping as its core.” Secretary General Jiang Zemin was likewise declared the core of the third generation of party leadership. However, Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao apparently did not rate the title of “core” leader; under Hu, the top governing structure was described as “the Central Committee [or central leadership] with Comrade Hu Jintao as general secretary.”

A Xinhua commentary published on November 4 emphasized the weight of the new title, saying, “The Sixth Plenum made it clear that Secretary General Xi Jinping is the core of the Central Committee and the core of the party as a whole.” [2] Syntactically, the phrase “Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core” may appear to emphasize the Central Committee, but the Xinhua commentary underscores its real purpose, namely, raising the status and prestige of Xi Jinping himself, from just another member of the Central Committee to its undisputed nucleus. Later, an even more telling indication of Xi’s evolving political status came from his close ally and confidant Li Zhanshu (director of the CPC General Office), who declared that “safeguarding the authority of the Central Committee means safeguarding the status of Secretary General Xi Jinping as the core.” [3]

Also noteworthy in this context is the fact that the aforementioned Xinhua commentary referred to Xi as the party’s lingxiu (leader). The adoption of such language—rarely seen in reference to party heads in recent years—almost suggests an effort to create the kind of public aura that the party-controlled media helped build around Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution.

Party discipline

Another major outcome of the Sixth Plenum was the institutionalization of Xi’s campaign to fight corruption and strengthen party discipline, as seen in the adoption of two documents: Norms of Political Life in the Party Under Current Conditions and Regulation on Intra-Party Supervision. [4] Speaking at the plenum on behalf of the Politburo, Xi Jinping stressed the key role of the Norms of Political Life in party governance, ranking it second in importance only to the party constitution. [5] Given that Xi himself chaired the group charged with drafting the new rules, one can safely assume that they reflect his own ideas about party discipline.

The new Norms of Political Life represent a major revision of a similarly titled code of conduct adopted in February 1980, while the Regulation on Intra-Party Supervision replaces the “interim” rules that came into force in December 2003. In both cases, a comparison between the old and new documents reveals a sharply reduced emphasis on collective leadership. [6]

Although China had already embarked on the era of “reform and opening” by February 1980, political vestiges and reminders of the Cultural Revolution and its depredations were still very much in evidence. Indeed, the chairman of the CPC’s Central Committee was Hua Guofeng, a devoted Maoist. With the Cultural Revolution still fresh in their memories, the drafters of the 1980 norms incorporated strongly worded provisions aimed at prohibiting such abuses as public accusations, personal humiliation, and physical persecution. In addition, an admonition to “firmly uphold collective leadership and oppose individual dictatorship” ranked second among the 12 norms, suggesting a determination to prevent a return to the autocracy of the Cultural Revolution.

The new party norms do repeat the call to “firmly uphold the system of collective leadership,” but this norm now ranks below “steadfastly safeguard the authority of the Central Committee” (norm 3) and “the party as a whole must conscientiously follow the leadership of the Central Committee.” Given Xi Jinping’s new status as the core of that leadership, it becomes clear that this ultimately means falling in line ( kanqi ) with General Secretary Xi Jinping himself.

To be sure, in his remarks to the Sixth Plenum, Xi insisted that the party must continue to abide by the basic principles of the 1980 norms, such as upholding collective leadership and opposing individual dictatorship, but these assurances ring hollow in the light of numerous signs pointing to the concentration of power in the person of Xi Jinping.

Similarly, the new Regulation on Intra-Party Supervision differs significantly from the document adopted 13 years earlier, the biggest difference being that the term collective leadership has disappeared from the text entirely. Like the new norms, the regulation stresses compliance with the Central Committee, as in article 5, “Safeguard the centralized unified leadership of the Central Committee.”

The new party codes also hint at the future direction of the current regime’s anticorruption campaign. In article 6, the Regulation on Intra-Party Supervision states that the “priority targets of intra-party supervision are mainly officials in a position of leadership.” Similarly, the new Norms of Political Life, which are designed to “strengthen and standardize political life within the party under current conditions,” target “leadership organizations at every level and officials in leadership positions,” noting that “the key lies with top-level officials, particularly members of the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the Politburo Standing Committee” (preamble).

From such language, we can gather that core party leader Xi Jinping means to continue the anticorruption drive in which he vowed to catch both tigers (top party leaders) and flies (low-level bureaucrats), and that this time he will have his sights set squarely on the tigers.

Gearing up for the National Congress

The Sixth Plenum also announced that the CPC’s 19th National Congress would take place in Beijing in the second half of 2017. This is a major party event held once every five years to replace outgoing party leaders, and the ground must be prepared well in advance. Now all eyes are on new appointments of provincial-level governors, mayors, and party chiefs, along with ministers and directors of the State Council. These are the ranks from which the next Politburo members will be drawn, and Xi Jinping still has plenty of work to do in terms of promoting his allies to those ranks.

Between the beginning of 2016 and the start of the Sixth Plenum, the leadership of 15 provincial-level party committees changed hands. But only half of the new party chiefs were members of Xi Jinping’s faction (judging from their careers to date): Guizhou Party Secretary Chen Min’er, Jiangsu Party Secretary Li Qiang, Hunan Party Secretary Du Jiahao, and Yunnan Party Secretary Chen Hao. (Chen Quanguo, party secretary of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is regarded as an ally of Premier Li Keqiang.)

Now, in the wake of the Sixth Plenum, a new round of shakeups is underway. Of the personnel changes announced so far, two—one at the local and one at the central level—have received particular attention. The first was the appointment of Cai Qi as acting mayor of Beijing. The 61-year-old Cai, a native of Fujian Province, served as deputy party secretary for the city of Sanming and mayor of Sanming (Fujian Province) before being transferred to Zhejiang Province in May 1999. In Zhejiang he held such prominent posts as mayor of Hangzhou and executive vice-governor of Zhejiang. Then in March 2014, he was transferred to Beijing and made deputy chief of the General Office of the newly launched National Security Commission. Cai Qi’s provincial career overlaps substantially with that of Xi Jinping, who served in Fujian from 1985 to 2002 (reaching the position of party committee deputy secretary and governor) and in Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007 (serving as acting governor and party committee secretary). These circumstances have led analysts to count Cai among Xi’s allies. His new appointment could set him up to fill the positions that will be vacated by Beijing Party Secretary Guo Jinlong, a Politburo member, who turns 70 in 2017. A better indication will come during the provincial-level party congresses, when the selection of new party secretaries takes place ahead of the National Congress.

The second example, at the central level, is the appointment of Chen Wenqing, previously deputy secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, as minister of state security. At 56, Chen is relatively young for an official of his rank but is considered to have Xi Jinping’s trust. He was promoted from deputy secretary of the Fujian party committee to deputy secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection around the same time that the president was elected general secretary, and he was named party secretary of the Ministry of State Security in April 2015. The man he replaced as minister of state security, Geng Huichang, was a supporter of former Politburo Standing Committee Member Zhou Yongkang, who was sentenced to life in prison in June 2015 for corruption. By choosing a close ally to replace Geng, Xi has tightened his grip on the Ministry of State Security, which is expected to play a central role in the president’s anticorruption campaign.

External Relations: China Presses Its Maritime Claims

On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued a wholesale rejection of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and its attempts to buttress those claims through naval activity and land reclamation. The PCA’s decision on the arbitration case filed by the Philippines seems to have had little impact on China’s ongoing campaign to assert control over neighboring waters. Indeed, the emergence of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte as an actor in the region appears to have bolstered China’s confidence.

China and ASEAN

On July 24, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held its 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Vientiane, Laos. In the joint communiqué issued the following day, the ministers made no mention of the PCA ruling issued less than two weeks earlier. On July 25, they met with their Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and adopted the Joint Statement of the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN Member States and China on the Full and Effective Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. In this document, the parties again pledged “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features”—reiterating the same formula that has had so little effect on China’s behavior to date.

Next came the Vientiane ASEAN Summit, held September 6–8. The Chairman’s Statement “took note of the concerns expressed by some Leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities” in the South China Sea, stated that ASEAN remained “seriously concerned,” and stressed “the need to . . . pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law.” But again, it omitted any reference to the South China Sea arbitration.

Aided by the fact that Laos was chairing the summits, Beijing was able to leverage its influence with Laotian and Cambodian leaders to “divide and conquer” ASEAN on this crucial issue.

China and the United States

Also in early September, the leaders of the Group of 20 gathered in Hangzhou, a city with close connections to Xi Jinping. President Xi and US President Barack Obama took the opportunity sit down for bilateral talks on September 3, shortly before the opening of the G20 Summit. The meeting took place amid an atmosphere of cooperation, both leaders having just submitted the instruments of ratification for the Paris Agreement on climate change. Nonetheless, Xi Jinping refused to budge when confronted with US concerns over China’s activities in the South China Sea. He responded by rejecting US interference in the issue, stating that China would “persist in peacefully resolving disputes through consultations with parties directly involved.” [7]

China and Japan

Two days later, President Xi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat down for the first Japan-China summit talks in almost a year and a half. Media photos of the event portrayed a low-key, somber affair, with no national flags on display, and both leaders looking uncomfortable. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the meeting as forward-looking and substantial, but on the subject of territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas, both leaders merely reiterated the positions they have articulated to date. According to China’s official media, Xi Jinping warned Japan to “exercise caution in its words and deeds” on the South China Sea issue so as not to disrupt the improvement of Sino-Japanese ties. [8]

In short, nothing has changed where China’s maritime policies are concerned, and Tokyo and Beijing remain very much at odds over Chinese conduct in the region.

The Duterte factor

China has continued its building of islands and bases in the South China Sea, despite the PCA’s July ruling that such activity is illegal. This defiance can be attributed in part to the posture of Philippines President Duterte, who took office at the end of June. Duterte’s obvious contempt for continuity, precedent, and decorum in the area of diplomacy has thus far worked to China's advantage.

Prior to Duterte’s election, Manila took the hardest line of any government toward China’s activities in the South China Sea, as evidenced by the arbitration case it filed with the PCA. But Duterte has abruptly reversed that policy and avidly sought an improvement in relations with Beijing, a goal he largely accomplished during his visit to China on October 20.

An October 20 article published by Xinhua summarized Xi Jinping’s remarks during the bilateral summit as follows: “Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, China and the Philippines have largely managed their differences on the South China Sea issue through dialogue and consultation, Xi said. ‘It is political wisdom and a successful practice worth passing down as well as an important foundation for the healthy and stable growth of China-Philippines relations.’ As long as both countries adhere to friendly dialogue and consultation, China and the Philippines can have candid exchanges on everything, manage differences well, carry out cooperation, and shelve problems that are difficult to agree on, for a while, Xi said.” [9]

The 47-paragraph joint statement released by the two leaders on October 21 made no reference to the South China Sea arbitration, though it did mention the territorial issue in paragraphs 40 through 42. In paragraph 40, both sides reaffirmed “the importance of . . . addressing their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.” In paragraph 42, they agreed to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities in the South China Sea that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”

As the foregoing suggests, President Duterte has taken a conciliatory approach in his diplomatic dealings with China. On the eve of the summit, he downplayed the territorial issue, suggesting it was an inopportune time to make ultimatums. His attitude appears to have paid off, at least economically. According to media reports, China pledged $24 billion in funding and investment. The Chinese government committed about $9 billion for “soft loans” for drug rehabilitation and other programs, notwithstanding the sharp criticism Duterte has drawn from the West for rampant human-rights abuses in connection with his ruthless campaign against illegal drugs.

From Beijing, Duterte headed for Tokyo. Meeting with Prime Minister Abe on October 26, Duterte did his best to reassure Abe that he was not caving in to China’s territorial claims. According to Japan’s Foreign Ministry, Duterte commented that since an arbitral award had been handed on the South China Sea issue, discussions would have to be based on that ruling, and that the Philippines would at some point enter into talks predicated on the rule of law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. He added that Japan should rest assured that the Philippines shares its viewpoint and stressed the need to ensure freedom of navigation. [10] This was apparently sufficient to secure a pledge of 21.4 billion in concessionary loans.

In short, with regard to the South China Sea issue, Duterte proved himself quite adept at balancing the foremost concerns of Beijing on the one hand (addressing territorial disputes one-on-one) and Japan on the other (freedom of navigation and a peaceful solution based on international law), and he was well rewarded for his efforts.

Washington, meanwhile, has been caught off balance by Duterte’s inflammatory comments and has begun to harbor deep misgivings about the future of US-Philippines relations.

In early September, after Duterte directed an expletive at President Obama during a press conference, the White House canceled a meeting between Obama and Duterte scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit. Duterte subsequently expressed regret that his language “came across as a personal attack on the US president.” But since then he has continued to lash out viciously at the United States. Speaking at a trade and investment forum in Beijing on October 20, Duterte said, “In this venue, I announce my separation from the United States, both in military . . . and economic.” In Tokyo, he repeatedly signaled his intent to renegotiate his country’s base-hosting agreement with the United States with the aim of freeing the Philippines from the presence of foreign military troops. These statements have raised serious concerns, both in Washington and Tokyo, that the United States has lost the support of a key player in the South China Sea.

From late October on, there were indications from both the Philippines and China that Philippine fishing vessels would have continued access to the area around the disputed Scarborough Shoal. This may simply be Beijing’s way of rewarding Duterte for soft-pedaling the territorial dispute and throwing a wrench in US foreign policy. Still, if a return to normalcy around Scarborough Shoal signals Beijing’s de facto acceptance of even part of the PCA’s ruling, that would be a welcome development.

Xi’s Media Crackdown

Even as Xi Jinping was consolidating his position as a core leader, his policies were evolving in ways that could bode ill for Chinese society and for the security of the region.

In July, the scholarly journal Yanhuang Chunqiu , which has sometimes dissented from the party’s official version of history, was dissolved after the government removed or demoted its top editors. In early October, the government blocked access to the website Gongshi (Consensus), an online forum for reform-minded intellectuals.

On the foreign-policy front, meanwhile, Beijing seemed to signal the end of its honeymoon with South Korea as it stepped up its criticism of Seoul over deployment of America’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. At the same time, Beijing has been moving to tighten the screws on Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Inside China, these troubling developments have been trumpeted as signs of the nation’s strength and of the success of the current regime’s foreign policy.

Closing the yawning perception gap between China and Japan on these and other matters is vital to easing deep-rooted tensions and ensuring peace, stability, and prosperity in the region, and for this the free flow of information and views is essential. Unfortunately, with power increasingly concentrated at the “core,” and the regime determined to demonstrate its infallibility, China’s information media will be more and more apt to gloss over internal and external challenges facing the government, and China’s policymakers and opinion leaders could find it increasingly difficult to make clear-eyed judgments.

Preserving Stability in the Trump Era

Meanwhile, US foreign policy will soon be under the direction of a new Republican administration headed by Donald Trump, whose preelection pronouncements have raised serious questions about America’s ongoing commitment to international cooperation on issues ranging from climate change to freedom of navigation and trade. As if Duterte were not enough of a wild card, the emergence of yet another unpredictable leader with little respect for the existing order or political norms is casting an ominous shadow over the future of the region.

But every crisis also presents an opportunity. The time may be ripe for Japan to play a more prominent leadership role to help counter these sources of uncertainty and instability. It can do so in three important ways.

First, Japan has a role to play in keeping the United States engaged in the region. Although Trump has backtracked on some of the extreme positions he took during the election campaign, the fact remains that he won the presidency by promising to “put America first,” pledging to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and even threatening to abandon America’s security commitments in Japan and South Korea. Should his administration make good on these threats and heedlessly pivot away from Asia, it will have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the region. To prevent such a turn of events, the Japanese government and Japanese business should launch a concerted and persistent lobbying campaign targeted at Trump and his team. The November meeting between Trump and Abe was a good start in terms of building a new bilateral relationship for the coming era.

Second, Japan must do what it can to influence China’s behavior. There is no denying the possibility that Beijing will adopt an even more domineering approach to foreign policy now that Xi Jinping has solidified his core leadership position. With this in mind, Japan’s public and private sectors must work together to impress on Beijing’s leaders that the support and respect of other countries in the region is the most basic premise of the “major-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” that they have embraced as the keynote of their new foreign policy. At the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting last July, Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted the desirability of reaching a broad agreement on a code of conduct for the South China Sea sometime in the first half of 2017. Let us hope that China listens respectfully to the views of the parties involved and actively strives to develop a code acceptable to every one of those parties.

The third way in which we can exercise leadership is in the development of a multilateral cooperative framework in the region. As a solitary voice, Japan has only so much influence over countries like China and the United States. But if we make a determined effort and demonstrate effective regional leadership, we can deliver a powerful, unified message in support of stability and prosperity on behalf of peace-loving peoples throughout the Asia and Pacific regions and help build a bridge between Washington and Beijing.

[1] See “Zhonggong shiba jie liuzhong quanhui zaijing juxing” (Sixth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC National Congress Held in Beijing), Renmin Ribao , October 28, 2016.

[2] “Ta shang quanmian cong yan zhi dang” (Embarking on a New Journey of Comprehensive Strict Party Discipline), Renmin Ribao , November 4, 2016.

[3] “Jianjue weihu dang zhongyang quanwei” (Resolutely Safeguarding the Authority of the Party Central Committee), Renmin Ribao , November 15, 2016.

[4] The complete texts were carried in the November 3, 2016, edition of Renmin Ribao .

[5] “Guanwu ‘Xin xingshi xia dang nei zhengzhi shenghuo de ruogan zhunze” he ‘Zhongguo gongchandang dang nei jiandu tiao’ de shuoming” (Explanation of “Norms of Political Life in the Party Under Current Conditions” and “Regulation on Intra-Party Supervision”), Renmin Ribao , November 3, 2016.

[6] For the previous editions, see Zhongguo gongchandang dang nei fagui xuanbian (Selection of Internal Regulations of the Communist Party of China) (China Fangzheng Press, 2015), pp. 3–19 and pp. 229–41.

[7] “Obama presses China's Xi on South China Sea ahead of G20,” Reuters, September 4, 2016, .

[8] “Xi Expects China-Japan Ties Back on Normal Track,” Xinhuanet, September 5, 2016, .

[9] “Xi, Duterte Agree on Full Improvement of Ties,” Xinhuanet, September 5, 2016, .

[10] “Japan-Philippines Summit Meeting,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, October 26, 2016, .

    • Professor, School of International Relations, University of Shizuoka
    • Kazuyuki Suwa
    • Kazuyuki Suwa

Featured Content




Click on the link below to contact an expert or submit a question.