Photo: Reuters / Marko Djurica
Chinese President Xi Jinping is on a historical mission. Image: Agencies

President Xi Jinping is likely to be formally endorsed as the “core” leader of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the four-day 6th Plenum of the party’s decision-making Central Committee starting on Monday.

This will put him on a par with former paramount leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping whose authority is firmly established and must not be questioned let alone challenged.

Xi’s endorsement is in keeping with the agenda of the 6th Plenum which includes deliberation and endorsement of a code of political conduct to rein in party members especially high-ranking officials. One party rule that is likely to be written into the code is the stipulation banning party cadres from wantonly making inappropriate comments on policies set by the power center.

So, why does Xi still need to be endorsed as the “core” leader when he is already head of the party and the state?

As the ancient Chinese sage Confucius put it: “Without proper title, there will be no convincing words; without convincing words, nothing gets done.”

In Chinese politics, even today, a title for a leader still carries weight, and the use or misuse of a word heralds subtle change in the political climate.

Without proper title, there will be no convincing words; without convincing words, nothing gets done

The concept of “core” leader was formulated by Deng in the 1990s. Although the party’s central leadership was a collective body, there was a “core” leader to head this leadership, he said, adding that Mao was the “core” leader of the CPC’s first-generation leadership and he himself the “core” leader of the second-generation leadership.

After Deng, former President Jiang Zemin used to be hailed as the “core” of the third-generation leadership, but shortly before he retired, the title “core” was barely mentioned, with a return to putting the emphasis on “collective leadership.”

Many China watchers at the time said it was because Jiang wanted to weaken his successor Hu Jintao’s stature and authority. Nowadays, however, Jiang is hardly remembered or mentioned as a “core” leader.

In fact, many Chinese intellectually these days talk about Xi as the CPC’s third “core” leader, after Mao and Deng. Echoing this view, the New York-based Chinese-language news website said in an October 21 editorial that “core” leaders come to the fore of the party at critical times to pull it out of crises.

Mao did it during the Long March in the mid-1930s when the Red Army was on the verge of being eliminated; Deng proved himself by launching reform and opening up to save the country’s economy from collapsing and thus save the party itself.

Serious challenges

When Xi took the reins in 2012, the party’s legitimacy to rule the country faced serious challenges given growing public discontent over rampant corruption, the widening wealth gap and problems caused by unbalanced development, as well as widespread regionalism. Xi’s efforts in the past four years have to a great extent regained people’s confidence in the party.

“Core” leader is not a self-claimed title, nor is the leading party member automatically regarded as such. A “core” leader must have a very high-degree of authority — if not absolute authority — command respect and be listened to and obeyed by others in the power center. Such authority can only be established through performance.

This is why Xi, who is regarded as being politically savvier than Hu and even Jiang, has declined to be called a “core” leader until now. It is believed he now feels confident that since taking the reins of the CPC, his performance over the past four years has won more support and praise than criticism inside the party and among the Chinese people.

Through the harsh crackdown on official corruption, he has also successfully crushed “ambitious schemers” and “conspirators” who dared to oppose him.

Unconfirmed reports say the campaign to endorse Xi as the “core” leader started at a top-level party meeting in January by Politburo member Wang Huning, head of the party’s Central Policy Research Office and Xi’s close aide. Shortly afterward, China’s state-run media went to work on warming-up public opinion.

At least 15 provincial party secretaries have written or spoken to express their support for endorsing Xi as the “core” leader. Among them, Tianjin municipal party secretary Li Hongzhong, seen as a rising political star, has addressed the topic publicly at least times. For instance, in an article written for Tianjin Daily on October 10 — two weeks before the 6th Plenum — Li pledged to “firmly support General Secretary Xi Jinping as the ‘core’ of the party’s central leadership.”

Significant signal

However, the most significant signal was perhaps delivered by Li Zhanshu, a Politburo members who heads the General Office of the CPC Central Committee, when he called on party cadres at a meeting in August to “staunchly … safeguard General Secretary Xi Jinping as the ‘core’.”

As a close ally of Xi, with a relationship akin to that of the White House chief of staff’s to the president, it is hard to imagine Li would have made such a comment against the leader’s will.

On top of this, all five strategic zones of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have pledged their allegiance to Xi. .

So, what is the significance of Xi being endorsed as “core” leader? According to state-run media, it is to keep the thinking and actions of all party members in line with the party central leadership with Xi as the “core”. In other words, no challenge to Xi’s authority shall be tolerated.

With this firmly established, there is no suspension that the CPC’s 19th National Congress next year will be Xi’s show.

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