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In China, the Sources of Xi Jinping’s Power

Nov. 10, 2017 Last month, the Chinese Communist Party held its 19th National Congress in which Chinese President Xi Jinping ushered in a new political era for the country. Xi’s first term was a period of profound transition that laid the groundwork for what was formalized in the congress in October. In the current state of play, Xi and his allies now have control over at least four fundamental sources of power in the Chinese system.

The first is the Politburo and its Standing Committee, where most Chinese policy is made. Three of the committee’s seven members are now loyal to Xi. (Xi occupies the seventh spot.) Notably, none of the new appointments are younger than 60. Since party secretaries serve five-year terms, and since 68 is the semi-formal retirement age of Chinese politicians, none would be able to serve two terms as Xi’s successor following the next congress in 2022. (Xi was anointed by his predecessor, Hu Jintao, five years out. Hu was picked a full decade before he took power.) In other words, Xi has laid the groundwork for his rule to extend beyond the next five years. As for the Politburo, more than half of its 25 members are considered Xi associates. Xi had already replaced 23 of the party’s 31 provincial party secretaries – some of whom are now Politburo members – even before the congress started. With so many officials beholden to Xi, his orders are that much more likely to be executed.


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The second is China’s anti-corruption body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which Xi used liberally during his first term to remove rivals, undermine independent factions, and dislodge obstacles to reform further down the hierarchy. Wang Qishan, Xi’s close ally who led this effort, has retired. In his place is another Xi protege, Zhao Leji, who will assume even more responsibility than Wang in compelling officials to comply with painful reform.

The third is the People’s Liberation Army and the security services. The military is the ultimate guarantor of the party’s power, but, like the bureaucracy, had become bloated, corrupt and resistant to the party’s directives under Xi’s predecessors. To resolve these issues, Xi purged top generals, oversaw a massive reorganization of the military’s command structure and cut hundreds of thousands of troops from the ranks, partly as a way to excise corruption and reduce the power of his commanders. Unlike his predecessor, Xi has chaired the all-important Central Military Commission since taking power in 2012. Now that the congress is over, the commission is stacked with his people.

Finally, Xi controls the party’s ideology and so has the ability to set party lines. The addition of Xi’s eponymous doctrine, along with several of his core policy initiatives, to the constitution means that to challenge Xi or object to his policies is to challenge the legitimacy of the party itself. Moreover, another Xi loyalist, an ideological theorist, has been elevated to the Standing Committee, and still another has been placed as head of the party’s top propaganda organ. This, along with tight control over the Chinese media, allows Xi to frame his initiatives as one in the same with party dogma and to stoke public pressure to support his goals.

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