Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

A word as part of a battle

When a political system has as little transparency as China's, simple things like titles become clues to what's going on behind the scenes. Here's one interpretation.

In spite of the appearances of centralized authoritarianism, it's good to remember a 13th century assessment of Chinese government, "Heaven is high and the emperor is far away" [天高皇帝远 or Tian gao, Huangdi yuan]. It's sometimes translated as "The mountains are high and the emperor is far away." There were times and places even during the Cultural Revolution when Mao wasn't in control of everything.

Xi Jinping Assuming New Status as China’s ‘Core’ Leader
China’s president, Xi Jinping, has already grasped more power more quickly than his two recent predecessors, and he has shown a taste for audacious decisions and a loathing for dissent. But a new push to praise him as China’s “core” leader, a term resonant with the formidable stature once held by Deng Xiaoping, suggests that his steely quest for dominance is not over…

In the stagecraft of Chinese politics, formulaic expressions like “core” (in Mandarin, “héxīn”) are tokens of power. Officials have suggested that hailing Mr. Xi as a leader of such stature — one in the footsteps of Deng, who ruled China through its transformation after Mao’s death — carries a warning not to question, let alone challenge, his authority as the government navigates turbulent changes…

Mr. Xi, whose formal titles include general secretary of the Communist Party, has signaled his demands for greater loyalty through recent central leadership meetings, with the message filtering downward…

“Resolutely safeguard the absolute authority of the party center under Comrade Xi Jinping as general secretary,” Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of Tibet, said on Wednesday. “Staunchly safeguard, support and be faithful to General Secretary Xi Jinping, the core.”…

Mr. Xi… appears to be laying the groundwork for promoting loyalists, which will culminate in the party’s next congress in 2017, said Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who specializes in Chinese elite politics. Mr. Xi was installed as top leader at the last congress in 2012 and is likely to remain party leader until 2022.

Despite Mr. Xi’s daunting power, he presides over a political elite that includes many appointees promoted by his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. The congress will give Mr. Xi a chance to install his own people, and he wanted to stress the importance he places on submitting to his goals, Professor Fewsmith said…

By contrast, Mr. Xi’s immediate predecessor as president and party chief, Mr. Hu, conspicuously never gained the title of core leader in party pronouncements. That was widely seen as reflecting Mr. Hu’s position as a relatively weak leader, long overshadowed by Mr. Jiang, who governed through consensus that critics said bred deadlock and corruption.

Since coming to power in November 2012, Mr. Xi and his allies have implicitly presented their task as cleaning up the mess left by Mr. Hu: corruption, excessive industrial investment, pollution, social rancor and inequality, and incipient opposition to one-party rule…

“He’s been reconfiguring the patterns of Chinese politics to strengthen his position step by step,” Jin Zhong, the chief editor of a website in Hong Kong that focuses on Chinese politics said. “The anticorruption campaign, taking control of law and order, reforming of the military, all have concentrated power,” he said. “This ‘core’ expression is another step.”

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