President of China, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xi Jinping has been an assertive and polarizing force during his years in office. World Policy Journal spoke with Philip Hsu, professor and chair of the political science department at National Taiwan University, about how Xi Jinping’s political “core” is distinctive from the previous administrations of Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Hsu explains the ramifications of Xi Jinping extending his term, the president’s anti-corruption campaign, and the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: It’s been four years since Xi Jinping took office. What are the implications of Xi’s “core” (the party at large considers Xi’s party center as its core, while Xi’s party center considers Xi as its core) this time compared to previous “cores”?
PHILIP HSU: The concept of the “core” can be traced back to Jiang Zemin. Let’s talk about the similarity first. The Chinese Communist Party is very particular about matters of conventions and precedents. Therefore, when previous leaders established a “core,” those who came after were then required to do certain things to demonstrate their firm grip of power and established status. First, it is sort of a ritualistic requirement that one must be attentive to such matters. However, I think what is different about Xi’s core, in comparison to the previous two “cores,” is that Xi has been very covetous—one may say even aggressive—in the solidification of his power and in some of his acts and deeds since assuming office. Apart from the policies concerning large-scale disciplining of cadres and reversals of verdicts, what is more important is that during the eras of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, if you consider their top-level leaders across several terms of the Politburo Standing Committees, a mechanism for the division of responsibilities and sharing of power among the members was established. This conventional practice had always existed, to the extent that it could be said to have been an institutionalized mechanism.
Since Xi assumed power, he has challenged this system intensely. He first established a “Central Leading Team for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms.” This Leading Team takes care of all kinds of matters, whether they concern the economy, politics, or society. Following the 3rd Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, Xi has given speeches on the plan for large-scale reforms in several domains. The Central Leading Team has been given full responsibility for all matters relating to these reforms. Thus, by establishing this new organization, Xi is essentially gathering all powers of the central government into his own hands as the head of the Team. Well, that is a very serious challenge. So, when we talk about Xi’s core at this stage, it might not simply indicate the kind of formal and symbolic core as was the case with Jiang’s and Hu’s cores. In fact, it might now signify a core that complements and consolidates Xi’s position, one that tends toward the centralization of his personal powers. Another organization that facilitates the centralization of his power is the National Security Commission of the Communist Party of China. The available information suggests that it is more focused on handling internal stability and security issues rather than foreign affairs and national security. Of course, the latter are attended to as well, but internal matters are prioritized. In any case, these two organizations help Xi to centralize his powers, and their establishment places him above his colleagues from the Standing Committee. Therefore, I think that, in comparison to Jiang’s and Hu’s, the nature of Xi’s core is different, even though the division and sharing of power among the Standing Committee members has already been established.
WPJ: The tenure of the president of China is five years, so in the 20th Congress, Xi Jinping is expected to appoint a successor. However, there have been rumors that the Communist Party may amend the constitution to allow Xi Jinping to remain in office. What is your view on this? If Xi wants to remain in office, what actions do you think he will take?
PH: There is a stipulation in the constitution on the number of times one can be re-elected as president. However, for the general secretary of the party, if I’m not mistaken, there is no rule regarding whether one may serve only for five years or for 10 years. Obviously, based on the Communist Party’s existing system, the general secretary is inevitably the president. So, if the constitution is actually amended, allowing Xi to be re-elected as president after serving two terms, it virtually implies that the political elite in support of the constitutional amendment also support his serving as general secretary for a third term.
Both Jiang and Hu served for two terms lasting 10 years, which is basically the case for every president. Since the introduction of reform, the rise in China’s national power has been closely linked to the relatively less violent struggle among the political elite and the relative stability of the power structure. This stability was very much built upon the possession and exercise of power. The time and tenure in which such power was exercised were regulated under a relatively established mechanism. As in any political system, if any leader is in power for too long, other members of the political elite, who have reached the appropriate age to move up the political ladder, will be deprived of the opportunity to advance to the highest position of power. This would invariably pose the risk of destabilizing the internal political power structure. Therefore, if Xi really wants to extend his tenure, he will be seriously challenging this institutional mechanism of power succession within the political elite, which is an important foundation of economic development and national stability. So, the repercussions of this would be massive. If this were to be carried out, I believe it would lead to the dissatisfaction of some of the political elite. Of course, dissatisfaction does not necessarily translate into actual acts of confrontation or conflict.
As to what Xi will need to do if he wants to remain in office, we can only speculate as to what actions he might take. I dare not say I have any strong evidence. Nevertheless, one indicator could be Xi’s actions in the 19th Congress next year. According to conventions, if Xi does not intend to serve for 10 years, his successor will have to be elected into the Standing Committee. At present, no one in the Standing Committee is viewed by anyone on the outside as the possible candidate for succeeding Xi. If we consider the strategy employed by Xi or the internal structure of the party as preventing the next political generation from being elected into the Standing Committee in the 19th Congress, meaning Xi’s successor cannot be identified, then the chances of him remaining in office will significantly increase. Another possibility is that as the extension of his tenure will be met with dissatisfaction and opposition within the party, and a probable successor might be elected into the Standing Committee to appease these dissatisfied forces. As to whether this person will really become his successor, no one can know for sure. Finally, it would be crucial for Xi to achieve firm control over military power. What’s most important in this respect, as we have seen with Jiang and Hu, is for Xi to bring together the top leaders in the military as his close aides. Jiang and Hu selected several lieutenant generals to promote to colonel generals. Within this system, your political allegiance will essentially lie with whoever has promoted you. This is a typical course of action by which senior military generals or leaders are quickly rallied together in a short period of time. Xi could also adopt this tactic.
WPJ: Xi Jinping has taken down close to 180 provincial and military officials in his anti-corruption “tiger hunting” operation since he assumed office in the 18th Congress. How has this anti-corruption operation affected—or how will it affect—the Chinese economy?
PH: The rate of economic growth in China is decreasing. But there is one thing we must be clear about: The decrease in China’s economic growth rate is not only related to anti-corruption or other political factors. What are more important, of course, are the economic factors themselves. Internal economic factors such as excess capacity, the overly slow adjustment of the economic structure, and many others have to be considered. It’s a very complex problem. Political factors only influence the Chinese economy to a certain extent. One conspicuous factor is that since the anti-corruption operations started, many places in China had TV stations or newspapers run by the party stating that government officials are combating and proscribing the “dereliction of duty by officials” (wei guan bu wei). This indicates that one does not perform his or her duties even though one is an official, which amounts to a “dereliction” (bu wei). This has been a common problem in China over the last two years. Why have we not encountered such a problem before Xi? Wei guan bu wei concerns a massive population of cadres. I think, to a certain extent, that this is directly connected to some of the unforeseen consequences of the anti-corruption operations.
Why is there such a connection? First, fighting corruption is a test that comes from the top to the bottom, and its emphasis is on punishment and not reward. It aims to catch you for your mistakes, not reward you for your achievements. Second, the conventional wisdom of Chinese society is that “doing more leads to more mistakes,” “doing less leads to fewer mistakes,” and “doing nothing leads to no mistakes.” So, if you look at what has been achieved with the anti-corruption efforts, everyone is scared and discouraged, assuming they are the only ones working hard and pushing forward—of course, if you work hard, you might accomplish a lot. However, doesn’t that also mean you would be exposed to greater risks and become an anti-corruption target? Wouldn’t you get yourself into trouble? These possibilities are very likely. Third, we know that the economic growth of China over the last few decades did not just happen overnight with an order from the central government. It only began with the economic reforms that started in the 80s. The central government’s economic efforts depend on the cooperation of the local governments. In particular, a very important source of GDP growth for the Chinese economy, besides foreign trade, is investment. Thus, the attraction of investment in a local region will have to rely on the active efforts of the local officials. Therefore, if the local officials are passive or are neglecting their duties, the attraction of any investment into the local economy will be hampered.
We know that if you want to attract investment, you have to deal with business people from various areas—within the country, Taiwan and Hong Kong, or the U.S. or Japan. There are always gray areas in the course of such dealings. When the government of your country is forcefully campaigning against corruption and looking out for any wrongdoing, all of these activities may be seen as potential sources of corruption and be thus deemed problematic. Therefore, considering all these factors collectively, wei guan bu wei is to a large extent connected to the reactions of those who have been apprehended or are at risk of being so under the anti-corruption operations. This affects economic development to a certain extent. I’ll stress again that it is not the determining factor, but it certainly is one of the important ones.
WPJ: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), established in 2015, aims to promote connectivity infrastructure and economic unification in the Asian region. It began its operations at the beginning of this year. Do you think it complements the “One Belt, One Road” initiative proposed by Xi Jinping? What are the differences between the two?
PH: First of all, AIIB is widely viewed domestically in China and abroad as mainly serving “One Belt, One Road.” “One Belt, One Road” engages in the provision of funds and the construction of marine and land infrastructure. To connect the transport infrastructure between China and its neighboring countries by land and sea, such infrastructure requires an enormous amount of funds. AIIB mainly provides such funds to finance the building projects under “One Belt, One Road.” This is its main and most important function. There no major difference between them.
WPJ: What economic impact do you think “One Belt, One Road” and AIIB will have on China and related countries if they are successful? How will countries not joining the initiatives be affected?
PH: Whether they will be successful still remains to be seen. From what I have heard in academic and political circles, and even among some officials, these economic initiatives were introduced before mature views had been formulated and thoroughly deliberated. Internally, among policymakers, many did not expect it to be implemented on such a large scale and to be rolled out so quickly. However, if it continues to expand to regions like Central Asia and West Asia, there will be some uncertainty. These regions are huge and sparsely populated, and most importantly, politically unstable. Islamic terrorist organizations are known to be active in some of these regions. The control and monitoring capabilities of the local and central governments are not always strong. Therefore, would the railways, roads, and various connective facilities always be unsusceptible to terrorist threats and destruction? These are indeed matters we have to keep an eye on.
If “One Belt, One Road” is in fact relatively successful in the future, its influence would be very significant. You see that not only Central Asia but also countries that are friendly with China, even those close with the U.K. and U.S., could not wait to jump on the bandwagon. Why? Because they can also see how instrumental the initiatives could be to the development of external trade and the internal economies of the countries that are connected through this infrastructure. And if they are successful, China will then have created an important network.
Now, in the case of China, if “One Belt, One Road” were to be successful in the interconnected landmass of Eurasia—this of course includes maritime connections as well—it would become an important link for many countries, populations, and regions in the world, except the Americas. We can’t rule out its expansion to Africa. It could be an infrastructure that could promote mutual trade and exchanges and even the political and economic integration of a few countries. They could all benefit from the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Of course, my inferences are based on a big “if” regarding whether or not the initiative will really succeed. We are making a bold assumption, and whether it will really be that successful remains to be seen.
WPJ: For countries that are not joining “One Belt, One Road,” what kind of impact would it have?
PH: For countries that are not joining, I think for the most part we have to consider their geographical locations. For instance, like us in Taiwan, it appears that if our political relations with mainland China do not improve—and Taiwan isn’t allowed to join—it would undoubtedly affect Taiwan. This depends on the extent to which Taiwan relies on—because of this so-called oceangoing “One Road”—the “Maritime Silk Road,” which would affect its trade relations with other countries. Taiwan’s biggest foreign trade partners now—if we are realistic and if we consider Taiwan’s trade with Hong Kong as being part of its trade with China— are China, the U.S., Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia. Japan and South Korea are also very important. So, because of its proximity with China, Taiwan would not be free from the impact of “One Belt, One Road,” but it wouldn’t be that significant. As for other countries that aren’t joining, such as Japan and the U.S., I think they will be observing for some time. As Japan and the U.S. are implicated in this “One Road,” particularly the maritime road, they will look for an actual increase in efficiency before making any decision to that effect. Japan is particularly likely to do so. After Donald Trump takes office, whether he will be as strongly against joining, as Obama has been, remains to be seen as his policies are very difficult to predict.
WPJ: Do you think “One Belt, One Road” can achieve its ultimate objective?
PH: This question is more difficult to answer. Some uncertainty will have to be acknowledged regarding whether or not the initiative can be achieved. There are some factors that will possibly hinder its success. But there are others that will help it succeed. For instance, in terms of such an enormous sum of capital, if China, the main financier, doesn’t suffer from any drastic recession in its economy, it will be the only country that is most able to provide this enormous capital. You also have to look at whether the slowing down of China’s economy would have any impact on this. Another question is whether the political situation at the top can remain stable. I think this is even more important than the right economic policies in terms of China’s global rise over the last few decades. Without political stability, everything else is irrelevant. In terms of the particular features of this system, Jiang and Hu trod the right path during their time, which was to establish an institutionalized mechanism for elite politics. It enabled a power equilibrium and stability among all the elites. However, it now appears that Xi is posing quite a big challenge in his actions and approach toward these existing institutionalized systems.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!
[Interview conducted and translated from Chinese by Christine Lee]
[Photo courtesy of Day Donaldson]