To understand what Xi Jinping’s concentration of power really means, you have to look to history.
After securing an unprecedented third term as head of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the country’s central military late last month, Xi Jinping led the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee on a visit in Yan’an. It is the sacred revolutionary base of the CCP from where the first generation of CCP leaders, including his father, waged the war against Japan and then the civil war against the National Party. It is also where Xi lived and worked during the Cultural Revolution, as part of the campaign to “educate the youth in the mountains and in the villages.”
Although the visit may not have seemed important, it conveyed important messages. First, Xi invoked Yan’an’s revolutionary spirit to highlight the CCP’s “red gene” which he said is necessary to achieve China’s national rejuvenation.
Second, the visit sent a strong signal to Chinese youth to focus on “traditional virtues”, including being educated “in the mountains and in the villages”. Many interpreted the visit as a mark of China’s entry into a “new era” in which the party will tighten its control over society and the economy under Xi’s rampant rule.
Making sense of the structural shifts in political power underway in this “new era” is essential, given China’s position of economic and trade strength. To understand China’s often opaque politics, it’s often instructive to focus on what appear to be relatively insignificant historical events, to gather clues beneath seemingly calm surfaces.
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The lessons of history
After Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, a group of revolutionary leaders took control of the CCP’s “Gang of Four.” Two years later, Deng Xiaoping became the party and military leader and embarked on China’s economic reforms.
Deng established the rules that top CCP leaders could only serve two terms and that decision-making in the Politburo Standing Committee should follow a collectivist model. After Deng stepped down in 1989, his hand-picked successor, Jiang Zemin, served until 2002, when another Deng-chosen successor, Hu Jintao, took over until 2012.
Jiang and Hu carefully struck a balance between competing interests in their political offices, which collectively made economic, social, military, and diplomatic decisions for the country. The result was that central power was limited; instead, much of the power has been distributed to particular interest groups at the local, sectoral or industry level.
The decentralization of power during the Jiang and Hu eras was captured in the saying that “the decree does not leave Zhongnanhai”, [the CCP’s central compound in Beijing]. Local governments were run like commercial enterprises. Local officials had the autonomy to pursue economic growth, in which power could be exchanged for money, leading to widespread bribery and corruption.
The emergence of Xi
Xi came to power in 2012 after a steady and meritorious rise through the ranks of the CCP and his “education” in Yan’an. Unlike Jiang and Hu, however, he carries the CCP’s “red genes.” Xi is the son of a Mao-era revolutionary, and heavily influenced by it. He is a staunch supporter of orthodox Marxism and believes that power belongs to revolutionaries.
He immediately launched a massive anti-corruption campaign: according to China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, since Xi took office, more than 38 million petty offenders at lower levels “(flies)” and more than 22,000 senior party and army officials “(Tigers)” were punished.
Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has been well received by the general public. However, this has resulted in local governments having less power and autonomy. Fearful of making mistakes, many local party leaders and government officials chose to ping-tang– lying flat – or di ji hong gai ji hei – being “red” (politically correct) on the surface but “black” below, deliberately undermining party beliefs with vicious intentions.
While corrupt officials were punished, the campaign also harmed the vested interest groups – often very powerful – behind them. Since 2020, Xi has carefully selected his entourage from loyalists across the country. Personal loyalty to Xi has been a key requirement moving forward. Power has now firmly returned to Zhongnanhai and Xi has absolute control. This is unheard of since Mao.
So the question is, if power concentrated at the local level has led to corruption, what will happen now that power is concentrated at the top?
What will the “wolf warrior” style mean for the West?
While Xi must prioritize socio-political stability and national security, he will not hesitate to fight for China’s global status. We can expect not only increasing control over all aspects of domestic life, but also an increasingly belligerent attitude towards the West.
Xi’s grand mission is to realize China’s rejuvenation on the world stage. While this mission may seem hollow to Westerners, a more powerful and assertive China is key to legitimizing CCP rule domestically.
A mighty fight against a nation’s enemy – be it a foreign entity, natural disaster or pandemic – has always been a useful tool for a ruling party to unite its people. and strengthen its legitimacy. China’s “wolf warrior” style of diplomacy under Xi is one such tool.
A rising China with a starkly different political ideology challenges the current US-dominated world order. What are the implications for Australia in its relations with China?
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As a “middle power” straddling the United States and China, Australia will face an even more difficult political and economic balance between the two.
The memory of Australia trapped in a diplomatic stalemate and trade disputes with China under the Morrison government has barely faded. Although there were some first steps towards rapprochement in the early days of the Albanian government, the revelation on the ABC’s Four Corners program that the Australian government agreed to US funding for an upgrade of the Tindal Air Base in the Northern Territory to host six American B-52H strategic bombers by 2026, it is clear that Australia has chosen its camp. This will make it very difficult for the country to be part of independent states trying to restore trust and collaboration between China and the United States.
Australia should avoid being caught in the middle of a Sino-American conflict. Instead, it should choose to maintain its autonomy and pursue “strategic autonomy”, as Germany has chosen to do.
An unequivocal “strategic alignment” with Washington based on political convergence and shared values may not deliver the long-term security that Canberra hoped for.
This article is republished from The Conversation, the world’s leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Marina Yue Zhang, Sydney University of Technology.
Marina Yue Zhang does not work for, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment. .