There is currently much talk about whether China’s President Xi Jinping is shifting away from collective leadership. Western observers tend to conclude that, given his command of all powers since becoming Chinese communist party chief and state president, Xi is centralising power around himself. But that is a premature conclusion that bears more careful scrutiny.
China’s communist party has always claimed to adopt ‘democratic centralism’. And, at different times, the party has emphasised either the ‘democratic’ or ‘centralist’ aspect. The key has been to strike a balance. On the one hand, an overly democratic system may act with low efficiency. The recent inability of the US Congress to make a compromise on budgetary sequestration is a key example of this. On the other, an overly centralist system tends to push the paramount leader’s own agenda while ignoring the ideas of others. For example, George W. Bush’s pre-emptive war against Iraq in 2003 — without adequate intelligence or consensus in the United Nations Security Council — has, mistakenly and unnecessarily, led both America and Iraq in the wrong direction.
China’s overall system, by design, is more centralised than many in the west, so it has also been burdened by a number of frustrations in the past — such as the launch of the Cultural Revolution. China has adopted a series of political reforms to prevent such problems from arising again. For instance, China now employs a fixed five-year term system — instead of the lifelong system under Mao — to set its political cycles. More emphasis is also put on collective leadership by allowing for effective and more regular policy consultations and deliberations.
The division of jobs within China’s Politburo level seems to be an institutional means to attain collective leadership, but it hasn’t always been successful. Though policymaking behind the wall of the Forbidden City tends to be opaque, it is still possible to feel that members of the Politburo Standing Committee — such as Zhou Yongkang, who took charge of legal and judicial matters between 2007 and 2012 — could abuse collective leadership for personal ambition. While Zhou never paralysed the system, his actions have adversely affected the efficacy of collective leadership.
With this in mind, China has to improve its leadership system to make it truly collective, and prevent any individual from monopolising power under the guise of collective leadership. Xi’s return to a more centralised system seems to be part of his efforts to manage effectively these power relations so as to prevent a situation like Zhou’s power trip from re-emerging. Looking from the outside, Xi has so far successfully managed this process.
The current domestic and international circumstances required that Xi move to centralise. In addition to the weak collective leadership of Standing Committees in the past, China’s rapid growth has rendered the present government organisation less effective in responding to the demands of economic and social reform. Meanwhile, the international response to China’s rapid ascendance also warrants cordial — yet decisive — Chinese leadership. During China’s own fast transformation and a period of regional, as well as global, power transition, China needs a determined leader who can command collective leadership domestically.
Obviously, in the course of strengthening the effectiveness of collective leadership the chance of shifting away from its original intent may actually increase. But as long as Xi allows policy consultation and deliberation before decisions are made, his revamped system may actually enhance China’s ‘democratic centralist institution’.
Given his expected ten-year tenure, Xi seems to be poised to make the democratic centralist system a stronger and more efficient institution. At the same time, to avoid the pitfalls of shifting away from collective leadership, he must — after two years of consolidating his power base — be aware of the importance of both leading his team and sharing his power.
Shen Dingli is Professor and Associate Dean at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University.
This article was originally published here and reproduced with permission from East Asia Forum.