On the Importance of the 领袖
领袖 - Ling3 Xiu4 – Leader
Chairman Xi continues to increase his personal power at the expense of CCP collective rule. By enshrining himself as the core of the Central Committee and confirming the Central Committee as the core around which all Chinese people are required to rally, he sets himself up as dictator for life.
At the same time, Xi has recently been embracing the title 人民领袖 [The People’s Leader]. This status (mentioned less frequently in 2017) is unique amongst Chinese titles. Pre-20th century, it was used in a general sense to describe a variety of leaders. Since WWII, it has been used in reference to authoritarian leaders with personality cults such as Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Il-Sung. The China Media Project did a great piece on the term here.
While Xi is now peering almost (but not quite) eye-to-eye with Mao in the pantheon of communist Chinese rulers, we should not expect his pursuit of power to terminate. He has further possible paths to pursue in the years after the 6th plenum, including further marginalizing Deng’s historiography, wiping the dust off Mao’s 伟大领袖 [Great Leader], moving more economic activity into the public sector, and attempting to exert more authority over foreign citizens who happen to be ethnic Chinese.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
The CCP’s margin of error has likely increased greatly. Xi’s concentration of power gives the PRC’s brittle Communist political structure more space to fail (perhaps fail profoundly) at the local or operational level. With Xi as the helmsman, he can rush in from the strategic level to “save” the Chinese people from temporarily failing local leadership. Additionally, 领袖 status has cemented more elements of the party into Xi’s supporting foundation. With the CCP increasingly becoming the party of Xi, his latitude to make sweeping reforms or decisions grows.
Xi Jinping is likely to be around for a long time and his priorities will continue to be pushed. One of the most salient priorities affecting strategic competition has been the PLA’s military modernization, in particular the trajectory of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The Chinese naval buildup is likely to continue unabated, placing the US Congress and US Navy in a difficult position. The US will need to get serious about putting forth a bipartisan long-term ship building program that matches the PLAN challenge.
A second important priority has been Xi’s promotion of the United Front Work Department. A basic feature of Leninist style political parties, this organ plans and executes operations to co-opt non-CCP external organizations. In 2018, Xi decided to bureaucratically elevate the United Front Work Department so that it outranked the CCP Organization Department. The Organization Department maintains the nomenklatura as well as assignments for more than 70 million other CCP billets. The Organization Department is thought of by some US China Hands as the most important party organ. The elevation of United Front activities will continue to have serious impacts for American business and political leaders. Both are likely to see increased insider threats and restricted information exfiltration attempts in the coming years.