Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Xi vs. the Strongmen: The Battle for Reform in China

Beijing must control local leaders if it is to pass vital economic reforms. 

It won’t be easy.

No story out of China over the last year and a half has received as much attention as the Bo Xilai case. Much of what intrigued people about the Bo case was unique to it, including Bo’s flamboyant personality and the Hollywood-like drama of his downfall. Yet one aspect of his case, though largely ignored by foreign press accounts, had deep roots in Chinese history: namely, the rise of the local strongman.

A reoccurring theme in Chinese history, captured in the proverb “The mountains [heavens] are high, and the emperor is far away,” has been the struggles of the central government to maintain control over the vast territory it nominally ruled. Time and again in China, regional strongmen have established local power bases from which they have mounted challenges to the central government, with often devastating consequences for the country as a whole.

This history has had a profound impact of the evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its inception. Indeed, after taking the mainland, Mao Zedong immediately turned to consolidating Communist control over the entire country. As one historian reflected, “Through neighborhood committees and informants the state found its way into all parts of life…. Regions of the country that had not seen much central state presence for a hundred years found themselves regimented.” To this day, China differs from similarly large countries like the U.S. and India in being a unitary state, at least in theory.

As Bo demonstrated, center-local power struggles also continue to plague contemporary China. In fact, many of the major initiatives that Xi Jinping launched during his first year in office should be seen in the context of trying to establish greater authority over local officials. While this is partly due to the Bo case, it also reflects the fact that local governments will be major obstacles to nearly every reform he intends to undertake.

As is usually the case with Chinese politics, Xi’s first year in power has often times baffled Western observers seeking to understand his actions. This is partly due to Westerners’ strong tendency to see economic and political liberalization as inseparable, which has clashed with Xi’s eager embrace of economic reform, even as he cracked down politically.

But Xi has been remarkably forthcoming about his goals, particularly as the year progressed. From the start, both Xi and Premier Li Keqiang have signaled that they understand the imperative of rebalancing China’s economic model to avoid the so-called middle income trap.
They have also noted the importance of central government control for achieving this task. For example, Xi has stressed the importance of ensuring “that [Beijing's] policies and directives are smoothly followed.” Elsewhere he has proclaimed, “We must resolutely remain in the highest degree of unison with the central authorities and resolutely uphold the central authorities.” Other leaders have echoed these views, including Beijing party secretary Guo Jinlong, who demanded that officials under his command must “always maintain a high degree of unison in terms of ideas and action with the party central authorities with comrade Xi Jinping as General Secretary…. We must self-consciously protect the authority of the central authorities.”

Xi’s actions have been consistent with this rhetoric. Although in certain instances, such as the online rumor campaign, Xi’s first year has seen a crackdown on civil society, most of his efforts thus far have been directed at the party itself.

Some of this has occurred through rather mundane but important personnel and administrative decisions. For example, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) has increased the powers of the Secretariat and State Council, and consolidated the Party’s control over the latter.

The second element of this has been strengthening central control over local party leaders. One of the key ways the CCP has sought to maintain control over local officials is by controlling personnel decisions. For example, the Party regularly reassigns provincial and military leaders to prevent them from establishing deep roots and local power bases.

But Xi has gone further than most in using personnel decisions to extend the center’s power and influence over the local governments. In reshuffling provincial leaders earlier this year, half of the twenty-two governors that were appointed came from jobs in Beijing. According to the South China Morning Post, that was the first time this had happened in three decades. The personnel reshuffling after the 17th Party Congress, by contrast, only saw two of the twenty-two appointees come from Beijing. ‘The Diplomat’


  1. Besides personnel decisions, Xi has sought to gain control over local governments by launching a couple of high-profile initiatives, such as the anti-graft and mass line campaigns. While Xi’s anti-graft campaign is partly meant to appease public opinion, it has become quite clear that it is intended to empower the central government as well. The reality is that almost any CCP official is guilty of corruption in some form or another. Indeed, corruption is built into the fabric of the government system by, among other things, providing meager official salaries.
    Local governments will also be a major obstacle to reforming state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Xi and the central leadership have signaled that they understand the need to increase the role of private enterprises inside China, which will require lowering the barriers to entry in certain industries. But local governments own the overwhelming majority of the SOEs. Indeed, as of 2006, 82 percent of SOEs were run by local governments, and the number of local SOEs as a percentage of the total has been treading upwards. By Zachary Keck

  2. one of Xi and Li’s goals is to expand China’s economic miracle to more and more parts of the country. Since the initial reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era empowered coastal regions, China’s current leaders hope to now expand growth to the interior, including the far western parts of the country. This will potentially pose two issues for China’s central leadership. First, focusing on the interior will naturally come at the expense of the coastal regions, the leaders of which are likely to resist having to build up the country’s interior. Since these are China’s most economically prosperous and (in many cases) most populated provinces, their leaders are also the most powerful and able to challenge the central government’s authority. It’s also possible, as was often the case during China’s century of humiliation, that leaders of coastal regions seeking to resist the central government’s orders will turn to their many foreign partners for help.
    Even if China is successful in building up the interior, this in itself will make governing China much more difficult. For one thing, building up the interior will mean there will be more economically powerful localities to control. But many of the interior regions will be harder to manage from Beijing, simply because of the tyranny of distance. Again, the old proverb: “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” Indeed, it was no accident that the latest local strongman to challenge China’s central government was based out of Chongqing, an immense interior city in the southwestern part of the country.
    Zachary Keck is Associate Editor at The Diplomat.