Man or Machine? Seeking Truth in Chinese Politics


Watching President Xi Jinping consolidate power since he became president in 2012 has pushed many China watchers toward extreme views of Chinese politics and policymaking. On the one side, some analysts argue Xi adopted Maoist tactics to build a cult of personality and return to one-man rule. On the other side, some analysts argue Xi the man is largely irrelevant apart from his mandate to fulfill the ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Neither of these perspectives really illuminates what is actually happening in Beijing. A better perspective requires accepting that politics remains politics: a story of flawed tragic or heroic personalities interacting constantly with the institutions and rules around them.

This will be the first of a three-part series on Chinese politics. To kick off the series, I explain what is wrong with the assumptions underpinning much of today’s analysis of China’s political system. The second article will examine Xi Jinping the politician. The third and final article will highlight some of the key factors and issues that underpin how to understand Chinese elite politics. Chinese policy cannot be fully understood without reference to the people and process through which it was created. If Washington intends to shape China’s rise, then U.S. policymakers need to know how that system functions.

Those who point to Xi’s cult of personality and a return to one-man rule are offering something approaching a caricature of Chinese politics because of its patent absurdity. President Xi may appear in a military parade, but that is a far cry from standing on Tiananmen speaking before a rally of tens of thousands. Silly paintings may have appeared glorifying Xi’s life, but they are not a little red book carried by millions. Xi did attempt to relaunch Mao’s “mass line” politicking to create positive feedback in support of his policies, but trying to put pressure on the CCP bureaucracy to achieve stated party objectives is not Maoist.

The farcical nature of Xi Jinping as Mao Zedong is the primary reason why this perspective has vanished from the analysis of most serious China watchers. This view, however, is the natural result of viewing Chinese politics through the lens of factional politics — competition between competing gangs of officials — and seemingly no faction has emerged to challenge Xi’s rule. Without many signs of serious rivalry, Xi appears unopposed and unequalled, the paramount Chinese leader.

Those who take the opposite view and portray Xi as nothing more than the man of the party suggest if Xi is stronger than past leaders then it is because the CCP’s collective leadership wants him that way. Xi is just the man appointed through the party’s rational, if not meritocratic, processes for selecting leaders to execute the party’s strategic plans.

Apart from the tautological nature of this argument, its proponents practically wring politics out of their analysis of Chinese politics and policymaking. Regardless of the intellectual sloppiness of the Xi as Mao perspective, this second perspective is more pernicious because it leads to the illusion that Chinese politics has a rational, predictable quality. This would seem to give reason for bestowing policy documents with more weight that they deserve. In reality, every policy problem has more than one solution, and how Beijing selects among those solutions is a question of priorities not just utility. To pick an example that garnered international attention, when Beijing peacefully settled the Wukan village uprising in 2011, which started after villagers threw CCP officials out of town, the government had a choice. Beijing could have ordered local security forces to burn Wukan to the ground. Beijing could have allowed local-level government to make peace or superseded the provincial party secretary to take control of the situation as the protesters pleaded.

This view emerges from a set of three assumptions about how the CCP functions. The first is that leaders are selected on the basis of their merits and past performance. The second is that collective leadership at highest levels of the party ameliorates conflict among the senior-most leaders. The third is that the CCP’s policymaking system basically works as designed and directed.

None of these assumptions can be accepted uncritically. They are susceptible to challenge because they do not reflect what is known about politics or the Chinese system. Politics is personal, and organizations cannot avoid politics, especially when it comes to leadership selection. Collective leadership requires shared decision-making and consultation, and the evidence for shared leadership comes more from party propaganda than anything else. If the CCP system basically works as it is intended, then Xi Jinping’s efforts to reorganize and assert his authority over it are inexplicable.

All politics is personal. No matter how meritocratic an organization, promotion to the highest levels will always be personalized — a matter of politics rather than merit. Organizations produce more people qualified to assume their senior-most positions than there are personnel billets.

Even if new personnel rules are created to determine who gets promoted, they cannot be separated from their immediate political context for some time. For example, the “seven up, eight down” rule, whereby 67-yearolds can be promoted but 68-yearolds must retire, for Politburo Standing Committee promotion was originally designed to remove Jiang Zemin’s political opponents from the standing committee. More recently, the cutting of Xi Jinping’s Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress from nine to seven members made sense because fewer voices shortened the path to consensus. Conveniently, seniority kept two leaders affiliated with the outgoing President Hu Jintao off the standing committee.

Relatedly, the personal element of politics serves as a reminder of the role of chance or contingency. To call Xi the manifestation of the party’s will suggests that rational, rules-based processes led to his selection. In a very narrow sense that might be true. Xi’s selection in 2007 as vice president, head of the Central Party School, and chief of the secretariat cemented his prospects.

But what happened before? In 1997, Xi was the last choice of his colleagues to be an alternate on the Central Committee (from which the ruling Politburo and its Standing Committee are drawn). Xi skipped from being a provincial party secretary to the Politburo Standing Committee. Even if such jumps are not entirely unusual, upwardly-mobile provincial party secretaries more frequently serve on the Politburo, like current standing committee member Zhang Dejiang and unlike Xi. How did he rise from such unpromising prospects to the pinnacle of leadership, skipping over the ranks of more credentialed cadre? First, there were not many alternatives who could possibly serve two five-year terms as CCP General Secretary, perhaps only two or three, namely Bo Xilai (now imprisoned), Premier Li Keqiang, and Vice President Li Yuanchao. Second, the most promising leader who could serve just one term without changing the aforementioned age restrictions, Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, fell victim to a corruption scandal. In late 2006, an investigation launched by then-President Hu Jintao snared Chen and helped derail the arrangements of Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin to ensure his “Shanghai Gang’s” continuing influence.

Contingency matters. Luck matters. The skill of CCP leaders matters. China is not exceptional in this regard.

Collective leadership in practice has meant that each leader at the top of a policy system operates independently without interference from their colleagues. One of the best examples of this autonomy is the security system, including domestic intelligence and police forces, under the tenure of Zhou Yongkang (2007–2012), who is now imprisoned. Leading party publications under the CCP Central Committee and Central Party School criticized the security apparatus for viewing all kinds of social problems through a security lens and using force against the Chinese citizenry in ways antithetical to other CCP objectives.

In another strike against collective leadership within a unified party, provincial leaders paraded before their local newspapers earlier this year to voice their support of Xi and his guiding ideas. At least 17 provincial-level party secretaries announced their recognition of Xi as the “core” of the leadership — an honor denied his predecessor Hu Jintao. The two most important leaders to omit the rhetoric about Xi as the leadership core were Shanghai Party Secretary Han Zheng and Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chunhua. Both serve in important positions that almost guarantee future promotion to senior leadership posts in Beijing if not the Politburo Standing Committee. Neither have been linked to Xi’s trusted circle, and some analysts have pegged them as the standard-bearers for the factions of Xi’s predecessors. Collective leadership implies Xi’s status as the “core” would not be up for such open disagreement.

This episode also illustrates how little we know about the motivations and actions of CCP elite. Hints of opposition toward Xi have appeared in official media, such as a provocative essay published by the anti-graft agency Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Were these public declarations organized to show Xi is weak or a failed attempt to show strength? Or were they part of a power play to push the propaganda apparatus under Xi’s control? Shortly after these public pronouncements of Xi as the leadership core, the president visited the key sites within the propaganda apparatus to demand adherence to the party’s requirements, implying these organizations needed to clamp down on dissenting articles and reinforce his leadership. Propaganda is overseen from the Politburo Standing Committee, so one wonders why the problems could not be resolved among the leaders themselves or why the propaganda apparatus needed a reminder about the party’s primacy.

Those who argue that party leaders run China collectively need to show that Chinese leaders meet routinely enough for collective leadership to operate. How can there be collective leadership among leaders who do not meet much more than once a month? Shuffling papers between private secretaries and the central bureaucracy is not collective leadership. Better still, they could show how the bargaining among the collective has shifted policies that were initially suggested by a leader and his policy system.

Lastly, a system that grinds to a halt when its basic rules are being enforced suggests the assumption about a properly functioning political system needs further scrutiny. Xi’s efforts to centralize authority and crackdown on corruption have slowed the functioning of the Chinese government, according to repeated reports, as lower-level officials fear acting in the wrong way will lead to their dismissal or jail. The actual number of officials who have been incarcerated is relatively small in a CCP of more than 88 million people. Official sources stated that 300,000 officials faced penalties for corruption and of those only 80,000 faced severe punishment such as a demotion. Counting the 400,000 punished in 2013 and 2014, the total is still 0.79 percent of the party.

This kind of fear only makes sense if the CCP’s opacity makes it difficult even for insiders to understand what is taking place at any given time. This is not an unreasonable supposition given reports of party members spying on one another and incidents of cadre-to-cadre blackmail. At the highest levels, this includes the ousted Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai’s attempts to infiltrate the State Secrecy Bureau, which handles secure communications between leaders, and Zhou Yongkang’s attempts to turn the domestic intelligence apparatus on political opponents.

Rising through the ranks requires party officials to be complicit in actions that either involve criminality or that might be punished later — just as in many other authoritarian systems. At the time of their actions, party officials have no way of knowing whether they will face consequences if the political winds change. Given that party members are more likely face capricious rather than systematic enforcement, these officials have incentives to seek security through two types of connections. The first type is the shelter of a senior figure who helps determine who is investigated. The second type includes those in the security and investigatory elements who do the work and can hide the evidence. In this respect, Xinhua News Agency is not wrong when it tells us that corrupt officials band together. It is the only way to find security in an unpredictable environment.

No doubt the answer falls somewhere between the purely personal politics of factions and the CCP as rational bureaucracy. Trying to avoid ambiguity and say that Chinese politics is either personal or bureaucratic will provide no more insight than similar dichotomies, like conservatives versus reformers, hawks versus doves, or the China Youth League faction versus the princeling faction. Institutions and rules matter, but flawed people are the ones that manage them and ensure (or do not) their enforcement. People are fallible. They possess ambition or selflessness, embrace prudence or daring, practice integrity or sycophancy, and a host of other heroic or tragic traits. Xi is a man of the party, but he is also a man playing for high stakes in high politics.

U.S. policy toward China includes a significant shaping component, because Beijing’s policy and behavior from the South China Sea to intellectual property rights enforcement leaves much to be desired. Understanding how to pressure or cajole Beijing means understanding the Chinese political environment and how its leaders operate within it. The two predominant perspectives, however, are not providing that baseline.


Peter Mattis is a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation and author of Analyzing the Chinese Military (2015). He is currently completing two book manuscripts on Chinese intelligence operations.