Xi's rising clout could mean swifter reforms

Chinese President Xi Jinping's concentration of power in his hands, through the proliferation of intra-party panels that he heads, could change the consultative decision-making process through collective leadership that came about in the 1990s.

Since taking over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership as general secretary in November 2012, Mr Xi has set up and taken charge of three new intra-party panels, known as leading small groups (LSGs).

The latest is the LSG within the CCP's powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) that is tasked to deepen reforms in defence and the People's Liberation Army. The group met for the first time on March 15.

The other two were set up within the CCP for the "comprehensive deepening of reforms" and cyber security issues. Mr Xi also helms the newly created National Security Commission, which is not an LSG but also an intra-party outfit.

He is also heading two existing LSGs which are traditionally led by the general secretary of the party - one for foreign policy and the other for Taiwan affairs.

Together, these six hats, on top of his three important roles as CCP general secretary, CMC chair and state president, mean Mr Xi has set a new record for the number of offices for a Chinese supremo, according to analysts.

His growing number of roles has led some to describe him as the most powerful Chinese leader since strongman Mao Zedong.

"No one can outdo Mao, but I think Xi now has more power and clout than Deng (Xiaoping) did," Wuhan University law professor Qin Qianhong told The Sunday Times.

He pointed out that no one in the current seven- member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) can stand up to Mr Xi, while Deng had to put up with other CCP elders like Chen Yun.

As for why Mr Xi wants so much power, some analysts believe he wants to use it to speed up reforms by breaking the resistance from vested interest groups that had stalled reforms of the previous leadership of then president Hu Jintao and then premier Wen Jiabao.

"One possibility is for him to get enough powers to overcome vested interest groups and push reforms, which he and Premier Li Keqiang have often described to be in a deep-water stage and requiring strong efforts," said Singapore-based analyst Bo Zhi-yue.

Concentrating power in his hands would enable him to bypass the current consultative decision-making process under the collective leadership model introduced by Deng at his retirement in 1992 to prevent a repeat of the disastrous policies of Mao such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

With the LSGs, Mr Xi will likely have the final say in any decision made as he is the team leader, unlike in the PSC where the practice is to seek consensus, said Professor Qin.

"In the past, we have viewed all members of the PSC as equals, almost akin to having nine or seven presidents, with the general secretary merely as the first among them," he said.

"But we believe the current leadership blames such dynamics for the gridlock in the decision-making process and lack of progress in reforms in the past, especially in the last decade under the Hu-Wen leadership."

That is why he thinks Mr Xi has set up the LSGs to speed up the decision-making process on key issues, and in turn erode the power and standing of the PSC.

"In fact, more scholars in China are starting to see Xi's growing number of LSG hats as his attempt to change the political structure by shaping himself after the United States president, as the head of state and also head of government."

But Dr Bo of the East Asian Institute said the decision-making process in the LSGs depends on their make-up, which is unclear for now as the CCP has not released details of their members, apart from naming Mr Xi as the team leader and other PSC members as his deputies.

"It's hard to speculate but I believe the LSGs have to go back to the Politburo or the PSC to approve their decisions," he added.

Analysts also point out the pitfalls for Mr Xi in setting up too many small groups.

Beijing-based political analyst Li Fan said it could become counter-productive as there is a need to coordinate between the work of the LSGs and that of government agencies or party committees.

"Personally, I don't think there is a need for so many groups. The PSC still calls the shots," he said.

Prof Qin thinks it is a "doubled-edged sword" for China with Mr Xi gaining more powers.

There could be improved policy efficacy but there are also no legal constraints on LSGs, which may make it hard to hold them accountable for any mistakes made.

"For Xi, it is a personal risk too," said Prof Qin.

"If he can juggle these roles well and achieve economic and social development, he will get the credit. But if he fails, his many hats could prove lethal as he can no longer blame others."


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