“At the middle kingdom’s core: Xi Jinping anointed “core” Chinese leader but his strategy reveals a contradiction”

The Chinese President Xi Jinping’s penchant for collecting titles is well known. So is his compulsive habit of consolidating control over the disparate and byzantine organs of the Chinese state in his own hands. So when – on October 27, at the sixth plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China (CPC) congress – it was announced that Xi is now, officially, a “core leader” of the Party, this may have appeared unsurprising to many. That, however, does not make this latest announcement from the CPC insignificant.

In Chinese political hagiography, a core leader of the Party is one whose teachings and policies determine and drive the grand strategy of the Chinese state. Coupled to increasing speculations that Xi may seek to extend his term beyond 2017, what he and his confidantes embark on now will determine the contours of what China would look like in 2049 – the hundredth anniversary of the communist state.


Only three other Chinese leaders have been anointed core leaders: Mao (posthumously), Deng Xiaoping (who invented the notion) and Jiang Zemin. Mao’s legacy was the consolidation of CPC rule. Deng’s and Jiang’s was opening China to the world in a selective way that paved the way for its spectacular economic ascendancy without liberal accoutrements.

Xi’s legacy would be, one suspects, setting China on course towards Asian hegemony and the establishment of a new bipolar era in the international system with China as one of the poles. His elevation to the ranks of core leaders also mark, as many analysts have already noted, further erosion of the “collective leadership” principle that characterised the Hu Jintao era, for example.

Xi, a “princeling” – his father was Xi Zhongxun, Zhou Enlai’s vice premier and one-time secretary general of the Chinese State Council – has embarked on a massive power grab since becoming president in 2013. In April this year, after a period of significant re-organisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Xi assumed the title of Commander-in-Chief of the PLA Joint Operations Command, appearing before the state-run media in battle fatigues. This puts Xi at the helm of a highly professional and technologically sophisticated PLA that seeks to project power far beyond China’s geographical vicinity.

Xi has also, by inserting himself into various “leading small groups” that effectively chart state policies, become the paramount authority on the course of China’s economy which now seeks to depend more on domestic consumption than exports. Day-to-day issues around economic governance in China has been traditionally the portfolio of the premier. Li Keqiang – Xi’s premier – finds himself sidelined, perhaps only kept in office to be conveniently scapegoated should attempts to re-balance the Chinese economy fail.

Indeed, beyond anodyne references to “peaceful development,” Xi’s grand strategy for China involves an effective marriage of military and economic goals. The principal means through which these goals are to be merged and met is China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) – a network of roads, sea lanes and ports that will link China to Africa, Europe and across Asia.

The Chinese expect the BRI to be completed by 2049 and cost around a trillion American dollars. The economic rationale behind the BRI are the creation of Sino-centric global value chains and productive utilisation of Chinese excess industrial capacity. Beyond the obvious – that much of the Chinese infrastructure that is being built to support the BRI also has military (especially naval) uses – BRI’s strategic potential lies in two facts.

One, it creates deep dependencies between countries that opt into the network and China which benefits asymmetrically. Simply put: if foreign economies depend on Chinese largesse in building their capacities, it becomes very hard for them to adopt China-independent foreign policies.

Two, BRI gives China a convenient cover to expand its military footprint across the world in the guise of protecting its commercial interests – an old imperialist tactic. BRI is Xi’s pet project, announced by him almost immediately after becoming president. Since then Xi has aggressively pushed the initiative, billing it as a natural step towards realizing the “China Dream.”

But in order for China to sell BRI to the world, it will have to keep up the ruse of a benign power that avoids confrontation. This is where Xi’s grand strategy would be severely tested in the years to come.

The problem essentially is this. Early on in his tenure, Xi embarked on an ambitious plan to placate the PLA leadership by drumming up nationalism. The concessions he may have made to the hardliners in that institution in return for their support means the expectations of this constituency may have to be met in Xi’s strategic policy. And as renowned American China scholar and former intelligence official Michael Pillsbury has recently argued, this is a PLA in which hardline thinking is the norm and not the exception.

Xi, in the years ahead – should he extend his term beyond 2017 – will have to simultaneously portray himself as a moderate to the world in order to secure the BRI while making significant concessions to PLA hawks. The core leader’s legacy depends on managing this contradiction.

Published in Times of India.
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