China’s Xi Builds Support for Big Move: Putting Politics Ahead of the Economy – China Real Time Report – WSJ

Many observers—including U.S. President Barack Obama – claim that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has already consolidated his political power and now commands more authority at a far earlier point than his predecessors did when they ruled China.

On the surface, there seems to be ample evidence for this conclusion. In his first two years at the helm, Xi has taken out powerful political rivals, become a ubiquitous presence in the party media and put himself in a position to dominate policy making.

There’s also been unusual attention in the press to Xi’s experiences as an adolescence and his early days as a Communist party member, which praise Xi’s stamina as a sent-down youth (in Chinese) and his problem-solving talents as a cadre (in Chinese). Chinese media refer to China’s president colloquially as “Big Daddy Xi” and extol his visits and musings as major events. And last week, a series of oil paintings were unveiled on the website of the Ministry of Defense depicting Xi in his role as China’s paramount leader.

This hagiography seems to suggest Xi’s unassailable status.But there’s a better explanation for this relentless publicity: Because Xi’s embarking on a very different path for China, he needs all the positive promotion he can get.

Xi knows as well as anyone that governance in China has shifted. The move away from a Maoist-style dictatorship to a collective leadership means that only by enacting and implementing reforms can a Chinese leader stay upright and ahead politically. It’s authority over policy decisions–not power for its own sake–that drives China’s leaders.

For much of the last half-century, changing China through economic reform seemed to make far better sense than transforming the country through political revolution.

Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China’s economic transformation, changed the national focus to getting rich and kept conservative critics at bay; his successor, Jiang Zemin, extended Deng’s achievements by bringing businessmen into the Communist Party and ushering China further into the international economic order. Hu Jintao, who followed Jiang, concentrated on the parts of China’s population left behind by a booming economy—and worked to underwrite those officials who agreed with that approach.

Then along came Xi, looking to invert this equation—to put politics back in command of economics.

In Xi’s view, China’s economic boom hasn’t always enhanced the party’s image, because it’s also offered opportunities for government officials to engage in graft. The Communist Party’s previous emphasis on economics wasn’t the cure so much as part of a larger disease that made too many officials more concerned with growing their bank accounts instead of developing the country. The state of China’s GDP may be a major concern for some, but Xi’s focus on getting the party rectified first indicates that he disagrees. For Xi, only by pushing economics aside and focusing on politics—specifically, ideology–can party rule be protected.

In recent days, Xi and his supporters have been advertising ideology to supplant economics more ardently.

For example, instead of asking China’s universities to become engines of innovation that might invigorate economic growth, Xi and his comrades are seeking to enforce the Party’s control over the classroom.

Xinhua summarized a recent proposal to tighten ideological oversight, quoting a document instructing administrators, that “higher education is a forward battlefield in ideological work, and shoulders the important tasks of studying, researching and spreading Marxism, along with nurturing and carrying forward socialist values.”

The party main theoretical journal, Qiushi, jumped in with a widely-reprinted essay (in Chinese) that slammed those professors who “as part of some new fashion, use their positions of authority to discredit China.” These instructors, the commentary contended, “present views that are not part of the social mainstream.”

Others are also under pressure to bend to politics.

The China Law Society was told last week, according to one report, to “improve its decision-making advisory service to establish itself as a key think tank [by placing] more emphasis on collective thoughts rather than individual thinking.”

That’s a signal to institutions that are largely under party oversight to forego suggestions that hint at dissent and get back in line.

And a few days earlier, People’s Daily, the party’s flagship newspaper, sounded the same refrain of increasing ideological oversight of officials who might be still skeptical of Xi’s changes, devoting an entire page of its Tuesday edition to the need for “political discipline,” with one essay stating emphatically (in Chinese) that “without rules, there are no standards; without standards, a political party cannot exist.”

That sort of talk inspires politically conservative cadres who enjoy their reform in the shape of smackdowns. And building a high public profile is Xi’s way of saying to cadres and citizens alike that he’s the best man to prove that China needs politics to push economics.

via China’s Xi Builds Support for Big Move: Putting Politics Ahead of the Economy – China Real Time Report – WSJ.

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