Xi Jinping and the Future of China

by Jonathan Walton
December 19, 2013

This is one of eleven essays in the “2014 Asia-Pacific Watch List.”

By Jonathan Walton

December 19, 2013

In its third meeting, the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) laid out an ambitious agenda for reform. While the Third Plenum did not announce significant political reforms and its economic initiatives were not as ambitious as some had hoped, its decisions to allow the market to play a more central role in the Chinese economy and to address the inequities of the household registration system will have far-reaching implications for China’s long-term economic development. Other announced changes, such as the weakening of the one-child policy, the abolition of the labor-camp system, and the strengthening of rural land rights, address widespread popular demands. Yet as with many initiatives in China, the most difficult step will be the actual implementation of these reforms. President Xi Jinping’s ability to translate his vision into reality will be seriously tested in 2014, and the outcome of the coming year will in many ways define the rest of his term as general secretary.

Xi’s ability to enact the Third Plenum’s long list of substantial reforms depends largely on the strength and sustainability of his political clout. Compared with his immediate predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, Xi appears to have consolidated his authority in record time, allowing him to launch a relatively ambitious reform agenda barely a year after being named general secretary of the CCP. This high-level support is critical, given the substantial political inertia and the vested interests that will resist many of the proposed reforms.

Yet despite Xi’s relative strength, the distributed and consensus-based approach of the contemporary CCP continues to pose real challenges for would-be reformers. Since Xi lacks the authority of a Mao or Deng, he will be hard-pressed to pursue reforms that directly challenge the interests of his Standing Committee peers, the wishes of retired but powerful CCP elders, and the bottom lines of China’s powerful state-owned enterprises. In particular, efforts to promote greater judicial independence or enforce stronger anticorruption measures will be threatening to many within the party. Winning support for some of the more significant reforms may also depend on the success of new experiments such as the Shanghai Free Trade Zone.

Directly related to Xi’s political power is his ability to control China’s sweeping domestic security apparatus and prevent the rise of alternate sources of authority. By contracting the leading Politburo Standing Committee from nine to seven and by chairing a newly established national security commission, Xi appears to be ascendant in the security realm, at least for the moment. These assertions of personal authority, combined with a tightening of ideological and media controls and the use of corruption charges to target potential political adversaries, have signaled that Xi will take a muscular approach to securing and consolidating his leadership.

The next year has the potential to be a time of profound change in China. Much will depend on Xi’s ability to overcome vested interests, maintain stability, and implement his vision of reform. If he is successful, China may well be on the path to addressing several of its significant domestic challenges, and Xi may solidify his place in the pantheon of top Chinese leaders. If unsuccessful, however, his leadership may be irrevocably damaged, and China’s ability to successfully navigate future challenges will be diminished.

Jonathan Walton is a Project Manager for Publications at NBR, where he assists in the editing, proofreading, design, layout, sales, and distribution of NBR publications, both online and in print. In addition, he assists with other NBR research programs and events.