In China, where politics involves a great deal of ideological ritual behind closed doors, what the state media chooses to publish—and when—can be an indicator of trends, crises, or power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party.
The Party’s ideological journal Qiushi on Feb. 16 published remarks made by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in an internal speech last August, where he reiterated the need for the Party to expand its control via “law-based governance,” as well as other communist talking points, such as criticism of “Western constitutionalism.”
Taken at face value, Xi’s exhortations to expand the role of the CCP are simply par the course for his six years in office, which have seen the greater centralization of power and authority under the Party.
However, the timing of Qiushi’s coverage, and other politically charged content recently run by Party-controlled media, suggest that there is more than mere routine in Xi speaking out.
Xi’s statements published by Qiushi were made during the first meeting of the Commission for Comprehensive Law-based Governance, which was formed last March. “Law-based governance” is a policy initiative that Xi introduced in 2014.
The law-based governance commission was formed in March 2018 as the result of a major reform plan initiated by the central CCP authorities to reorganize state and Party organizations.
For many Chinese officials, Xi’s “law-based governance” has not been a pleasant experience. During the 1990s and 2000s, under the leadership of Jiang Zemin, Communist Party cadres were encouraged to become “red capitalists” and often abused their authority to amass ill-gotten profits. But after coming to power in 2012, Xi and his allies proved willing to purge powerful figures in the CCP, including former Politburo members, top military generals, and hundreds of bureau chiefs and provincial heads.
Xi’s actions seem to have resulted in pushback from the officialdom, where Jiang and his proteges had had over a decade to cultivate factional allegiances. While Xi is often seen as a “strongman” whose rule goes virtually unchallenged, the central leadership has seen its policies—including “law-based governance”—being ignored or passively obstructed by lower-level bureaucrats.
Much of this is due the lasting influence of police, security, and judicial officers whose vested interests and personal loyalties often lie with Xi’s rivals in the Jiang Zemin faction. During Jiang’s era of dominance, lasting from 1997 to 2012, he promoted men like Luo Gan and Zhou Yongkag to top posts in the CCP’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission.
While Zhou was purged in 2014 and handed a life sentence the next year, the Chinese regime’s top justice is a Jiang faction associate, as is the current head of the PLAC.
According to Chinese political observer Zang Shan, who is currently based in Washington, many Chinese officials and businessmen have little regard for Xi Jinping, despite heavy-handed propaganda efforts to promote him as the greatest Party leader since the regime’s founder Mao Zedong.
Preventing Black Swans
In January, Xi addressed an audience consisting of the seven-man CCP Politburo Standing Committee and other senior officials, and in his speech cautioned that the Party must be always on “high alert” to prevent “black swans” and “grey rhinos”—axioms referring to epochal events that come unanticipated or willfully ignored.
Since last spring, Beijing has seen its struggling economy take a turn for the worse following the imposition of steep U.S. tariffs and government action against China’s state-sanctioned industrial espionage and other illicit activity. The Chinese unemployment rate is surging, and despite state claims that economic growth is still going strong, top mainland Chinese scholars have warned that real growth could be stagnant or even negative.
At a time when the CCP regime faces a slew of domestic and external crises, Xi seems forced to balance the Party’s ideological imperatives with the realities of statecraft. In negotiations with the Trump administration, for instance, Xi Jinping has offered concessions, but must present a united front at home lest his rivals be presented an ironclad excuse to mobilize popular support and oust him.
In the context of the challenges facing the Chinese authorities, Xi and his allies appear to be turning to the propaganda apparatus as a means of broadcasting strength and defending Xi’s policies with the likely goal of deterring efforts by political rivals to undermine the Xi leadership.