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China: A Leadership Crisis in the Making?

China needs a new moral compass

August 29, 2014

Credit: Songquan Deng -

One of the greatest analytical challenges in the study of closed regimes is to understand when they are facing a leadership crisis. Frenetic policy action by what, after all, is a naturally conservative regime is often a sign of perceived leadership threat.

In the months leading up to April 2014, China’s military leadership, about 53 generals in total, were subjected in three separate batches to three six-day courses on the political philosophy of the country’s leader, currently Xi Jinping.

Such an event of political education by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of its military leadership had not happened since the death of Mao Zedong and the end of China’s Cultural Revolution.

This is just one of many indicators that China is in the midst of a political power struggle. It is defined, in part, by the anti-corruption campaign, but it is defined more by the open warfare between Xi Jinping and a raft of new and old rivals in the ruling echelons of the CCP.

A leadership crisis can either persist for some time, often dragging on for several years. Or it can have two terminating outcomes — the leaders defeat the opposing factions or the leaders lose and are forced from power.

All three possibilities are in play in China with the current leadership. Signs of success by Xi in the anti-corruption campaign may indicate that the current leaders are edging towards victory. And yet, the leadership crisis may still persist. Victory is not complete until the opposing factions are defeated.

Informal rules

Not least to deal with such internal challenges to power and authority, Western countries have given themselves constitutions. They spell out lines of authority in some detail and also establish rather precise legal mechanisms to check the legitimacy of actions taken.

In China’s case, the constitutional order is more informal than formal. The closest the written constitution comes to an enduring political reality is when it describes the system of government as a dictatorship, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Beyond that, almost all rules and conventions are subordinate to the dictates of CCP officials. Since 1978, the remit of those officials to act arbitrarily against law or higher policy has narrowed significantly.

Revolutionary vs. constitutional order

That constitutes significant progress. However, the country is still a dictatorship, where the rule of law is manipulated by the CCP on any occasion it sees fit to do so — or when a leader gets sufficient power to implement his own policy.

Perhaps most important is the fact that there simply has been too little time in China’s history since 1949 — and too much revolution since then — for any of the conventions of the informal constitutional order to become deeply entrenched.

The most important tenets of China’s informal constitutional order that have been in place since the early 1980s are as follows:

1. No return to the politics of the Cultural Revolution (i.e., avoid mass demonstrations and the public persecution of leaders).

2. Concentration of the main levers of institutional power in the CCP in the hands of one person is to be avoided.

3. Collective leadership of the CCP, including compromise with political opponents, is the dominant constitutional principle.

4. The essential corollary is that divisions in the leadership should be concealed from the CCP membership and the public.

5. It is important to maintain a balance between different personal factions or interest groups through higher level bodies of the CCP (Politburo Standing Committee, Central Committee Secretariat, Central Military Commission, Central Political and Legal Commission and Central Discipline and Inspection Commission).

6. No separation of powers between different arms of government (legislature, executive and judicial).

7. Zero tolerance of organized political groups on any scale (political parties or religious groups).

8. “One country, two systems” is a constitutional principle to handle two special cases (Hong Kong and Taiwan, but not Tibet or Xinjiang).

A case can be made that all of these constitutional principles are under threat in China today, some in positive ways and some in negative ways.

There is one additional feature of the political order in China that has been pervasive in recent decades – one that has defined power relationships between political structures and actors.

It was not a desired principle, unlike the eight principles listed above. It simply emerged and came to be accepted without serious challenge.

This was the idea that, first, pursuing economic growth and hence the wealth of the country had primacy over almost all else and, second, that a normal part of this was enrichment of the ruling elite.

Breaking the law – for progress

As a result, bribery and corruption became a norm, underpinned by the social custom of guanxi. It was possibly the inevitable consequence of the lag between legal and political reform in China and its economic reform ambitions.

Two slogans attributed to Deng Xiaoping were influential in the emergence of this norm. One was “to get rich is glorious.” The second was “It does not matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mouse.”

Though Deng was making a distinction between communist and capitalist in the latter slogan — and he did not mean to condone law breaking and corruption in that statement — in practice the only way for China to modernize quickly, especially in the 1980s, was for entrepreneurs (including CCP leaders) to break the law as it was.

CCP leaders knew this and condoned it. For example, Bo Xilai, now the disgraced former Politburo member, was involved in the mid-1980s, in the smuggling of computer technology from Hong Kong to China.

Bo was breaking Chinese law, but this practice was condoned by the central authorities at high levels, not least because China had almost no such technology outside of several specialized research institutes.

Needed: A new moral compass

China has now had 35 years of sustained rule-breaking by those in power in the name of economic reform. One part of that rule-breaking, the corruption, cannot be dissociated from the other, which has been the gradual erosion of fundamental tenets of communist orthodoxy (no private capital, no private property).

China needs a new moral compass. Rule of law has been improving in China, and the anti-corruption drive may be evidence of that. But ultimately, rule of law depends on constitutional order and leadership commitment to that order. In China, a leadership crisis and constitutional disorder go together.


#China has now had 35 years of sustained rule-breaking by those in power in the name of economic reform.

Rule-breaking via #corruption leads to the erosion of fundamental tenets of communist orthodoxy.

Rule-breaking, bribery and #corruption have become norms in #China. Does the country need a new moral compass?