THIS BYSTANDER DRAWS two points of note from the recently concluded Fourth Party Plenum, the four-day annual meeting of China’s 350 most powerful officials. The first is that President Xi Jinping has not centralized power as comprehensively as has been supposed. The second is that there is a distinction between the rule of law and rule by law.
Both points are significant in their separate ways. Xi needs to centralize power if he is to remove the obstacles that the most entrenched vested interests pose to his economic reforms outlined at the previous Party plenum. Xi wants to switch the economy from investment- and export-led growth to domestic consumption. It is a change to a no longer sustainable credit fueled model of growth that powered the past three decades of China’s rise as transformative as the policies of Deng Xiaoping that initiated it.
Xi sees his legacy as being on the same historic scale. Yet there are many powerful Party, state and military elites who have benefited in privilege and pocket book from the old economic model, and will not readily give it up. While Xi has extended his power to coerce them to do so faster than many had expected before he became China’s pre-eminent leader, this plenum has shown that his drive to centralize power is not yet complete.
The PLA is a case in point. It holds a special place in the country’s politics for the obvious historical reasons and has considerable policy autonomy. With China taking on a greater global role, such autonomy gives it more opportunity to calibrate China’s “assertiveness” than may always be comfortable for Beijing. It also has extensive industrial and commercial interests from which senior members of its old guard profit
The plenum had been expected to approve a reshuffling of the Central Military Commission to promote allies of the president. On the basis of the communique issued after the meeting, that did not happen.
Nor was any light shed on the fate that is to befall Zhou Yongkang, the former Politburo Standing Committee member who is the biggest tiger to fall prey to Xi’s anti-corruption drive and the highest ranking Party member be investigated for corruption in many a year.
On both scores, that suggests divisions of view at the top. At the very least, there are still obstructions that Xi feels he cannot yet move.
The communique’s main point of commission as opposed to omission was changes to the judicial system, the plenum’s headline issue. The Party remains firmly in control of the legal process; a democratic separation of powers was never on the agenda, even though many believe that China will not be able to make the economic transition Xi desires without commensurate institutional political, social and legal changes.
For any foreseeable future, the judiciary remains subordinate to the leadership of the party and national security. Top leadership will still be able to control cases at the provincial or national level in which it has a pressing political interest. Rule by law; not rule of law.
That has tempted some commentators to suggest that nothing is changing. There are significant changes at the lower levels, however. Local judges will no longer be appointed and funded by local officials but by provincial or national authorities. That should break the commonly cosy relationship between local officials and local courts. It would then be more difficult for corrupt local officials to remain immune from accountability, a widespread popular grievance.
That in itself won’t shift for Xi any of the big obstacles blocking his economic reforms. It will, however, help to break up the endemic institutionalized corruption at the level that has the most impact on most people’s daily life. If he is still not able to move all the big rocks at the top that he would like, he can still remove a mass of little obstacles at the bottom.