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How Xi Jinping Used the CCP Constitution to Cement His Power – The Diplomat

Après moi, le déluge,” the famous and ambiguous expression by an absolutist French monarch typifies assertive rulers’ propensity to cling to power without considering the consequences for their successors. In China, the reform and opening period from the late 1970s onward was characterized by sweeping economic reforms, contrasted with insipid political changes. Nevertheless, the gradual institutionalization of the party-state apparatus and relatively smooth transfers of power brought a fair amount of stability into the system, and was widely appreciated.

By contrast, Xi Jinping’s leadership period, which began in 2012 with no end in sight, is characterized by a series of centralization measures that are intended to increase internal cohesion of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and strengthen its grip on society. In contrast with the more group-oriented leadership style of his post-Mao predecessors, Xi’s actions have led to a concentration of power in his own hands, unseen since Mao’s times.

The highly personalistic style of official policymaking under Xi Jinping obviously and consciously tries to imitate Mao’s standing. To some extent, this is explained by the hierarchically structured “democratic centralism” mechanism of the party’s organization, and the need for visibility and unquestioned authority of the current leader. But the personalization of the official ideology (“Xi Jinping Thought” in its various versions) and insistent demands of constant deference to the leader by the party members depart significantly from previous practice, which tried to accommodate more diverse leadership groups.

The party’s constitution, which can be revised only once in five years, during the National Party Congress, is one of the important tools to ensure the institutional stability of the CCP and protect it from abrupt and unexpected changes. Although it can’t be viewed as an insurmountable obstacle to arbitrary changes – the interpretation of the text belongs to those who wield real power – the amount of attention given to the wording of the amendments reveals not only its importance for the legitimization of the leadership role, but also internal tensions in the leadership circles over each alteration.

The Post-Mao History of the Party Constitution

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The last major revision of the CCP Constitution took place during the 12th Party Congress in 1982, at the beginning of the reform and opening era. The text from 1977 was in many parts rewritten. The post of the chairman of the Central Committee was scrapped in favor of a general secretary, as a sign of a more collective leadership. The new constitution also included an explicit ban on one-man arbitrary decision-making and a personality cult. (The term “collective leadership” as a prescribed way of managing the party on every level, appeared in the 1956 revision and had been brought back already in 1977, just after Mao’s death.)

The constitution of the 12th Congress redefined the role of Mao Zedong as the founder of the PRC, and the foremost party leader and ideologue in those formative years. The paragraph describing the officially confirmed role of Mao in the PRC and party history was placed in the introductory section. Mao Zedong Thought, sustained as the official party ideology, was mentioned together seven times in different parts of the document.

The constitution from 1982 remained the base for all the subsequent revisions made at the following Party Congresses. Most of these changes were incremental, adding new phrases, passages and paragraphs. Major changes to the existing text were avoided.

The paragraph concerning Mao’s role that was created in 1982 was passed in almost the same form until the 15th Party Congress in 1997, after the death of Deng Xiaoping. There were also no changes in the positioning of Mao’s ideology. The only revision that took place during that period was an editorial change of two characters in the description of Marxist-Leninist principles, altered from “universal” to “fundamental” in 1992. The change, although small, was significant in phrase-obsessed party culture, as it justified the necessity of creative adjustments of “fundamental” ideological tenets.

In 1992, the biggest editorial change in the introductory historical part of the party constitution was an extension of a paragraph that followed the description of Mao’s role. It didn’t mention any CCP leaders by name but added an explicit remark about post-Mao reforms and their ideological underpinnings. The phrase “reform and opening,” which hasn’t been used in the constitution previously, appeared together 12 times in the 1992 revision. The reform period was named “a new phase” and its doctrinal fundamentals called the “Theory of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”

After Deng Xiaoping’s death, during the 15th Party Congress in 1997, the 1992 additions were used as a base for an entirely new paragraph, one that explicitly described the role of Deng and “Deng Xiaoping Theory” in the party and state history. Deng’s theory was pronounced as a current development of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought and equivalent to the Theory of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. The phrase “Deng Xiaoping Theory” was mentioned in the whole document six times (mostly substituting previous mentions of the “Theory of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”), always with Mao Zedong Thought preceding it. The two ideologies were positioned as equally indispensable stages of development of the Marxist ideological basis of the party.

The 1997 revision of the constitution was the first time that the name of a party leader – and the theory bearing his name – appeared in the document, with the exception of Mao. It was an important precedent, as all constitutions after 1949 avoided mentioning personal names other than the founder of the party-state, Mao Zedong.

The 1997 revision of the CCP constitution revealed the meticulous attention paid by the party leadership to avoid diminishing the role of Mao and to refrain from substantial changes to the text. Mao’s and Deng’s sections would remain unchanged until the 19th Party Congress in 2017, and, with only minor editorial changes made in that year, are largely the same even now.

The 2002 revision of the constitution, made during the 16th Party Congress, added the name of the outgoing general secretary, Jiang Zemin. Through this, the precedent set in 1997 to honor Deng was extended further to include all outgoing principal leaders. The new paragraph describing Jiang’s role was inserted beneath Mao’s and Deng’s section, and his part was a bit shorter than theirs.

To further avoid putting Jiang on par with Mao and Deng, Jiang’s name wasn’t used to label the new version of the official ideology. The new ideological input was called the “Theory of ‘Three Represents’” and described as a recent development of CCP’s official ideology formulated under Jiang’s leadership, but the theory itself didn’t bear his name. Jiang’s paragraph was never revised again and appears in the same form in the current version of the constitution.

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In 2007, during the next party congress, under the leadership of Hu Jintao, a new paragraph was added beneath Jiang’s that introduced a new contribution to the official theory called the “Scientific Outlook on Development.” Although the document didn’t name Hu personally, the new chapter and “new theory” was linked with his term in office. This increased the importance of Hu’s rule, especially given Jiang’s strong remaining influence. Yet the new chapter contained only 165 characters, obviously less than the preceding ones.

At the 18th Party Congress in 2012, the retiring Hu Jintao got the same privilege as Jiang Zemin, and in the paragraph about “Scientific Outlook on Development” his name was included in the same way: i.e., mentioning his role as a leader at the time, but without attaching his name to the theory. Hu’s chapter afterwards received only minor changes in 2017.

Xi’s Constitutional Power Grab

The amendments that took place in the party constitution at the 19th Congress in 2017, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, although they maintained the practice of small changes and incremental additions, nevertheless constituted a visible departure from the cautious ways the edits were made in the post-Mao era. The most striking difference was the inclusion of the name of the current party leader, something that was not practiced after Mao.

The preservation of Mao’s name in the constitution was regarded as a symbol of the party’s unity and continuity, and treated as an exception due to his role as the founder of the party-state. Jiang Zemin broke this rule first by including Deng’s name after his death in 1997 – a bid to preserve the fundamentals of the reform era – and then his own name in 2002, as he tried to avoid being marginalized after stepping down. But he didn’t put himself on par with Mao and Deng.

That precedent was willingly converted into a custom by Hu Jintao. Not including his name as the outgoing leader would have appeared as a statement on the diminished status of his rule and his supporters.

Xi Jinping built his changes on those precedents, but went much further. First of all, he succeeded in adding his own paragraph, analogous to those already mentioned, with his name included even while serving as the current leader – a privilege that wasn’t granted to any leader except Mao. To make the difference with the previous leaders even more visible, Xi also included a new version of the official theory bearing his own name: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” His section in the amended constitution consisted of 336 characters, visibly more than the others, including Deng’s and Mao’s.

The most unexpected and visible departure was qualifying Xi Jinping as the “leadership core.” The phrase in this form didn’t have precedent in the party’s previous constitutional revisions. The word “core” appeared first in the 1956 revision, in the context of describing the CCP’s leadership of the whole society. Afterwards the word was used in this way, with the exception of the 1973 revision, when it didn’t appear. From 1982 onward, marking the changes of the reform and opening era, the description of the party’s leadership role in the Chinese society as a leadership core, was put at the very beginning of the text.

From 1992 the phrase became repeated more widely in the document, first four times, then six times in 2002, eight times in 2007, nine times in 2012, and a record 11 times in 2017. But even at the peak of Mao’s power, the title “core” was never applied in such a personal way (in the 1969 constitution Mao obtained the famous title of “supreme leader,” but “the core” status remained attached to the party).

It is worth noting that giving Xi Jinping the unprecedented title of “leadership core” didn’t meet with any visible dissent in the leadership circles. But the consequences of the wording are far-reaching and difficult to overestimate. That the party constitution, its supreme document that can be changed only once every half a decade, officially stated Xi’s name was a visible confirmation of his intention to remain in the post indefinitely – especially when taking into account the party’s custom, well established from 1982, of adding new content rather than explicitly editing the existing text.

The description of Xi as the “leadership core” was used in the section about the obligations of party members and will have to be revised when the new leader takes the seat. For Xi, confirming him as an unquestioned leader in the main party document facilitates lifelong rule and makes internal resistance more difficult. Mao is the only other living leader to be named in the party’s constitution as a source of official ideology (remember, Deng was named only after his death), and Mao remained in charge until his death.

In case of Xi’s death, the need for revision will be obvious, but – as was the case with Mao – the new leader will face the challenge of dealing with the legacy of his predecessor, either positively (the title “supreme leader” was preserved for Mao in 1977 constitution after his death, then removed in 1982), or more critically (the extensive changes in the 1982 constitution).

Even more perplexing would be a situation where Xi Jinping steps down, for whatever reason. In that case, even removing his title as “leadership core” would leave Xi still as a frontman of official ideology, so there would be a need to redefine the place of Xi’s ideological formulations – or leave him in a privileged and influential position for longer.

In any case, Xi’s successor will encounter many problems when deciding on the proper place and the wording for Xi Jinping and his theory. The same happened when defining the role of Mao and his ideology; this time it could also lead to another round of fierce contention for power, internal divisions, and radical redrawing of the rules.

The 20th Party Congress Revisions

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It seems that Xi Jinping put effort into making any potential transfer of power as difficult as possible, and countering the danger of diminishing or erasing his role in future revisions to the CCP Constitution. As previously noted, no past leader has had his section in the constitution significantly downgraded, much less erased. By modeling his position to resemble the first generation of leaders, Xi seems to seek indefinite power now, and everlasting glory afterwards.

Xi’s catchphrase of the “new era” (新时代) is similar to the description of the reform and opening period in the party constitution as “a new phase” (新时期) and thus claims at least the same importance – or even indicates a replacement of the previous epoch, making Xi a founder of a new one. His ideological formula “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” is also based on Deng’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”

These intentions were confirmed further in the latest revisions of the CCP constitution at the 20th Party Congress in October 2022. There was much speculation circulating before the event, that Xi would get the coveted title of “supreme leader,” which would elevate him to the same level of glory as Mao and above everybody else. There were also expectations that Xi would try to simplify the name of his theory to “Xi Jinping Thought,” parallel to Mao’s and Deng’s ideological catchphrases.

The fact that these changes didn’t happen can be seen as a sign of insufficient power and internal resistance to these plans. Whatever the cause of the restraint, the changes that were made further solidify Xi’s position and confirm his intentions of remaining in power indefinitely, while leaving open the possibility of the aforementioned adjustments.

The changes that took place in 2017 at the 19th Party Congress are sufficiently radical to prop up Xi’s aspirations without any new additions. Nevertheless, Xi Jinping still felt the necessity to demonstrate his dominance over the party-state apparatus by significantly enlarging the paragraph describing his rule, from 336 to 409 characters, which further highlighted the disparity with the paragraphs about his predecessors (Mao’s 277 characters, Deng’s 278, Jiang’s 263, Hu’s 236). Xi also inserted some new ideological catchwords associated with him in recent party documents and official media, albeit without explicitly linking them to his name: “Four Consciousnesses,” “Four Confidences,” “Two Safeguards,” and the economic policy catchphrase “Dual Circulation.”

The phrase “Two Establishes,” however, is conspicuously absent from this list, especially because it is usually used together with the “Two Safeguards.” Even if this omission is yet another sign of internal resistance inside the party leadership toward concentrating excessive power in Xi’s hands, it doesn’t really change things in an important way. Xi’ s core position in the party and his theory as the obligatory guideline are already confirmed elsewhere in the document.

The new additions are not as important as those from 2017, because ideological catchwords without clear reference to the leader’s name are vague enough to be interpreted freely in the future. They can remain unrevised without causing problems for subsequent leaders, like the many other phrases accumulated in the past.

Already in 2018, the party constitution was revised in a way that binds any future successor by having the outgoing leader named as an indispensable part of the organization. It departs from the established custom of group decision-making and diminishes efforts toward more institutionalization of the CCP.

But these charges were also a result of the always-existing need for a dominating leader, which is inherent in such a centralized and personalized structure. Deng’s authority derived his role in the establishment of the PRC and allowed him to exercise power without formal leadership status. Jiang Zemin, as the leader chosen by Deng himself, protected his position by inserting Deng’s paragraph into the constitution, then at his departure his own name, thereby making a precedent followed by Hu Jintao.

All these personal references that accumulated over time confirm the tensions caused by internal power struggles, which were masked by official unity and harmony. It would be difficult otherwise to explain the importance that the party leaders attach to enshrining these personal remarks in the main party document.

That weakness – intrinsic insufficient institutionalization in an over-centralized structure – can also help explain why the critical changes made by Xi Jinping in 2017 passed so smoothly. They might even be seen by many in the party as a stabilizing factor, since their negative impact will be revealed fully only during the next power transition period. But it is doubtful that the changes will help maintain party unity on that day. As in so many other aspects in China, the prospects of leadership continuity look increasingly fragile and uncertain.

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