Editor’s Note: Tim Schwarz is CNN’s Beijing bureau chief.
President Xi Jinping has been officially dubbed the "core" of China's ruling party
The title grants greater power and authority over the country
The word has gone out.
On every television channel, on the front page of every newspaper, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in addition to his many other impressive titles, is now officially referred to as “the core of the Chinese Communist party.”
It sounds like just another title but it is highly symbolic in China.
It was originally granted to Chairman Mao Zedong and since then to two of his successors as leader – Deng Xiaoping, the man who remodeled China’s economy, and President Jiang Zemin.
Tellingly, it was not bestowed on Xi’s immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao.
Zhang Baohui, professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, says the message is clear. “Hu Jintao was the first among equals and it was clear collective decision making. Xi Jinping is no longer the first among equals. He is clearly the leader,” he told CNN.
The report surprised few but sent a very strong signal – it comes after the annual confab known the 6th plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which wrapped up four days of closed door meetings in Beijing.
‘You can get policies done’
When you are “the core” of the Communist Party, you aren’t just another leader – your will is now law.
“The whole thing about being ‘the core’ is that you can get policies done,” David Zweig, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology professor, told CNN.
“The risk is that you will take power to yourself, undermine the power bases of the people beneath you. Give him greater authority to replace people who are allied with Jiang Zemin or their own networks.”
Zweig said there had already been a push to make Xi “the core” in early 2016 but it hadn’t succeeded.
“Everyone in the Politburo has their networks, even in the Standing Committee of the Politburo, so if you give all the power to one guy you give him the power to push your people out and push his people through,” he said.
“Entrenched resistance was strong but if you really want to see China reform, you want to take some power away (from those) who protect their vested interests, like the state enterprises.”
Anti-corruption drive or power grab?
Xi has been amassing titles since he took over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012.
He has used that authority to push through an intensive anti-corruption drive – targeting even the very highest levels of the party and the army. The campaign has been very popular with the Chinese public, but it has worried some elites.
China's corruption crackdown: The biggest victims so far
Too much power in one set of hands would endanger the sort of consensus building politics that had been developing in previous administrations.
Xi supporters justify the move saying the party would collapse unless corruption can be cleared up. They also believe strong leadership is needed to push through market reforms, resisted by special interest groups in the state-enterprise dominated economy.
Others are more cynical, claiming Xi is merely trying to strengthen the party’s grip on power, while adding that it is this one party rule that is the root of corruption and other social issues in China.
Xi’s real test still to come
The announcement shows that for now Xi has consolidated his power, and that those party members who may have been less enthusiastic about the new direction, willingly or unwillingly will have to support him.
In the second half of 2017 the Chinese Communist Party will hold a once every five years National Congress which will result in many personnel changes at the highest level.
Due to unofficial age limits, five of the seven members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee are expected to be replaced.
According to Professor Zhang, that will be the real test for the president.
“The real occasion of whether he is in complete power will the be outcome at the next party congress. Who will be in the Politburo and most importantly who will be in the standing committee of the Politburo? Can he himself shape the composition?” he said.
We can be sure that “the core of the Chinese Communist Party” will be spending much of his time between now and then to ensure that he can.