In Leninist political systems the authority of a party leader does not always align with his formal position in a communist party's hierarchy. Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping exercised immense power despite retiring from all official leadership positions; in contrast, the authority of men like Zhao Ziyang and Hu Jintao was tightly circumscribed despite their selection as General Secretary. The concept of the “leadership core” provides one way for party members to recognize the exceptional standing of a paramount leader without reference to his formal position in the Party. Under this schema, a leader of unusual historical significance will be labeled the “core” [核心] of his leadership cohort.
Xi Jinping is the acknowledged core of the Party today. He was not always honored with this title: it was not until the 6th PLENUM of the 18th CENTRAL COMMITTEE—some four years into Xi’s tenure as formal leader of the Communist Party of China—that state media described Xi Jinping as the core leader of his era.
A speech given by Xi Jinping in early 2013 provides a typical example of the way this title is employed in communist rhetoric. In a ceremony commemorating Hu Jintao’s leadership of the Party, Xi Jinping told the representatives at the People’s Congress that
Under the leadership of the Party’s first generation of collective leadership with Comrade Mao Zedong as the core, the Party’s second generation of collective leadership with Comrade Deng Xiaoping as the core, the Party’s third generation of collective leadership with Comrade Jiang Zemin as the core, and the Party’s Central Committee with Comrade Hu Jintao as the General Secretary, people of all ethnic groups in the country have worked together, persevered, and overcome various difficulties and obstacles on the path of progress. (Xi 2013)
As this passage makes clear, not all leaders deserve “core” status. The modest achievements and limited power of Hu Jintao vis a vis other leading party members of his era denies Hu this honor. Hu’s historical role only merits the mention of his formal party title, that of “General Secretary.”
The origins of the “core” designation are found in the early years of the Deng era. Mao was never referred to as the “core” of a collective leadership cohort during his tenure. He preferred titles—such as the “People’s Leader” [人民领袖]—that elevated him far above other members of the revolutionary generation, and which justified the concentration of power in his own hands. For Deng Xiaoping, this was one of the central errors of the late Mao era. As with many other leading cadres, Deng attributed his suffering during the Cultural Revolution to Mao’s incontestable authority. These men hoped that “collective leadership” [集体领导] might preserve the Party from similar disasters in the future. “The overconcentration of power,” Deng said in 1980, “hinders the practice of socialist democracy and of the Party’s democratic centralism, impedes the progress of socialist construction and prevents us from taking full advantage of collective wisdom” (Deng 1980).
Formalizing mechanisms for collective leadership and instituting “intra-party democracy” [党内民主] was thus a key priority of Deng’s early reform agenda. The 12th Party Congress of 1982 abolished the post of Chairman of the Central Committee, a position that many deemed too powerful. Instead the Party would be formally led by a General Secretary with a ten-year term limit. Other reforms intended to constrain and distribute political power across the Party included new mandatory retirement ages, the regular holding of party congresses, and the staggered filling of the POLITBURO seats every five years.
Yet Deng’s attempt to institutionalize the CPC power structure was fatally undermined by his own style of leadership. In the 1980s Deng twice identified potential successors and elevated them to the position of General Secretary. Despite their formal authority, the actual power of these chosen heirs was limited. Anytime a contentious issue divided the Party, Deng’s intervention was necessary for a solution to be implemented. On two occasions this solution included the removal of an uncooperative General Secretary from office. Events like these repeatedly offered Deng Xiaoping a choice between procedural integrity and political victory. Deng consistently chose the latter. Aligning policy and personnel with his own preferences behind the scenes weakened the formal institutions, procedures, and norms he hoped would eventually govern the Party in his place.
It was in this context that the concept of the leadership core was introduced to the Party. Deng Xiaoping neither possessed nor aspired to absolute power: his influence flowed from his indispensability. Loyalty to Deng was the one nexus point holding the various factions of the Party together. Thus Deng concluded that “for the second generation of leaders, I can be considered the core, but the group is still a collective” (Deng 1989a).
In 1989, Deng began working to pass this status on to a new successor. Four days before the denouement of the Tiananmen demonstrations, Deng negotiated with Chen Yun and other party elders of his generation to choose the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. Jiang Zemin was their choice. Soon after, Deng further argued that Jiang must be treated as the future “core” of the party’s collective leadership. “A collective leadership must have a core; without a core, no leadership can be strong enough,” said Deng.
The core of our first generation of collective leadership was Chairman Mao. Because of that core, the “cultural revolution” did not bring the Communist Party down. Actually, I am the core of the second generation. Because of this core, even though we changed two of our leaders, the Party’s exercise of leadership was not affected but always remained stable. The third generation of collective leadership must have a core too; all you comrades present here should be keenly aware of that necessity and act accordingly. You should make an effort to maintain the core — Comrade Jiang Zemin, as you have agreed. From the very first day it starts to work, the new Standing Committee should make a point of establishing and maintaining this collective leadership and its core (Deng 1989b).
Though Jiang Zemin would govern under the shadow of Deng Xiaoping for another five years, the slow passing of the revolutionary generation gave Jiang the opportunity to fill critical party positions with his own people. Jiang’s consolidation of power proved enduring. By the time Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, rose to the position of CPC General Secretary in November 2002, both the POLITBURO and the CENTRAL COMMITTEE were stocked with Jiang’s men. Jiang himself would stay on as Chairman of the Central Military Commission for several years into Hu’s term. No one was under the illusion that Hu Jintao was the “core” of anything. Instead, his role in the collective leadership was usually described with the phrase “the Party CENTER with Comrade Hu Jintao as General Secretary” [以胡锦涛同志为总书记的党中央].
Xi Jinping successfully centralized power in a fashion Hu Jintao never managed. Through bureaucratic restructuring and a colossal anti-corruption drive that removed hundreds of thousands of Party members from the rolls, Xi remade the Communist Party in his own image. He used this power to rollback Deng era norms of collective leadership. Just one year after Xi obtained official recognition as the “core,” the Party abolished the term limit of the General Secretary. At the conclusion of the Party Congress where this occurred, Cai Qi–a Xi loyalist who would soon be elevated to the PBSC–referred to Xi Jinping as the Leader, or lingxiu [领袖], of the Party. Up to this point this grandiose title had only ever been applied to Mao Zedong and his designated successor, Hua Guofeng. Cai maintained that:
In the past five years, historic changes have taken place in the cause of the Party and the state, all of which stem from the fact that General Secretary Xi Jinping, the strong leadership core, is the helmsman [掌舵] of the whole Party. General Secretary Xi Jinping is worthy of being a wise leader [英明领袖], the chief architect of reform, opening up and modernization in the New Era, and the core of this generation of the Party. At all times and in all circumstances, we must resolutely safeguard the authority and centralized and unified leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as its core. (Cai 2017).
Thus the valence of the term “core” has shifted as the norms of the Deng era have eroded away. If in the Reform era the “core” designation signaled a break from the Maoist past, associating Deng’s pre-eminence with the more restrained language of intra-party democracy, in Xi’s NEW ERA the phrase is deployed in the same breath as titles once reserved for Mao himself, such as “helmsman” and "Leader.” Three decades after its introduction the concept of the leadership core lives on. The associated ideals of collective leadership do not.
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