The first National People’s Congress of Xi Jinping’s second term was held in 2018. The constitutional amendment abolishing term limits for presidents at this National People’s Congress made it a hot topic in the media around the world.
Looking back, there is a sense that most of the media focused on the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (19th Congress) last year in an attempt to gauge the extent of Xi Jinping’s power grab based on who was shuffled.
In addition to there not being a clear successor to Xi Jinping in the Standing Committee, what stood out was the criticism of the centralization of power with Xi Jinping and the dictatorship being created from “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” being enshrined in the CPC Constitution as its core principle, but there appeared to be little analysis on the future China is striving for and the orientation of its politics as a whole under the Communist government. However, because the amendment to the Constitution was widely reported, it appears that there is greater interest in not only the power struggle within the leadership but also in Chinese politics as a whole. Here, I will attempt to decipher the current ongoing changes in Chinese politics from the perspective of the centralization of power and the rule of law.
Xi Jinping’s style of politics is often described as “convention-breaking.” However, contrary to the image of a brazen power struggle being propagated in the media, Xi paints a vision of the future that is an extension of the past, characterized by strong political dependence rather than innovation. The concept of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” itself is hardly original as Deng Xiaoping starting to use it around 1984. Moreover, the “five in one” (economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological civilization construction), referred to as the overall layout of socialist construction under the Xi administration, is a framework that inherits the ideas of the Hu Jintao administration in the same way, and Xi’s “four comprehensives” (the comprehensive completion of a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepen reform, comprehensively promote the rule of law, and comprehensively and strictly manage the Party) are actually a collection of the past policies advocated by Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. Furthermore, we can find elements reminiscent of the Mao Zedong era, such as strengthening the authority of individual leaders and concentrating loyalty accompanying it, and a significant expansion of Party power.
The rapid centralization of power
What are the characteristics of policies in the “new era?” What should be noted in recent years is the trend toward the centralization of power in which discipline and law are leveraged to strengthen control of the central government. With respect to discipline, the memory of major politicians, such as Zhou Yongkang and Ling Jihua, who were detained and expelled by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection under the Xi administration is still fresh. In reality, in addition to their removal, many executives and Party members in a wide range of institutions that include public security, public prosecutors, courts, and the military have been subject to investigations and punished for breaking with discipline. According to Wang Qishan’s report, more than 330,000 people received Party discipline or administrative action in 2015.  As for the law, a series of laws that touted the authority of the rule of law were quickly enacted to use the law to strengthen governance, such as the Counter-espionage Law, National Security Law, Anti-terrorism Law, Foreign NGO Management Law, and Cyber Security Law.
There appear to be many articles in the media trying to explain these recent developments in China from the dictatorial personality of Xi Jinping. However, what is more important than the personality of leaders is the development of the centralization of power in China’s politics. Macro control by the central government is being strengthened under the Xi Jinping administration which regards the imbalance in socio-economic development as a problem. For example, Xi Jinping headed the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms created in December 2013 to deepen involvement in a wide range of fields that include not only the political economy and justice, but also science and technology, environmental issues, and the promotion of sports. More than 30 meetings were convened by the middle of 2017, and the group adopted over 350 of only the largest reform proposals. The central government has also strengthened official discipline in rural areas, and the Group for Inspection Work patrol system, which patrols districts to investigate disciplinary violations, has been greatly strengthened under the Xi Jinping administration. More than 60 percent of the leads in inspections by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection after the 18th National Congress (November 2012) have come from patrols. 
The discipline inspections by the central government and the enforcement of various laws and regulations related to the strengthening of social controls are an important means to prevent the formation of regional “independent kingdoms” and the spread of corruption due to decentralization that has been progressing since the reforms and opening up. By specifying the National Supervisory Commission in the recent constitutional amendment, the trend of strengthening control by the Central Committee is no longer temporary under the Xi Jinping administration. To trivialize the current fight against corruption under the Xi Jinping administration as a temporary power struggle poses the risk of misunderstanding trends in Chinese politics in the future.
Historically, China’s politics under the Communist Party rule have followed a cyclical path that transitions between the centralization of power (“collection”) and decentralization of power (“release”). The Mao Zedong era is well-known for its political instability, with repeated policy changes from the First Five-Year Plan (centralization of power) to the Great Leap Forward (decentralization of power) to the readjustment period (centralization of power) and the Cultural Revolution (decentralization of power).
Despite the need to centralize power to thoroughly implement the central government’s policies throughout the country, as the centralization of power increases, the government loses organizational flexibility and creativity, and has the harmful effect of creating an entrenched bureaucracy that only carries out orders. Although the decentralization of power is necessary to counter this, doing so loosens the central government’s control. China is a vast territory, and the relationship between the central government and local governments entails a more subtle balance than Japanese imagine.
Since the Deng Xiaoping era, China was forced to respond flexibly to a new market economy, so there were waves of centralizing and decentralizing power, but it has overall basically followed a process of decentralizing power to increase regional independence.
Having now achieved a certain level of economic development, China faces the side effects of economic development like corruption and income inequality. Given this state of affairs, the Xi Jinping administration regards the prevalent corruption in rural Party organizations and regional protectionism as having the negative effect of weakening central control on the political economy and recognizes the need for stronger political tightening than in the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao administrations.  As such, the Central Committee is significantly strengthening the central patrol system in provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities as seen in the “Regulations on the CPC’s Inspection Work” (2015) , and is leveraging it by cracking down on violations of the law and discipline. This leveraging of law and discipline to centralize power is one of the political features of the “new era.”
Centralization of power and the “rule of law”
The use of laws and regulations is characteristic of how the Xi Jinping administration is centralizing power. Administrations preceding Xi Jinping have, of course, frequently stressed the necessity of the rule of law in the past. However, for the first time in the history of the Central Committee, the theme of the Fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in 2014 was “comprehensively deepening reform and advancing the law-based governance of China,” leaving no doubt, even with the history of the Communist Party, that Xi is a leader who strongly favors the rule of law.
So, what is the rule of law that Xi has in mind? Is there a contradiction between his rule of law and one-party dictatorship? At the Central Political and Legal Work Conference in January 2014, Xi made the following comment on the relationship between the Party’s policies and the laws of the State:
“It is necessary to correctly handle the relationship between the party’s policies and national laws. Our party’s policies and national laws are reflections of the people’s fundamental will and are essentially the same. The party not only leads the people in the formulation of the constitutional laws, but also leads the people in the implementation of the constitutional laws and regulations.…and law ensures the Party’s policies are implemented, ensures that the Party is in overall control, and coordinates core roles in all aspects of leadership.” 
For Xi, who believes the “Party leads the law” and “laws ensure the implementation of Party policies,” the rule of law is an effective means to strengthen the dictatorship and control of the Communist Party, and means “rule by law (by the Party)” instead of the “rule of law.”
Looking at the content of Xi Jinping’s report at the 19th Congress, it is certain that he will roll out the rule of law with “Chinese characteristics” while intertwining it with the centralization of power. Xi, who sought to consolidate the process of the construction of the rule of law led by the Party, spoke about establishing the Central Leading Small Group for Comprehensively Ruling the Country by Law in October 2017 at the 19th National Congress of the CPC to strengthen the leadership of the Communist Party in constructing the rule of law. This was conceived in a 2018 reform plan that upgraded to the status of the Central Committee for Comprehensive Law-Based Governance.  The rule of law by the Central Committee will continue to be strengthened and likely accelerate the push to regulate society through those laws.
In terms of Xi Jinping stressing the strengthening of the implementation of the Constitution, it is important to note that this is not talking about the protection of the rights of citizens under the Constitution that Japanese would typically think of, but rather about the Communist Party strengthening its authority. Xi is trying to strengthen the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China based on the Constitution explaining, “The Constitution of our country is a fundamental law that reflects the result that the Party led the people in revolution, in construction, and in reform, and establishes the leadership of the Communist Party of China formed in history and the will of the people.”  In addition, Xi, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli also edited a section of the handbook to the 19th Congress titled “Why Must Comprehensive Law-Based Governance be Upheld?” with the following additional commentary that should be noted.
“In recent years, enemy forces in the West and those in society with ulterior motives, self-indulgently throw about Western legal principles and legal models calling the rule of law a “weapon” or a “moral obligation.” Their purpose is to open the way from rule of law issues and deny the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system of our country.” 
Given this explanation, the Central Committee-led construction of the rule of law also has an aspect of an effort in response to new citizen’s movements (social movements that do not deny the rule of the Communist Party but are instead based on the provisions of “fundamental rights and obligations of citizens” in the current Constitution) that temporarily rose up in China.
Another important development is the establishment of the National Supervisory Commission. While the focus of attention was on the amendment to the Constitution abolishing the term limit of the president, the reality is that most of the amendment was about positioning the National Supervisory Commission in the Constitution.
This organization seeks to unify leadership by cracking down on corruption and is characterized as targeting all government employees in addition to the Communist Party (expressed as “the organic unification of Party supervision and State supervision”). It is a pyramid-shaped organization with the Central Committee at the top, and comprised of inspection committees at the state, provincial, city, and county levels. It is also a “joint government agency” (collaborating on policy issues with multiple organizations) having the same rank as the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. 
In addition, in March 2018, the National People’s Congress passed the National Supervision Law expanding the scope of the crackdown on corruption from Communist Party organizations to state-owned enterprises, as well as to all public officials, including educational institutions.  This is not simply about expanding the sphere of Party control. This monitoring system is tied to the central patrol system strengthened under the Xi Jinping administration, and central control through discipline and the law will likely be further strengthened in the future. 
A new experiment of a Chinese-style “fusion of dictatorship and law”
Since the Deng Xiaoping era, the Communist Party of China has taken on the challenge of the grand experiment of a one-party dictatorship fusing socialism with a market economy. There are many who take a negative view of this experiment, and although there was a time when some quarters spread the theory that China would collapse, the results have proven that the dictatorship of the Communist Party has persisted and that the economy has developed significantly.
And now that it has attained significant development, a new experiment in China called the “fusion of dictatorship and law” is underway in the Xi Jinping administration. The recent constitutional amendment has shown us that there have been various developments.
In the past, Deng Xiaoping’s political reforms focused on separating Party functions and organizations from State functions. Stating that “when you open the windows you have to expect some flies to come in,” he promoted decentralization and reforms and opening up once a certain degree of corruption was evident. In contrast to such efforts of the Deng Xiaoping era, the current administration is trying to strengthen the control of the Central Committee by leveraging law and discipline while prohibiting corruption. As a result, the possibility of democratic political reforms has significantly diminished.
Deng Xiaoping also experienced a harsh power struggle that led to the deaths of Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, and he was keenly aware of the difficulty of passing on power under the one-party dictatorship regime, so he built a generational transition mechanism that limited the terms of presidents. However, as the presidential term limit has now been abolished, the political system under President Xi Jinping is at a major turning point. In that sense, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” has entered the “new era.” As can be seen from the amendment of the Constitution, the centralization of power is being pushed forward by laws and discipline, and the strengthening of the Communist Party’s dictatorship system will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
However, it is highly likely that this will create a bureaucratic tendency to ceremoniously carry out only official orders from above under the fear of a crackdown as the Party and State are bound by the law and discipline. As a result, it means that political flexibility and the capacity to make policy corrections, which are important sources of the Communist Party’s vitality, will be lost.
Looking back on the past, the success of reforms and opening up in China was not achieved by the strength of Deng Xiaoping alone. The China of that time had unique leaders, such as the reformer Hu Yaobang and the deliberate and conservative Chen Yun, and the Communist Party found a somewhat balanced policy common ground among differing opinions.
Deng Xiaoping maintained power amid conflicting personalities within the leadership and had the prestige and sense of balance to push forward the reform and opening up policy, but at present, it appears there is no room for conflicting policy opinions within the Xi Jinping administration. In other words, the strength of Xi Jinping that everyone witnessed after the 19th Congress is also the weakness of the current administration.
The centralization of power will certainly accelerate decision-making, and even if there are problems with policies decided by the Central Committee, there will be little opposition. However, under such circumstances, it may be difficult to find a balance in policies. The weakening of the collective leadership system might give Xi Jinping discretion over policies, but when this fails, the criticism of the leaders will be more intense. The legal institutionalization of the crackdown on corruption may reduce corruption, but on the other hand, there is no denying the possibility of a political struggle using discipline inspections that throws the Party organization into chaos. (The Communist Party has already experienced such organizational turmoil in its base during its revolutionary period). How will political flexibility be maintained and central control strengthened while skillfully avoiding these problems? Going forward, it demands that the Xi Jinping administration carefully navigate the waters.
（Dated Apr 23, 2018）
Wang Qishan “全面従严治党 把纪律挺在前面 忠诚履行党章赋与的神圣职责,” January 12, 2016.
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Xi Jinping, “ ‘中共中央关於全面推进依法治国若干重大问题的決定’的说明,” (October 20, 2014), 十八大以来重要文献选编, Beijing, Central Party Literature Press, 2016, p.140-154.