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Xi's moves may signal return to strongman politics

Already deemed a stronger leader than his predecessors, President Xi Jinping has emerged from his first policy summit looking more powerful than before.

He has gained more say over security and economic policies in moves reflecting a new phase of centralised decision-making which, along with his enhanced powers, could show a return to the strongman-style leadership not seen since Deng Xiaoping's rule.

Xi tightened his control over the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through two initiatives announced on Tuesday at the end of the Third Plenum, traditionally a platform for a new leadership to unveil its policy priorities.

One is the new "state security committee" that will allow him to sidestep the government and direct China's domestic and foreign security policies.

The proposed outfit is a coup for Xi, given that former president Jiang Zemin, who helmed China from 1989 till 2002, tried and failed to set one up in the 1990s.

Opposition from other members of the apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) who wanted to be involved in foreign and security policy was a key factor in Jiang's failed attempt.

Analysts say Xi's ability to pull off such a committee in his first year as China's top leader reflects his growing stature and also insatiable hunger for power.

"China has not seen a leader who has allocated so much power to himself since Deng Xiaoping," said Hong Kong-based analyst Willy Lam. "We are seeing a departure from the collective leadership under Hu and Jiang and a return to the strongman politics under Deng. In fact, Xi is looking like a really power-hungry person."

Since taking power, Xi has impressed many as a stronger leader. He has clamped down on ideological debate, fought graft and even made officials criticise themselves publicly to assert his authority.

His aristocratic background as the son of late vice-premier Xi Zhongxun is a key factor for his stronger political clout than his predecessors.

Said University of Chicago analyst Yang Dali: "It's clear now that Xi Jinping is far more established than both Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin."

In setting up the state security committee, Xi is also effectively taking over a key but controversial portfolio.

Former PSC member Zhou Yongkang, who was security czar from 2002 till his retirement last year, grew too powerful for the top leaders' liking and unnerved them with his open support for disgraced Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai as his successor.

Second, Xi has also set up a centrally led group to dictate and perhaps accelerate reforms that are at times ignored by local governments or slowed by China's bloated bureaucracy.

This may not be a bad thing. Shenzhen University public management expert Ma Jingren says the country is in need of a centre-led reform team, like the former committee on economic system reform that operated from the early 1980s until 1998 and later became the current National Development and Reform Commission, a top economic planning agency.

"Over the past three decades, China's approach to reforms was to carry out experiments at a local level and replicate the successful ones across the country," he added, citing as an example the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone launched in 1979 that led China's economic transformation.

"Reforms have also been done according to a piecemeal strategy. If the head hurts, we heal the head. If the feet hurt, we heal the feet. This is not sustainable and the time has come for a more holistic approach."

No details were available on the security committee and reform team, such as their make-up and launch date, though they are likely to be headed by or reporting to Xi.

But Professor Lam believes it will not be smooth sailing for Xi. A strongman leadership, he noted, is less welcome in China's more diverse society these days and amid the public's demands for leaders to face more checks and balances.

"China's experiences have shown that it is dangerous to put so much power in one man without a strong rule of law. There are no counter-prevailing forces and mistakes can happen."


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