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Global Perspective: Xi's common prosperity agenda faces high hurdle of redistribution

Copies of the book "The Governance of China" by Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen on display in a bookstore at a commercial plaza at the Winter Olympic Village in Beijing, on Friday, Dec. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

By Akio Takahara, Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy, The University of Tokyo

    The end of the year is fast approaching. Miraculously, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Japan is decreasing although the cause of the decline is unclear. Around the world, the disease remains very active and now the new omicron variant is emerging, making many people feel uneasy. In the case of the Spanish flu 100 years ago, it took about three years for the pandemic to end. Even with the progress of human science since then, beating the invisible enemy is no easy task.

    In the midst of the current pandemic, Japan made great sacrifices to host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, for which the world expressed its admiration and gratitude. I would like to express my deepest respect for the efforts of the people involved. Now the Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics are to be held in February and March next year. China, which continues to pursue a zero-COVID policy, has already put the country on high alert and restricted the movement of people. We can only hope that the games will be held with no major trouble.

    In China, the political season has arrived as the country prepares for next year's party congress. General Secretary Xi Jinping held a Ceremony Marking the Centenary of the Communist Party of China in Tiananmen Square in July, wearing the same gray Zhongshan uniform as the portrait of Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People's Republic of China, that hangs on Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace. This fall, he adopted a historical resolution recounting the past 100 years of the party's history, devoting more than half of the document to his nine years of rule in an effort to bolster his authority.

    Mr. Xi is reversing the trend of institutionalizing the governance of the Chinese Communist Party and government, which had gradually been established since the 1980s. During the reign of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, the bureaucratic system was developed and, in some ways, perfected.

    For example, a strict personnel evaluation system was introduced for the promotion and hiring of cadres, and a system of indexing governance performance, workplace voting, and written examinations was put in place. The pyramid of nomenclature, so to speak, was neatly visualized -- the party's central committee was set to be formed by the heads of the party and government departments reporting directly to the politburo and the State Council, the secretaries of provincial party committees and the heads of the provinces, the members of the central military commission, the commanders and political commissars of the military regions, and the heads of some large state-owned enterprises. Before the party congress, a system was even introduced to have the central committee members vote on who would be the next members of the politburo, which sets policies and runs the party.

    However, once Xi Jinping took office as general secretary, the system of recruiting cadres based solely on their votes and examination scores was corrected. The popular vote system in selecting next politburo members was dropped. There were also heavy-handed appointments, such as the elevation of Cai Qi, Xi's former subordinate in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, to the post of secretary of the Beijing Municipal Party Committee, even though he was not a member of the central committee. Just as Mao Zedong disliked bureaucratic rule, Xi has been taking steps to "destroy the bureaucracy" on the pretext of strengthening the party's leadership. As a result, the predictability of his appointments has been significantly reduced.

    It is likely that Mr. Xi will continue to hold the top party position at next year's party congress. Will the old party chairmanship be revived, or will a more daring system of electing the top leader by a vote of all party members be introduced, or will the current general secretary system and collective leadership system be maintained? There seems to be a lot of internal debate, but it is unclear at this point what kind of conclusion will be reached.

    Five years ago, in 2016, the pros and cons of reviving the party chairmanship were discussed at the Beidaihe conference of top party leaders in the summer, and in the fall, Mr. Xi was conferred the title of "core of the party's central leadership." At the party congress the following year, "Xi Jinping Thought" was written into the party constitution as a guideline for action. In addition, all other politburo members were obliged to report to him on their annual work, and it is a well-known fact that the concentration of authority and power in the hands of Mr. Xi has progressed.

    But what is "Xi Jinping Thought"? Although it is adorned with many words, it is difficult to succinctly describe what its essence is. In contrast, the core messages were clear in previous additions to the party's action guidelines , like Deng Xiaoping's "development is the firm principle," Jiang Zemin's "three represents," and Hu Jintao's "balanced development."

    But in August of this year, Mr. Xi raised the banner of realizing common prosperity. "Since the 18th Party Congress in 2012," when he became general secretary, Mr. Xi stated, "the party's center has firmly understood the new changes in the stage of development and has placed greater importance on gradually realizing the common prosperity of all the people." Upon hearing this statement, one feels that history has been rewritten again. In any case, it seems that Mr. Xi has decided to make the realization of common prosperity the centerpiece of his governing goals, as he also called for solidifying the foundation of the party's long-term stewardship through this slogan.

    This agenda is in line with the goals of the new administrations in Japan and the United States. The Kishida Cabinet touts growth and distribution, while the Biden administration advocates diplomacy for the middle class. The fact that the governments of these countries have similar goals can only be attributed to the fact that they share the same understanding of the problems of our times.

    Mr. Xi says that in some countries growing income inequality and the thinning of the middle class brought about social divisions and a flood of populism, which offer a serious lesson for China. He acknowledged that while the scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation are driving economic development in China, they are also seriously affecting employment and income distribution, and effective measures are needed.

    As a "third way of distribution" Mr. Xi referred to donations, and this move was effective in encouraging some founders of major IT companies and others to engage in charity one after another. However, redistributive policies such as taxation and social security are still important to correct income inequality. Mr. Xi did mention them. However, as for property taxes, he stopped at saying he would carry out experiments (experiments have already been going on), did not mention the introduction of an inheritance tax at all, and was less than enthusiastic about social security, saying that the government cannot undertake everything.

    The realization of common prosperity entails the deprivation of vested interests. The middle class, who have finally been able to own their own homes for the first time since the 1990s, also have vested interests. As the growth rate continues to slow down, will the Xi administration be able to carry out the distribution system reforms that the previous governments of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao failed to implement? This will be a test of the governing power of his long-term administration.

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