ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
XI JINPING TIGHTENS HIS GRIP ON THE COMMUNIST PARTY AHEAD OF THE KEY NOVEMBER LEADERSHIP CONGRESS
Since taking over in 2012, Xi has purged more highranked officials than any other leader since Mao
DRESSED IN ARMY FATIGUES AND A PEOPLE’S Liberation Army (PLA) cap, Xi Jinping emerged out of the dust in a military jeep. Gathered in front of him on the windswept plains of Zhurihe, Asia’s biggest military base that sits in northern China’s Inner Mongolia region, were 12,000 elite combat troops of the PLA. As Xi’s jeep approached, the troops yelled, “Hail to you, chairman!” “You’ve worked hard, comrades,” Xi responded. The troops continued, “Follow the Party! Fight to win!”
The show of strength on July 30, to mark the 90th anniversary of the PLA, was much more than a military parade. With China for the first time displaying a range of new hardware, including its fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighter, it was a loud message for its neighbours. In recent weeks, the PLA has issued a number of warnings to India amid the standoff at the Doklam plateau near the India-China-Bhutan trijunction, while China’s military strategists have also been nervously looking east at the sabrerattling between North Korea and the United States.
But beyond the signalling overseas, Beijing insiders say the real message of the parade was, in fact, aimed at a domestic audience. In November, China’s ruling Communist Party will host a once-in-five-years leadership meet. The 19th CPC National Congress will choose the next politburo and central committee for Xi’s second five-year term. As rival groups jockey to instal their favoured candidates and promote their patronage networks in the party, Xi is saying clearly that “the PLA is with him”, says one party academic. As the official Xinhua news agency put it in a widely-circulated commentary, “Late leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping also inspected troops in the field at key moments in history.” Left unsaid was the fact that Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, did not. The message ahead of the 19th party congress is that Xi is in command.
FIRING THE FIRST SHOT
How has Xi managed this power grab? Two key events before the parade have underlined how he has tightened the grip over the party, and positioned himself advantageously as a new party leadership takes shape ahead of his second five-year term. First, on July 15, two weeks ahead of the PLA parade, Xi removed a key figure in the next generation of the leadership. Sun Zhengcai, seen as one of two favourites to succeed Xi in 2022, was placed under investigation for “violating party discipline”. In his place in Chongqing, a key municipality that is represented in the politburo, Xi appointed his long-time protege and the other next-generation candidate, Guizhou party secretary Chen Min’er. Then, on July 26, Xi summoned all the provincial party leaders to Beijing for a ‘workshop’ on the 19th congress.
With these moves, Xi “has sent a powerful signal”, says Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, who points out that before Sun’s removal, only three other serving politburo members have been similarly removed. “If you look at the leadership changes in several provinces,” adds Bo Zhiyue, a leading expert on Chinese politics at the Bo Zhiyue China Institute, “there is already
The five provincial units in the politburo are all headed by Xi's associates
a strong sign that the next politburo will have a Xi Jinping flavour. Besides Chongqing, leaders elsewhere are now in key positions because of their connections to Xi,” he says. The five provincial units represented in the politburo—Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing and Xinjiang—are all now being headed by Xi associates.
TIGHTENING HIS GRIP
The defining campaign of Xi’s first fiveyear term was a sweeping anticorruption crackdown, targeting the party’s ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’, referring to top officials and lowerranking cadre. For Xi, the campaign served two goals. It eliminated rival power centres, and to some extent succeeded in assuaging public anger against the rampant graft in officialdom. On taking over in November 2012, Xi identified corruption as the biggest threat to the party’s legitimacy. Since then, he has purged more highranked officials than any other leader since Mao. Among those were Zhou Yongkang, the former security czar; Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing party boss; and, for the first time, two topranking PLA generals—Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong. The campaign also enabled him to tighten his grip over the party. As Xi put it at the July 26 workshop, the corruption fight had “gained crushing momentum”. He called for “unswerving adherence” to the party leadership.
The two other major reforms in his fiveyear term were the massive overhaul of the PLA—more departments are now directly under the Central Military Commission, which Xi heads—and changes in government, where he has concentrated more administrative power in the hands of the party, at the expense of the government, whose functioning generally has more oversight. This has reversed a twodecadelong shift that saw a somewhat diminished role for party bodies. Xi has done so by setting up secretive ‘leading small groups’ (LSGs) that now decide policy on everything, from national security to economic reforms (see graphic: The Party Nerve Centre). Qiao Mu, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said in an earlier interview that this has further concentrated power and led to greater opacity. Even the composition of some LSGs is not known. In the past, economic affairs was under the premier who heads the state council or cabinet, but now decisionmaking is by the president. Xi heads the LSG for ‘comprehensively deepening reform’, now the most important body in setting policy, as well as those for defence and internet security. Unconfirmed reports say Xi even heads an LSG on South China Sea matters, underlining how he is now dictating policy directly.
DEALING WITH A NEW CHINA
This has ramifications for foreign policy. Xi has taken more direct control, and experts say this means a stronger stand on issues such as territorial disputes. For instance, Xi has ‘personally made decisions’ to expand China’s control over the South China Sea, reported one influential Beijing newspaper, Study Times, on July 21. It said Xi had ‘personally steered a series of measures’, such as contro
versial island-building moves that have seen China fortify contested reefs and instal infrastructure, including military equipment. Study Times said, Xi ‘personally made decisions on building islands and consolidating the reefs, and setting up the city of Sansha, which fundamentally changed the strategic situation of the South China Sea’.
The editorial didn’t refer to the Doklam standoff—and whether or not Xi might have had a say in the road-building there that triggered the dispute—but it did add that while China ‘faces tremendous risks of being surrounded by tigers and wolves and suffering even more intense strategic encirclement, clashes and meddling’, under Xi, ‘the lion of the east has woken’. Steve Tsang, of SOAS, says that Xi’s political power play may be tied to the unprecedented reaction by China to Doklam, with near-daily statements aimed at India and invocations on the ‘lessons of history’. “Xi cannot appear to be weak in the run-up to the 19th congress and therefore will not take action that may present him as such,” he says. “He is unlikely to soften China’s approach to border issues with India or, for that matter, with any of China’s neighbours.”
The overwhelming focus now is on the 19th party congress, says Bo Zhiyue. Xi’s priority in his second term will be pushing long-pending reforms that he himself had signed off on but has failed to implement, showing there are limits to even his power. This includes an ambitious 60-reform blueprint for the economy as it deals with slowing growth, excess capacity and vast state-owned enterprises that are resisting change. “We have not seen much progress in any of these areas,” says Bo. “Change in China is very incremental, so sometimes it takes a long time to see the clear trajectories of reform.” The first step, for Xi, is ensuring his men are in place (there are few women in the party’s upper hierarchy) before the congress convenes. So far, signs are he has all but ensured that, come November, there will only be one tiger on the mountain.
HAIL THE CHAIRMAN
President Xi Jinping inspects a military parade in Zhurihe, July 30