January 14, 2017 3:00 pm JST
China up close

Power-hungry Xi Jinping's newfound 'magic wand'

President dreams up new state institution to crack down on corruption

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection in Beijing on Jan. 6 (Xinhua/Kyodo photo).

TOKYO -- China's move to establish a new state institution as part of President Xi Jinping's signature anti-corruption campaign is expected to help him retain his right-hand man and further consolidate power.

"Ostensibly, the national supervisory commission is to become an institution that is independent of the Communist Party and cracks down on corruption," one Beijing-based researcher said. "But in reality, it will become Xi's magic wand ahead of top-level leadership changes this autumn."

The researcher, who is well-versed in issues related to Chinese government and ruling party organizations, also said the institution's future is now a main topic of discussion in Chinese political circles.

The national supervisory commission is to be set up in 2018; its details remain shrouded in mystery.

The Chinese Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection wrapped up an annual plenary session on Jan. 8. It adopted a communique vowing to push the enactment of a national supervision law and make preparations for the establishment of the new institution.

The current administrative supervision law is to be abolished and replaced by the national supervision law, which will target all those in public office.

The Ministry of Supervision, which answers to the State Council, China's cabinet, is also to be disbanded.

Li Shulei, a prominent 52-year-old policy adviser to Xi, was promoted to deputy chief of the discipline commission during the commission's recent plenary session.

Li is believed to be closely involved in efforts to work out details of the national supervisory commission. He is also tipped as a candidate to join the Politburo.

A year ago, Xi advocated the creation of a new supervision system that would cover all state organizations and civil servants. The CCP has been considering such a system behind the scenes.

The new institution will reportedly be granted powers to clamp down on all corrupt people in public office, including workers at state-owned enterprises as well as CCP members, civil servants, "people's representatives," prosecutors and judges.

Xi came to power as the CCP's general secretary at the party's last national congress, in the autumn of 2012. He assumed the post of Chinese president the following spring.

Since taking the country's helm, Xi has been using his sweeping anti-corruption campaign to take down political foes and consolidate power.

Wang Qishan, Xi's most trusted ally, has spearheaded the crackdown as head of the discipline commission, the party's top anti-graft body.

In China, even the national government plays second fiddle to the CCP.

As a result, the commission has wielded unrivaled investigative powers. It secretly sets its sights on targets before cracking down on them. Judicial proceedings by the state follow.

As many as 1.2 million senior officials at both the national and local levels so far have been punished in Xi's anti-corruption crusade.

Some suspects have even lost their lives while being harshly interrogated by the discipline commission. This has raised concerns -- yes, even in China -- over the CCP taking the law into its own hands.

Furthermore, party members lose everything, ranging from their social status to their wealth, if they fall victim to the commission's crackdown.

There is a fundamental contradiction here over the roles of the party and the national government.

The question is whether the national supervisory commission will work as a truly independent organization.

"It will be difficult for the new institution to maintain its independence," said a skeptical researcher who is familiar with Chinese administrative organizations. "If it is truly independent, the Communist Party will suffer."

But the national supervisory commission should keep its distance from the national government, the national legislature, courts and prosecutors as well as the party. A failure to do so would raise questions about its ability to bring to justice corrupt officials from the current discipline commission.

No to democratic elections

If the party so chose, democratic elections could be highly effective in fighting corruption. Opposition parties would emerge, and their elected representatives would be motivated to monitor their peers in the CCP.

But the CCP has safeguarded vested interests for many years through one-party authoritarian rule. A democratic national election is something the ruling party could never accept.

The CCP has even clamped down on social movements, including the New Citizens' Movement, for fear of coming under close scrutiny from outsiders.

Under the circumstances, the CCP has come up with the idea of establishing the national supervisory commission as an "independent" entity with "integrated power."

The truth, though, is that Xi has ulterior motives in moving to set up the national supervisory commission.

The sixth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party was held in late October. International attention was focused on the meeting's decision to position Xi as the "core" of the party.

The term "core" bestows even greater power upon Xi by essentially moving other party leaders further to the sidelines.

But party officials had already shifted their attention to a different issue related to the anti-corruption crackdown. The plenary session adopted two documents to step up the fight.

The documents are "The Norms of Political Life in The Party Under Current Conditions" and "The Regulation on Intra-Party Supervision." The CCP adopted them to prepare for the establishment of the national supervisory commission.

In early November -- shortly after the end of the Oct. 24-27 party conference -- China unveiled plans to carry out reforms of the state supervisory system in Beijing, Shanxi Province and Zhejiang Province on a trial basis.

The surprise announcement came from the CCP's General Office, which is headed by Li Zhanshu, a close aide of Xi and a Politburo member. The pilot programs involve the establishment of local supervisory commissions in Beijing, Shanxi and Zhejiang.

Shortly afterward, Wang, 68, and also a Politburo Standing Committee member, conducted an inspection tour of Beijing, Shanxi and Zhejiang.

More interesting is that the selection of Beijing, Shanxi and Zhejiang for the pilot programs was highly political. "It reflects the real aims of setting up the national supervisory commission," said one source who has experience working in Zhejiang.

The selection of Beijing may have come as no surprise to many. It is, after all, China's capital and has a population of more than 20 million.

If the functions of existing relevant authorities in Beijing, such as the supervisory agency, the corruption-prevention agency and the prosecutors' office, are integrated under the new local supervisory commission, the city's success will serve as a model for the national supervisory commission.

In addition, the CCP's crucial quinquennial national congress will be held in Beijing this autumn.

Most interesting of all is the selection of Shanxi and Zhejiang. The former used to be the stronghold of one of President Xi's political foes, while the latter is the home turf of Xi's Zhejiang faction.

Shanxi is the home province of Ling Jihua, a 60-year-old former director of the CCP's General Office who fell victim to Xi's anti-corruption campaign and was sentenced to life in jail. The province was the stronghold of the Shanxi faction, Ling's power base.

Xi belongs to the so-called second red generation, a group of children of revolutionary-era party leaders. Xi's late father, Xi Zhongxun, once served as China's vice premier.

Political forces within the party are broadly divided into three groups -- Xi's faction; the so-called Communist Youth League faction, which has been led by former President Hu Jintao and Premier Li Keqiang; and former President Jiang Zemin's faction.

The Communist Youth League faction comprises former officials of the Communist Youth League, a youth organization run by the CCP that currently boasts nearly 90 million members.

Xi is continuing to put pressure on the Communist Youth League faction, which included the jailed Ling among its members. Ling once served as the right-hand man of 74-year-old former President Hu.

Ling also was once close to Bo Xilai, a 67-year-old former CCP chief in Chongqing who was also sentenced to life in jail after Xi became China's top leader.

When he was still young, Ling was promoted to the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League and moved from rural Shanxi to Beijing.

Ling got the unusual promotion as Bo Yibo, an influential CCP elder, recommended him to party officials. Bo Yibo, the late father of Bo Xilai, was also born in Shanxi.

Shanxi has already seen more than half of its top-level government officials netted in Xi's fierce anti-corruption campaign.

Wang, the graft-buster, conducted an inspection tour of Shanxi and instructed the province to prepare for the establishment of the national supervisory commission. In essence, he issued a warning to those in the province still working behind the scenes to resist Xi's policies.

Assassination attempt rumor

One informed source in Beijing said that after being sent to jail, Ling "has become mentally ill and receives treatment at a hospital affiliated with the armed police."

But another informed source disagreed, saying Ling "is just putting up resistance by pretending to be mentally ill." There is so much chatter, in fact, that it is difficult to determine the truth. One disquieting rumor says the remnants of political forces purged by Wang tried to assassinate Wang while he was in Shanxi.

Meanwhile, Zhejiang is where Xi once served as party chief, the top local post; he is said to have a particularly strong attachment to the province.

The Zhejiang faction comprises Xi's former subordinates in the province. It is rapidly gaining political ground, with many members getting unusual promotions.

The province is also where Xi hosted an annual summit of leaders from the Group of 20 major economies on Sept. 4-5. It was the first G-20 summit in China.

The implementation of the pilot program in Zhejiang will help further strengthen the unity of Xi's faction. It will also serve as a warning to the Shanghai faction, another rival political force led by 90-year-old former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Many members of the Shanghai faction, including Zhou Yongkang, have also fallen victim to Xi's anti-corruption campaign. Zhou is a 74-year-old former Politburo Standing Committee member who was sentenced to life in jail.

Zhejiang is located just south of Shanghai and Jiangsu Province, the two regions where Jiang and Zhou used to wield enormous influence.

Powerful political ammunition

Given the time-consuming process of enacting necessary legislation, the Xi regime will have to race against the clock to set up the national supervisory commission in 2018 as planned.

The secretive CCP will probably work out the details of the new state institution without holding open discussions, as it always does in regard to important issues.

Some critics in China say the Xi regime is preparing to establish the institution just to cover up its failures.

The biggest question is: Who will Xi tap as the body's head?

Wang, an architect of the new institution, has emerged as the most likely candidate despite his age. His knack for bringing crises under control has earned him the nickname "chief of the fire brigade."

The retirement age for Politburo Standing Committee members was set at 68 at the party's 2002 national congress. But only by custom.

Under the unofficial rule, all but Xi and Premier Li Keqiang of the current seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee are to retire at the party's national congress this autumn.

Wang was born in 1948. He will be 69 when the congress convenes. If he is forced into retirement by the custom, Xi's grip on power would seriously suffer.

The national supervisory commission will provide Xi with powerful political ammunition to retain Wang as a Politburo Standing Committee member beyond 2017, some observers in Beijing said.

There is no doubt that Xi is taking advantage of the sweeping reform of the state supervisory system to further cement his hold on the country. 

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