February 24, 2017 4:30 pm JST
China up close

Xi wants same status as Mao and Deng

President stays in spotlight even on 20th anniversary of Deng's death

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei commentator

A tribute to late Chinese supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping gives himself no respite, even though he has consolidated considerable power through his signature anti-corruption campaign.

The 63-year-old's thinly veiled ambition now is to go down in the history of the Chinese Communist Party with the likes of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Xi doubles as the ruling party's general secretary.

Mao was the revolutionary leader who led China to communism in the late 1940s; Deng steered the world's most populous country toward "reform and opening-up" in the late 1970s.

Two simultaneous anniversaries

Even on Feb. 19, the 20th anniversary of Deng's death, it was Xi, not Deng, who grabbed China's media spotlight.

There were wreath-laying ceremonies in memory of Deng in some places, including Guang'an, Sichuan Province, where Deng was born, and Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, which is closely associated with his "reform and opening-up" policy.

But in Beijing, there was no high-profile commemorative event. State-run China Central Television's main 7 p.m. news program did not report the anniversary.

Three years ago, however, the country did commemorate the 110th anniversary of Deng's birth. Strange, then, that it would let the 20th anniversary of his death pass with so little mention.

Instead, major Chinese media outlets, including the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the CCP, gave extensive coverage to the first anniversary of Xi's rare media inspection tour.

During those tours -- of the People's Daily, Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television, or CCTV -- Xi demanded that the outlets pledge absolute loyalty to the CCP.

"The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name," Xi was quoted by many outlets as saying.

The "family name" bit did not go down well with many people, even within the CCP.

One year on, major Chinese media outlets made no reference to the controversial slogan but did mention their roles -- including their contributions to realizing Xi's much-touted "Chinese dream of great national renewal."

By celebrating the first anniversary of these inspection tours with fanfare, major Chinese news outlets effectively pledged allegiance to him.

One Chinese media industry source said, "Authorities' stance [regarding the 20th anniversary of Deng's death] was that they are neutral and do not particularly praise him [on that day]."

Chinese authorities, meanwhile, distanced themselves from Deng's death-day anniversary because of what is coming up on the political calendar -- a Politburo Standing Committee reshuffle.

The committee is the party's top decision-making body, and this coming fall most of the current seven members are supposed to step down due to their age. Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, however, will stay on.

It should be noted that unlike his two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi was not designated as Chinese leader by Deng.

The CCP is broadly divided into three groups -- Xi's group, the Communist Youth League faction and Jiang's group. The middle group, which is made up of former officials of the Communist Youth League, has been led by former President Hu and incumbent Premier Li.

Hu still retains influence with the party's massive youth organization.

On Feb. 19, some media outlets affiliated with the Communist Youth League reminisced about the large-scale memorial service held immediately after Deng's death.

Looking back on the memorial service for Deng, one of these outlets reported that Jiang had wiped away tears as many as five times while delivering a eulogy.

The media outlets that on Feb. 19 reported the 20th anniversary of Deng's death are outside the mainstream -- a fact that reflects the fierce power struggle that still rages in the country.

Xi came to power as the CCP's general secretary in the autumn of 2012. He assumed the post of president in the spring of 2013.

Since then, Xi has dealt with Mao and Deng equally.

Deng clearly rejected the horrific 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution -- launched by Mao as part of his power struggle with political foes. But Xi's attitude toward the 10-year catastrophe remains unclear.

Soon after becoming China's top leader, Xi said, "The 30-year historical period after reform and opening-up cannot be used to deny the 30-year historical period before reform and opening-up."

He was referring to the Mao era.

Xi's remarks about this era sparked controversy. Some people took the words as an affirmation of the Cultural Revolution. But they have also earned Xi strong support from leftists.

Xi has been using his sweeping anti-corruption campaign to fight his own foes and consolidate power. He launched it based on lessons he learned from a previous power struggle that ensnared his father, Xi Zhongxun.

The elder Xi never tried to play his cards to maximum effect. The younger Xi is now using his father's fall from grace as motivation; he intends to beat his political foes.

One person familiar with the Xi family once said, "The elder Xi is a person whom the younger Xi admires but at the same time a person who serves as an example of how not to behave.

"While admiring his father's honest way of life, Xi Jinping has also learned a big lesson from his father: If he is just honest, he will end up defeated in any power struggle."

Xi Zhongxun's dark days

The Xi family has stayed tight-lipped about one episode involving Xi Zhongxun and Deng.

Xi Zhongxun was living in Fujian Province in the 1990s to receive medical treatment after being effectively purged. He was heartbroken after being forced to retire from politics. The Communist Party elder had previously served as Chinese vice premier and a Politburo member.

Xi Jinping also served stints in Fujian, for nearly 17 years, before beginning to rapidly rise through the ranks.

In the 1990s, old party cadres and friends of Xi Zhongxun visited him in Xiamen, a big port city with a warm climate beside the Taiwan Strait. Xi Zhongxun's mental and physical conditions had greatly deteriorated.

One old party cadre nostalgically recalled a chat with the elder Xi in Xiamen. "Xi Zhongxun was a very unique figure in the Communist Party," the cadre said. "Once he decided on something, he always stood by his guns. He was really stubborn. His defiance of Deng testifies to his stubbornness."

But Xi Zhongxun was miserable in Xiamen. According to the cadre, the elder Xi suddenly began to speak incoherently, especially about the tumultuous years before and after the founding of the People's Republic of China, in 1949, while politely greeting the visitor from afar.

What happened between late 1986 and early 1987 eventually led to the ouster of Xi Zhongxun from China's political world.

In 1986, Hu Yaobang, then general secretary of the Communist Party, was facing a barrage of criticism from conservative leftists who thought nationwide pro-democracy protests by students were being handled with kid gloves.

Hu Yaobang was a leading reformist boldly pushing ahead with economic liberalization and widely seen as a rightist.

Alarmed by the leftists' accusations toward Hu Yaobang, Deng, the then Chinese supreme leader, finally decided to dismiss him. But as a matter of form, Deng still needed to get consent from others in the leadership.

Xi Zhongxun, who was then serving as a Politburo member, was dead-set against dismissing Hu Yaobang as the CCP's general secretary.

At the time, he said, "This way of doing things is never acceptable. Did they forget lessons from the class struggle of the Mao era, which caused heavy casualties?"

The elder Xi even stayed at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for a week at the beginning of 1987 to protest the dismissal.

But Deng had already made up his mind, and Hu's dismissal was just a formality away. Many party cadres jumped on the bandwagon. But Xi Zhongxun continued to resist.

Xi Zhongxun tried to protect his embattled political ally with whom he had built up trust over the years.

Xi Zhongxun even indirectly told Deng, "If you insist on dismissing Hu Yaobang, let me step into his shoes." Deng was already a god-like being in China at the time, and the elder Xi was demanding something impossible.

Xi Zhongxun's vehement resistance effectively delayed the enlarged Politburo meeting that dismissed Hu Yaobang. On Jan. 16, 1987, Hu formally got the boot. More than a quarter-century after his death, in April 1989, Hu Yaobang is still revered by many people in China for his liberal stance.

Decades earlier, after becoming embroiled in a political battle involving Mao, Xi Zhongxun had also been purged. At the time, Xi Jinping was 9. The elder Xi's full rehabilitation came when the younger Xi was in his mid-20s.

After making a political comeback in 1978, Xi Zhongxun held leadership roles in Guangdong and moved ahead with the policy of "reform and opening-up" initiated by Deng.

The elder Xi was promoted to the Politburo in 1982. He joined hands with Hu Yaobang and then Premier Zhao Ziyang to promote China's reform and opening-up.

In addition to objecting to Hu's 1987 dismissal as party general secretary, the elder Xi also purportedly showed sympathy toward the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989 -- triggered by Hu's surprise death.

Zhao Ziyang took over from Hu Yaobang as party general secretary but at the behest of Deng was also purged ... in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests, which ended in a military crackdown and bloodshed.

After Hu's dismissal, Xi Zhongxun collapsed, partly due to the fatigue that set in as he battled to protect his political ally. The elder Xi was not reappointed as a Politburo member in the wake of his revolt against Deng.

The heartbroken Communist Party elder spent a long time under medical treatment in Fujian. He also suffered from mental illness and eventually passed away in May 2002 -- before his son's rapid rise began.

Myth of Xi Jinping?

Mao was the founding father of the People's Republic of China, while Deng was the architect of China's reform and opening-up, which paved the way for the country's rapid economic development. China is now the world's second-largest economy, after the U.S.

Even today the myths of Mao and Deng thrive, even wrapping themselves around Jiang and Hu Jintao, both of whom were anointed by Deng.

Xi Jinping, meanwhile, must create a new myth, about himself, and cement his grip on power. His relentless anti-corruption crusade is crucial to this goal.

In this pursuit, Xi has no choice but to completely route his political foes. If the history of the CCP is a guide, any sign of weakness can and will be exploited.

Under the constitution, a Chinese president can serve up to two five-year terms, meaning Xi must give up the presidency in 2023.

There are no term limits on the CCP's general secretary, but Xi's two immediate predecessors, Jiang and Hu Jintao, relinquished both the top party and government posts almost simultaneously.

If Xi were to relinquish the top party post in 2022 and then the top government post in 2023, he could open himself up to any of his remaining political foes.

Xi will have to continue to push himself hard if he is to realize his ambition to go down in the history of the CCP as the third great and legendary leader who led China to a "resurgence."

Xi is now in a much stronger political position than he was only several months ago.

At the sixth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party, held in late October, Xi was named the "core" of the party. The term "core" connotes that all other party leaders are peripheral.

Despite having won this status, Xi cannot afford to let his guard down. If he lacks meticulousness, he could quickly lose his authority.

The tug-of-war between Xi and his political foes is expected to further intensify come fall, when the CCP reshuffles its leadership at the national congress.

Filling out the new team will be only one step -- albeit a highly significant one -- in Xi's drive to establish himself as one of China's greats, on par with Mao and Deng.

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