February 25, 2017 4:55 am JST

For Chinese diplomats, loyalty to Xi trumps all

Foreign minister almost skipped G-20 gathering for 'party discipline' workshop

OKI NAGAI, Nikkei staff writer

BEIJING -- Even as the Group of 20 foreign ministers' meeting last week drew much fanfare as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's international conference debut, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi almost stayed home to prove his loyalty to President Xi Jinping -- "core" leader of China's Communist Party.

Officials from the Japanese ruling coalition and the Chinese Communist Party usually make annual visits to each other's countries. This year, a Chinese representative was scheduled to go to Japan in February. But a member of the party's international liaison department had requested that the trip be postponed while in Japan in mid-January.

Asked why, the official said department chief Song Tao would be busy because of an important party meeting but could not go into further detail. The Chinese side was extremely courteous and repeatedly explained that it was not trying to snub Japan.

Some in Tokyo worried that this was a response to the recent name change by Japan's quasi-official channel for relations with Taiwan, a step that had drawn Beijing's ire. But the Chinese did not seem to be lying when they said they were preparing for an important meeting. Japanese officials scrambled to learn more about the mystery gathering, but information was scant.

Around the same time, Germany received informal notice that Wang likely would not attend the two-day G-20 ministerial meeting there starting Feb. 16. Beijing insisted that this was not yet final. Yet it made plans to send Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong instead, also citing an important meeting at home.

For China, the G-20 is a key forum where it can stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. Wang was expected to explain to Tillerson at the event Beijing's position on the "One China" policy, which U.S. President Donald Trump had initially questioned. Many foreign policy experts were left scratching their heads over his potential absence.

But things changed shortly before the G-20 gathering. Trump told Xi by phone on Feb. 10 that he would honor the One China policy. With Beijing's biggest cause for concern removed, opinion within the Chinese government grew in favor of taking the opportunity to build ties with the Trump administration. Wang ultimately flew to Germany for the G-20 meeting after all.

Observers outside China finally discovered what the important domestic meeting was about on Feb. 13, when the state's Xinhua News Agency reported that ministerial officials attended a workshop to discuss key documents approved by a party plenum last October.

Attendees engaged in four days of in-depth discussions on internal party discipline. This is an overarching concern for Xi, who has pushed political foes aside and consolidated power through a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. Premier Li Keqiang presided over the opening session attended by all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body.

The center must hold

Leading party members must protect the party's central authority and internal unity, Xi stressed in a speech. Xinhua warned in another article that neglecting politics is the gravest reason for a top official to become corrupt. It said that many had ignored the party's central authority at one time, causing serious concern.

The article finally provided an answer as to why Chinese officials seemed so preoccupied with the meeting: Their absence would have placed their loyalty to Xi in question.

Wang is believed to be in the running to join the State Council at the party congress this fall, a promotion that would put him on rank with vice premiers. Song, the international liaison department chief, is said to be a candidate to succeed Wang as foreign minister. Without an exceptionally important reason, skipping the meeting was not an option. Even the G-20 was not cause enough without the party leadership's express permission.

Wang has pledged to make every effort in diplomacy this year toward the success of the party congress. As Beijing increasingly looks inward ahead of its leadership reshuffle, he may decline offers for a one-on-one with Tillerson for another similar workshop.

"It will be harder than usual to schedule things with China this year," a diplomatic source said.

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