March 7, 2017 12:30 pm JST

Knives out for party power struggle in Beijing

Parliamentary session to provide a glimpse into party infighting

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Premier Li Keqiang attend the annual session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 3. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BEIJING -- The annual session of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, kicked off in Beijing on March 5 amid rising political tensions ahead of a party leadership reshuffle later this year.

The Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body, is to be shaken up at the national congress this autumn. Most of the seven committee members are getting on in years and expected to retire, while President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang will almost certainly stay on.

The congress, a five-yearly affair, will make 2017 a politically sensitive year for China.

The annual session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the country's top political advisory body, also got under way at the Great Hall of the People on March 3.

Tensions appeared to be running high on the opening day.

An army of militia in brand-new uniforms were deployed on the streets of Beijing. Red fire extinguishers were also clearly visible throughout the city. People were frisked at five different checkpoints before being allowed into the Great Hall of the People.

Black-clad staff meticulously checked President Xi's seat in the central part of the hall right up until the conference started.

Amid seemingly incessant power struggles among the various factions within the party, President Xi, who doubles as general secretary, has used his anti-corruption campaign to consolidate power ever since his inauguration.

The particularly tight security reflects concerns about a potential threat to Xi's physical safety. It also serves as a fresh reminder that numerous people have fallen victim to his anti-graft crusade.

On the opening day, Premier Li unveiled an economic growth target of around 6.5% for 2017 -- lower than the 2016 target of 6.5-7% and prompted by the current economic slowdown

Despite its importance, the target will be of little concern to many China watchers; more attention is now focused on the political strife playing out behind the scenes.

One point of particular interest is the establishment of the "national supervisory commission," a new tool in Xi's anti-corruption arsenal. The body will be set up next year as an "independent" organization to crack down on anyone found guilty of graft, whether or not they are party members.

How the commission will take shape relates closely to leadership personnel changes.

Despite having already reached the unofficial party retirement age of 68, Wang Qishan, a close ally of Xi's, is seen as the most likely candidate to head the new organization. He has already spearheaded the campaign as head of the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Premier Li is supposed to be China's economic czar and play a leading role in the annual session of the National People's Congress. But he has actually been deprived of any authority over economic policy.

The newly appointed economy-related cabinet members are all former trusted lieutenants of the president. They include He Lifeng, as chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, and Zhong Shan, the commerce minister.

Zhong was vice governor of Zhejiang when Xi was serving as party chief in the province. The president and He go back even further, the latter having been a subordinate when Xi was deputy mayor of Xiamen in Fujian Province in his 30s. 

Zhong will be in charge of economic negotiations with U.S. President Donald Trump's administration.

Xi's "Zhejiang faction" and "Fujian faction" are now rapidly gaining ground, with many unusual promotions being handed out.

Close attention should also be paid to the figure cut by Premier Li during the session while surrounded by Xi loyalists.

Another point to consider will be how potential future candidates for top job will behave, such as Hu Chunhua, Sun Zhengcai and Chen Min'er.

Hu is party chief in Guangdong Province and a promising new-generation leader of the faction which comprises former officials of the Communist Youth League.

The faction was in the past led by former President Hu Jintao and is now under the stewardship of Premier Li.

Sun, party chief in the key city of Chongqing, is widely seen as Hu Chunhua's biggest rival in the succession race, whereas Chen, party chief in Guizhou Province, has emerged as a dark-horse.

Chen was Zhejiang's top propaganda official and Xi's speech writer during the latter's time in the province.

What will be interesting is how these next-generation leaders field questions from foreign journalists during the congress in the fall.

Before taking the presidency in 2013, Xi had come to power as general secretary at the party's last national congress in late 2012.

The preceding annual session of the National People's Congress that spring marked the prelude to the scrap that eventually led to him taking the reins of party and government.

At the time, Bo Xilai, then-Chongqing party chief and a rival to Xi, got caught up in a scandal that led to his downfall.

One of Bo's henchmen broke ranks and sought refuge at a U.S. consulate general in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, while Bo's wife was detained on suspicion of killing a British businessman.

When asked by reporters about his possible resignation, Bo described the charges against him as "fabricated." Then-Premier Wen Jiabao, however, put the final nail in Bo's political coffin by warning against a repeat of the disastrous Cultural Revolution.

The 1966-1976 revolution was launched by Mao Zedong in an attempt to secure power. Bo was a flamboyant politician known for his pro-Mao rhetoric. A day after Wen's apparent rebuke at a news conference, Bo was dismissed. He was eventually sentenced to life in prison.

Shortly after the 2012 session of the congress ended, the son of Ling Jihua, a close aide to former President Hu, was killed in a crash while driving his Ferrari.

Ling saw the scandal as an obstacle to promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee and fell from grace after trying to cover up the accident. He was also sent to prison for life.

The Communist Youth League faction, of which Ling was a key member, then suffered a serious political setback in personnel changes at the party's 2012 national congress.

In a significant political victory, President Xi won the status of "core" of the party last autumn. The title means that Xi is different from other party leaders and plays first fiddle.

But the president still sees the need to further consolidate power as he faces a behind-the-scenes tug of war similar to the one that played out five years ago. 

He also desperately wants to achieve results on the diplomatic front to enhance prestige in the run-up to the congress.

The National People's Congress is often dubbed a rubber-stamp parliament that simply confirms decisions made by the party. Still, its current 11-day session will provide a glimpse into the party's internal power struggles before it wraps up on March 15.

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