Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.
TOKYO -- Dan Brown's fictional professor Robert Langdon cracks secret code after secret code in the bestselling novel "The Da Vinci Code" until finally arriving at the biggest secret of all -- that the last descendant of Jesus Christ is standing before him.
China, too, has a grandiose story about a code, The "Xi Jinping Code."
The numbers to dissect are 8341 and 2035.
They hold the key to understanding the country's internal power struggles and even international politics.
With a big Chinese Communist Party meeting -- the fifth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee -- about to conclude, and with all eyes focused on decisions related to Xi's status beyond 2022, now is a good time to revisit the riddle.
Where to start?
An elderly party member once told this reporter that the key to solving the Xi Jinping Code goes through Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China.
"President Xi Jinping is more conscious of Mao Zedong than we think," the source said. "Link the two leaders' 'codes' and various mysteries might be solved."
The figure 8341 is associated with Mao, and anyone interested in Chinese politics has come across it at least once. The other number, 2035, was a central topic of the fifth plenum. It is the target year for China's ultra-long-term economic outlook.
8341 was the code name given by Mao to the Central Guard Regiment, a unit responsible for guarding and protecting top party leaders.
As if to be guided by this code, Mao died at 83 in the traditional Chinese age system (82 by modern counts), 41 years after assuming a leadership role in the Communist Party and its military, in 1935.
The number goes back to the famous Zunyi Conference, held in Guizhou Province during the Long March of 1934-1936.
Whether Mao had predicted how old he would be when he died and the duration of his glorious status as leader and thus chose 8341 as the unit name is a mystery readers can enjoy speculating about. Party-affiliated media outlets have been discussing this possibility in all seriousness for years.
After Mao died on Sept. 9, 1976, the number 8341 lived on. In 1993, when China launched a satellite on the 100th anniversary of Mao's birth, a special gold medal with an "8341" inscription was placed inside the vessel.
One theory holds that a grandmaster of Taoism bestowed the mysterious number to Mao before the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. Furthermore, it is said that the figure who stood by Mao during that historic encounter later became commander of Unit 8341.
Another theory holds that 8341 was the serial number on Mao's favorite infantry gun when he was young. If true, it fits that Mao would name the security detail after it. After all, one of his most famous lines was: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."
While Mao famously banned fortunetelling and superstition in puritan, communist China after the 1949 revolution, the mystery surrounding 8341 is intriguing.
And the myth about Mao is apparently having an impact on Chinese politics under Xi.
Why did Xi begin to use the number 2035? It made its first appearance three years ago, when the number was embedded in a speech he delivered at the party's last national congress.
There, he declared that China "will basically realize socialist modernization by 2035," which in communist terminology means overtaking the U.S. to become the world's No. 1 economy.
It was an important announcement because it meant China had brought forward its modernization target, which had been around 2049, the 100th anniversary of communist China's founding.
The ambitious 2035 target was not explained widely at the time. Due to intensifying trade frictions with the Trump administration, China kept its mouth shut so as not to further provoke the U.S. president.
The situation has now changed.
This week, Li Junru, former vice president of the Party School of the Communist Party, told Chinese state media in no uncertain terms that the goal of modernization that former leader Deng Xiaoping set in the 1980s as 2050 can be brought forward.
Citing the fact that China became the world's No. 2 economy in 2010, Li said, "This allows us to now have a very good foundation for the basic realization of modernization proposed by Deng Xiaoping 15 years ahead of schedule."
Regarding the fifth plenum, where a new unconventional 15-year plan is being hatched, Li called it "a major turning point" for China on its path to modernization.
With surprising clarity and conviction, Li said the new five-year plan for 2021-2025 being set now "should be comprehensively considered as part of the 15-year plan."
The main focus, therefore, is 2035. It means that the Xi Jinping era will ultimately be evaluated over whether China can truly catch up with and overtake the U.S. in 15 years' time. For Xi, the 2035 target must be achieved at any cost.
In 2035, Xi will turn 83 (82 by modern counts), the same age as Mao in the year of his death.
Ahead of the fifth plenum, Xi's close aides have started to float bullish takes on how many more years the leader may stay in power.
The question is no longer whether Xi will remain for another five years (from 2022 to 2027), the aides say, but whether he will stay in power for the next 10 (from 2022 to 2032).
From this perspective, the U.S. presidential election next week and who might emerge victorious is no big deal to Xi.
In an extended reign through 2032, Xi would witness three more U.S. presidential elections.
Just by coincidence, Mao's 8341 Special Regiment was formally inaugurated in June 1953. Xi Jinping was born the same month.
If the mysterious number 8341 symbolizes Mao, China's "eternal top leader" who never fell from power during his life, the number 2035 is the "Xi Jinping Code" that is modeled after 8341. It symbolizes Xi's determination for an ultra-long-term reign and China's target of overtaking the U.S. economically by that year.
Of course, this could be reading too much into symbolism, and 2035 is merely the halfway point between 2017 and 2049.
But professor Robert Langdon would probably link 2035 and 8341 to tell a different story.
A series of documents will be released after the fifth plenary session closes on Thursday. Thinking about the codes of Mao and Xi will help readers better understand what the documents mean.