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Whether Chinese President Xi Jinping can secure a longer term than the next five years depends on upcoming political battles, and the anti-corruption campaign will be his tool. (Nikkei montage/Xinhua/Kyodo)
China up close

Analysis: If Xi secures just 5 more years, he loses

The leader can only maintain grip if subordinates feel he'll stay

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He was the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize.

Here is an interesting yardstick of success for Chinese President Xi Jinping at the ruling party's national congress later this year.

"If all he gets is another five-year term as party general secretary, leaving prospects for his ultra-long-term reign unclear, it will, in effect, be a defeat," one Chinese political source whispered recently. His grip on the party will gradually weaken, the person said.

The comment reflects a delicate atmosphere that has lingered for more than two months since the "third resolution on history" was adopted at the sixth plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party's 19th Central Committee in November.

As things stand now, there is only one thing that everybody is sure of: that Xi, who doubles as party general secretary, will not retire at this upcoming national congress. What more he can secure will depend on how his political battles go over the next nine months or so.

If a leader of a democratic country has another five years in office, there is little talk of him or her becoming a lame-duck anytime soon. But this common sense does not apply in China, where everything is decided through a power struggle within the party, of which outsiders know little.

A delicate atmosphere has been lingering since November 2021, when a "third resolution on history" was adopted at the sixth plenary session of the party's 19th Central Committee.   © Xinhua/Kyodo

If people in China begin to feel, deep down, that they may have a different top leader in five years, their attitudes may well change from that moment forward. They may pretend to obey while secretly resisting.

Looking back, former President Hu Jintao began to lose his grip on domestic issues and diplomacy as early as 2008, the year after his second term began at the national congress the autumn before. 

Newly appointed Chongqing secretary Bo Xilai began to run amok, launching a "red song" campaign in Mao Zedong fashion, aiming to tap nationalist sentiment and advance his own political ambitions. Bo is currently serving a life sentence after being purged.

Disobedience toward Hu, who was set to retire a few years later, also affected China's diplomacy toward Japan. China failed to implement an agreement with Japan on gas fields in the East China Sea, a deal reached at Hu's initiative.

The 2008 agreement initially presaged reconciliation between the Asian neighbors. But negotiations on the treaty, which concerned joint development of the gas fields, failed to progress and ran aground.

Bo Xilai stands trial on Sept. 22, 2013. Bo wasted little time emulating Mao Zedong after Hu Jintao became a lame duck.   © Kyodo

All along, China's state-owned energy-related companies, bureaucrats and military officially pretended to toe the line but secretly scoffed, concerned their vested interests would be infringed upon.

If Hu had been set to continue to reign beyond the party's 2012 national congress, he would have been able to bring resistance forces to their knees.

Xi at the time was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body, and his observations seeded his obsession with securing an ultra-long-term reign. If possible, he wants to become the top leader for life. One way to do this is for him to become "party chairman," a post last held by Mao.

But if Xi is to win that title at the upcoming national congress he would need solid achievements on par with Mao's.

The third resolution on history has given Xi momentum to close in on or even overtake former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in terms of status in the party's history. But not all within the party are convinced he has done enough.

Coincidentally, Jan. 18 marked the 30th anniversary of one of Deng's milestones.

On Jan. 18, 1992, Deng embarked on his famous southern tour. He spent about a month inspecting Hubei Province, Guangdong Province and Shanghai, calling for reforms and opening up to be accelerated.

China's economy had been mired in the doldrums since the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in June 1989, due to sanctions by industrialized nations and its own belt-tightening policy. But after Deng's southern tour, China began to move toward a market economy.

Deng Xiaoping greets the leaders of the Shenzhen Special Economic District in January of 1992.   © Kyodo

Thirty years on, with China keen to highlight Xi's new era, there have been no big events to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Deng's southern tour. Openly praising Deng's achievements has become dangerous.

There is a much-talked-about article that reflects China's current delicate political situation. Titled, "Small circles break big rules," the piece was published Friday in Student Times, the Central Party School's newspaper.

"We must resolutely prevent ambitious people and conspirators from stealing party and state power," the article says. "Absolute loyalty to the party is not abstract but concrete, not conditional but unconditional, and is always reflected in the practical actions of defending the 'two establishments' and achieving 'two maintenances.'"

To put it simply, the article calls for protecting the party's Central Committee, with Xi at its core, and his ideology. It also commands absolute loyalty to the party specifically and unconditionally so that those who plot a conspiracy cannot usurp power.

Who is the article referring to when it talks of small circles?

For one, Sun Lijun, a former vice public security minister who was detained for allegedly taking $14 million in bribes, including $300,000 in cash hidden in an assortment of seafood.

An Evergrande project in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, on Jan. 3. Property developers, including China Evergrande Group, make up one of the "interest groups" Xi is said to be targeting.   © AP

Are there conspirators who might have political ambitions like Bo Xilai? That has not been revealed. But it is possible to guess the rough targets from Xi's recent remarks.

At the sixth plenary session in November, Xi vowed to "crack down on party figures who have been absorbed into interest groups, powerful groups and privileged classes."

His full remarks from that November event were not released until January. They are, in effect, a declaration of war on those within the party.

One source familiar with Chinese politics said that the interest groups targeted by Xi include tech giants such as Ant Group, Alibaba Group and Didi, major property developers such as China Evergrande Group and Fantasia Holdings Group, as well as the tutoring school industry.

This cluster of private companies tends to be close to the politicians who pretend to obey Xi but secretly hold grudges; the companies often financially back such political forces.

Among these forces is the Shanghai clan, led by former President Jiang Zemin and his close aide former Vice President Zeng Qinghong.

They maintain strong influence in political and bureaucratic circles that move the economy. Alarmed by them, Xi is now poised to take a tough stance against their two-faced attitudes.

State-run China Central Television broadcast a series of special programs titled "Zero Tolerance [for corruption]," starting in mid-January, highlighting "political security."

The series featured a confession of "many crimes" by Sun Lijun, who as vice public security minister was in a position to control police organizations across the country.

Sun Zhengcai, left, in 2017, and Sun Lijun in 2020. The fates of each serve as cautionary tales in the leadup to the national congress later this year. (Source photos by AP) 

The show touts the anti-corruption campaign as the Xi administration's biggest achievement and warns that the Xi administration will tighten its political stranglehold in the run-up to the national congress.

The successful fight against corruption is about Xi's only achievement. And with the Chinese economy slumping, Xi has no choice but to barrel ahead with his signature campaign to take down enemies.

If the administration succeeds again, Xi will be able to not only secure another five-year term but also have the power to name the new lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee in a way that is favorable to himself.

If people feel Xi will reign as China's top leader for at least another 10 years, or even for life, he can avoid becoming a lame duck.

In the summer of 2017, shortly before the party's last national congress, Sun Zhengcai, then the top official of Chongqing and a Politburo member, was abruptly purged. He had been tipped as the front-runner in the race to someday step into Xi's shoes.

There is a good chance that another influential figure will be purged this year.

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