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Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses a local crowd in Chaozhou, Guangdong Province on Oct.12. (Xinhua via Kyodo)
China up close

Analysis: Xi Jinping pays homage to father with Shenzhen visit

Twice-sidelined Xi Zhongxun taught China's current leader the price of defeat

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

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 -- If there is one thing Chinese President Xi Jinping learned from his father, it is that one must never lose a political battle.

In 1962, after serving as vice premier and working under Zhou Enlai at the center of power, Xi Zhongxun was accused of being part of an anti-party clique and purged.

The only "crime" the elder Xi committed was to support the publication of a biography of Communist revolutionary leader Liu Zhidan. Xi's rivals, who took issue with references in the book to disgraced political figures, used the manufactured controversy to drag him down.

Xi Zhongxun spent many years on the outside. Only after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 was the elder Xi rehabilitated. He assumed the posts of Guangdong's first secretary and governor. He steered Guangdong toward becoming the "world's factory" and helped develop the city of Shenzhen, now home to tech giants Tencent and Huawei.

In his later years, Xi's father fell from grace again, after vehemently standing up to leader Deng Xiaoping during the nationwide student protests that eventually led to the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

 Xi Jinping assists his father, Xi Zhongxun, who is holding his granddaughter's hand.   © Xinhua/Kyodo

Deng, the paramount leader, had decided to dismiss Hu Yaobang, the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary, for being too soft on the students. Xi Zhongxun, then a Politburo member, dared to put himself in harm's way to oppose the firing.

Xi Zhongxun camped inside Beijing's Great Hall of the People for a week in early 1987, organizing a de facto strike. But it was a fruitless act of resistance.

Hu Yaobang's formal dismissal was only a matter of time. Many party cadres had jumped on the bandwagon, fearing the powerful Deng.

In a desperate bid to protect Hu, Xi Zhongxun made an unrealistic demand of Deng: that in the case of Hu's dismissal, Xi himself be appointed general secretary.

At a significantly delayed gathering of the extended Politburo on Jan. 16, 1987, Hu was formally removed from his post.

One elderly party cadre recalled those days nostalgically. "Xi Zhongxun was a stubborn person," the cadre said. "He defied even Deng Xiaoping!"

A three-volume book which chronicles the life of China's reformist Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 sparked the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, is seen in Hong Kong.   © Reuters

Xi Zhongxun spent his final years in Shenzhen, away from the spotlight.

Reflecting on the history of the Xi family, the party elder added another observation.

"Xi Jinping believes political battles must be won at all costs. His father's life story taught him that lesson, and it has been etched into his mind."

This week the Chinese president is visiting Shenzhen, a city that was crucial to his father's political comeback but also the political oblivion in which Xi Zhongxun spent his final days.

On Wednesday the son attended a ceremony marking the 40th anniversary of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone's establishment.

There is no doubt that his father was on Xi Jinping's mind.

President Xi Jinping, center, and other leaders applaud during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, but there was some political theater involved.   © AP

It was exactly 10 years ago, in October 2010, when Xi, then China's vice president, was given the additional title of vice chairman of the party's powerful Central Military Commission. Taking control of the military is a condition for becoming China's top leader, so it was at this point it became clear Xi was indeed taking over from Hu Jintao as party general secretary and the nation's president.

The decision was taken at the so-called "fifth plenum" -- officially the fifth plenary session of the party's 17th Central Committee.

A decade on and the same meeting is about to be called to order. The four-day fifth plenary session of the party's 19th Central Committee gets underway on Oct. 26.

But instead of paving the way for a successor, Xi is expected to further cement his position.

Under a system that had continued through the Hu Jintao era, presidents were limited to two five-year terms. The post of president was linked to that of party general secretary, the party's top post. Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, both stepped down as Chinese president and party chief after 10 years.

After Xi succeeded in revising the party constitution to abolish term limits, it is unclear how or when the positions of president, party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission will be handed down.

One path Xi's close aides envision is another revision to the party constitution that would make the party's top leadership post a lifetime position. Restoring the post of party chairman, not used since Mao, is another option.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, center, and other top leaders attend the fifth plenary session of the party's 17th Central Committee, held in Beijing in October 2010. Xi Jinping was made vice chairman of the Central Military Commission at the meeting.   © Xinhua/AP

The post was formally abolished in 1982 to prevent dictatorships that might lead to disasters such as Mao's Cultural Revolution. The post of general secretary, which was created in its stead, signifies the member of a collective leadership team who sits at the head of the table.

Restoring the position of party chairman would naturally invite resistance. Opponents would say it goes against the tide of the times. For many party members who have witnessed the fruits of China's "reform and opening-up" era, it would cause unease.

One other path Xi could take would be to fully retire at the party's next national congress, in 2022, and make way for his juniors. But this ship has sailed; the list of Xi's potential successors has not been narrowed down.

Looking back, Xi emerged as a likely candidate for the post of party chief at the 2007 national congress and then as a shoo-in for the job in 2010, when he took the vice chairmanship of the military commission. He actually took the helm of the party at its 2012 national congress, succeeding Hu.

If the same succession process had been followed, the shortlist of likely candidates to be Xi's successor should have been presented at the party's 2017 national congress.

But in the months leading up to the meeting, Sun Zhengcai, Chongqing's then top official and seen as the front-runner in the race to replace Xi, became a victim of Xi's anti-corruption campaign.

In 2019, there were rumors about two potential successors being promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body, as party leaders gathered for the fourth plenary session of the party's 19th Central Committee.

Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, left, and Chen Min'er, secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Party Committee, on March 13, 2018. The two used to be considered potential successors to Xi. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura) 

But neither of the two potential successors -- Chen Min'er, Chongqing's top official, and Vice Premier Hu Chunhua -- joined the top leadership team then.

With no term limits, it is unlikely that Xi will relinquish his three inseparable posts of president, party chief and military chairman anytime soon.

If he does relinquish his three hard-won posts, he would likely step up to become party chairman, ceding a much-weakened post of general secretary to his preferred successor.

Meanwhile, the calendar hints at what Xi is doing.

The decision to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Shenzhen SEZ on Wednesday has political motivations. The SEZ was formally inaugurated in August, not October, of 1980.

The anniversary event is a curtain-raiser for the fifth plenary session, now less than two weeks away. It is aimed at shining a spotlight on Shenzhen, a symbol of China's rapid economic development, which took a path laid by Xi's father.

Deng Nan, a daughter of Deng Xiaoping, makes a point with the 87-year-old patriarch on March 15, 1992, in Shenzhen, China.   © AP

In another well-thought-out sideshow, a demo run of China's "digital yuan" debuted on Monday, with 50,000 Shenzhen citizens participating. The digital yuan could become the main battleground of a U.S.-China currency war in the future. The demo, timed to coincide with Xi's arrival, portrays the leader as being on top of the key issue.

Shenzhen represents a special rung in China's political history. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's "reform and opening-up" policy, made his famous "southern tour," inspecting Shenzhen and elsewhere, in a bid to revive and accelerate the policy. But Deng was also the man who sidelined Xi's father a second time.

Xi has already established himself as China's "core leader." Even if reviving the chairman position ultimately turns out to be too tall of a task at the fifth plenary session, Xi is preparing to put in place an "ultra-long-term vision" that China would follow to 2035.

Much is unprecedented. Xi has largely overtaken predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin in terms of strength. He now wants to overtake Deng because, as his father's life taught him, that is the only way to survive.

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