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Xi Jinping, who watched his father lose power struggles by clinging to integrity, decided long ago to deal himself a better hand. (Source photos by Kyodo and Reuters)
China up close

Analysis: Xi looks up to father's integrity, but will choose a different path

Leader hoists 'common prosperity' flag in bid to counter Deng Xiaoping

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 is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

TOKYO -- Celebrating Father's Day on the third Sunday of June has taken hold in China. Although the Chinese Communist Party increasingly eschews customs that originated in the West, Father's Day and Mother's Day seem to be exceptions.

In a move timed to coincide with this year's Father's Day, the website of state-run China Central Television published an article headlined, "Xi Jinping and father Xi Zhongxun: Relay by two generations of Communist Party members."

The article and accompanying family photos introduce the bond between the Chinese president and his late father, Xi Zhongxun, a former vice premier. The younger Xi most likely checked the article ahead of it being published.

It has become somewhat customary for state media to profile the top leader's parents on Father's Day and Mother's Day. This is a privilege granted only to Xi, the party's unrivaled No. 1.

Not many months ago, former Premier Wen Jiabao's tribute to his late mother was blocked by authorities.

Xi Zhongxun, center, talks to locals as he inspects a village accompanied by his son Xi Jinping, left, who learned about power by watching his father.   © CCTV/Reuters

Just before this year's Father's Day, Xi reached his 68th birthday. If it were not for measures he put in place in 2018 that scrapped the term limits for a Chinese president, the birthday would have pushed him into a lame-duck period and had him counting down to retirement.

Instead, Xi is expected to embark on an extended reign, breaking with the customary practice of retiring after reaching 68 at the party's next national congress, which comes in the autumn of 2022.

Why is Xi so fixated on power? It is said this hunger came from watching the roller-coaster life of his father, Xi Zhongxun.

"Although Xi Zhongxun is a father Xi Jinping respects, he is also fanmian jiaoyuan (a living example of what to avoid)," said a person with knowledge of the Xi family.

"The younger Xi learned a lot from the way his father lived with integrity. But integrity alone would end up with defeat in a power struggle," the source said. Having spoken directly with Xi Zhongxun when the latter was recuperating in his later years, this source has keen insight into the Xi family.

Xi Zhongxun was purged in 1962 during the era of Mao Zedong, after becoming embroiled in a dispute over a novel about the life of revolutionary leader Liu Zhidan. After some long, dark days, the elder Xi made a political comeback in 1978.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders review the party admission oath while visiting the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing, on June 18, 2021.   © Xinhua/AP

But the elder Xi went on to clash with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping over the sacking in January 1987 of party general secretary Hu Yaobang, a reformist leader.

Hu had been held accountable for his allegedly lax response to a wave of student protests that swept the country in 1986.

Partly because of his feud with Deng, the elder Xi was eventually forced to retire.

Xi Zhongxun resisted Hu's dismissal until the very last minute, despite Deng already having decided on it. Unlike people around him, the elder Xi stuck to his guns but failed to deftly play his cards.

Xi Jinping's father fell ill shortly thereafter; the power struggle had taken a toll.

Now as Xi prepares to extend his reign, he wants to secure a rock-solid, Mao-like status. He already has an eponymous ideology: "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era," but without a proven track record as China's top leader, the ideology rings hollow.

Chairman Mao is now being touted as the first person to use the term "common prosperity."   © AP

One key phrase looks to be his trump card. It is the idea of "common prosperity." It began popping up last autumn, around the time of the fifth plenary session of the party's 19th Central Committee.

Deng Xiaoping, who introduced bold market reforms, is credited with opening the way for China to become an economic power.

But as China rose, the "communist ideology" advocated by the party and Mao perished, and huge disparities arose. Now Xi is endeavoring to revive a new form of communist ideology.

Although the term "common prosperity" sounds harmonious and gentle, it is a significant departure from Deng's policy of "letting some people get rich first."

From a political viewpoint, it is a maneuver by Xi to overtake Deng and stand on a par with Mao. Interestingly, Mao has begun to be touted within China as the first person to use the term "common prosperity."

Also noteworthy is that Zhejiang has been designated as a priority model area for common prosperity. The province has experienced exponential economic development, led by Alibaba Group Holding and other private companies.

The province also happens to be Xi's stronghold, due to his many years of government service there. His leadership team includes many officials who hail from the province.

It has been chosen over Beijing, the center of Chinese-style socialism and home to central government ministries and agencies as well as many state-owned companies.

Private, profit-spinning companies are likely to be the main targets of the drive to rectify disparities. Some Zhejiang denizens are expressing their concerns.

According to state-run Xinhua News Agency, the party's Central Committee and the State Council, China's government, on June 10 released guidelines for the development and construction of a model area for common prosperity in Zhejiang.

Surprisingly, the guidelines plainly spell out that the realization of common prosperity "relates not only to economic issues but also is a political issue that matters to the foundation of the party's governance."

They apparently reflect a desire to switch from Deng's policy of "letting some people get rich first" to heavily socialist measures that will allow the party to maintain its grip on power.

The crackdown on Alibaba that began last year can be understood from this context.

A statue of Xi Zhongxun in Fuping County, Shaanxi. Because he was purged for sticking to his principles, the elder Xi was considered a living example of what to avoid. (Photo by Katsuji Nakazawa)

Regarding common prosperity in Zhejiang, the guidelines specify a target date, 2035, for realizing the goal. They also cite how common prosperity will be attained: by narrowing disparities.

The guidelines are based on the assumption that Xi's new era will continue until at least 2035, which is also the target year for overtaking the U.S. on the economic front.

This is also referred to as realizing the socialist modernization of China, and it means Zhejiang and its private companies will turn red toward 2035 and stand as trophies for socialism in the Xi era.

Xi seeks to overtake Deng on both the economic and political fronts, and the clarion of common prosperity is a weapon he can wield in this pursuit. It is a weapon that suddenly gained prominence ahead of Xi's tradition-busting 68th birthday.

Xi has begun to emulate Mao as he tries to catch up with the chairman. If Xi Zhongxun, who showed his integrity in standing up for the liberal Hu, were still around today, what kind of living example would he see in his son?

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