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China up close

Behind the bamboo curtain: Beijing rings with clues of Xi power struggle

Subtle news articles point to president's battle with Deng Xiaoping's proteges

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

BEIJING -- President Xi Jinping as well as his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao appeared on the Tiananmen rostrum in Beijing under tight security on Tuesday, the 70th anniversary of communist China's birth.

They watched a military parade, the first in the Chinese capital in four years and the highlight of the day's celebrations.

The extravaganza showed off an array of new weapons, including the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which is said to be capable of hitting any part of North America.

Seven years have passed since Xi became China's top leader. His undisputed achievement -- and some may say his only major accomplishment -- is the fierce anti-corruption campaign he launched, going after both powerful leaders and low-level officials.

He has also pushed through a constitutional revision scrapping term limits for the Chinese president, making it possible for him to serve as president for the rest of his life.

But while Xi appears to have scored a resounding victory against his political foes, the afterglow of his triumph looks to be fading. The Chinese economy continues to slow down, partly due to the prolonged trade war, and the unrest in Hong Kong weighs heavily on him.

Amid the festive mood of 70th-anniversary Beijing, there were small but clear hints that Xi's consolidation of power is far from complete.

Xi Jinping's portrait is displayed at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing on Oct. 2. (Photo by Ken Kobayshi)

At the National Art Museum of China in Beijing's Wangfujing shopping district, a painting exhibition to commemorate the anniversary is underway.

In the main pavilion, showcasing "The great dream, path to the rejuvenation of the nation," visitors are greeted by a big picture of a smiling and suit-clad Xi standing by a lake while and surrounded by eight male and female music students.

Interestingly, visitors must go around to the back of Xi's picture to see a rendering of founding father Mao Zedong, holding a straw hat.

To the right of Mao, painted much smaller, is Deng Xiaoping, the former paramount leader who introduced the policy of "reform and opening-up," paving the way for the country's high growth. He is almost sidelined.

The layout suggests Xi is on a drive to become "a great leader" on a par with Mao, surpassing even Deng.

There are as many as four pictures of Xi on display, including one of him returning to the farming village in Shaanxi Province where he spent his youth amid the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

Only Mao rivals Xi in number of pictures on display. As for Jiang and Hu, they have one picture each.

A large portrait of Mao Zedong, and a much smaller one of Deng Xiaoping, are on display at an exhibition in Beijing. (Photo by Ken Kobayshi)

When Deng was in power, statues of Mao, which once towered over various parts of the country, were taken down one after another.

They were regarded as a symbol of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, which victimized countless people and paralyzed the country. Deng led a campaign to include a ban on personality cults in the party constitution to prevent another Mao-style dictatorship. Deng also led the drive to spell out presidential term limits in the national constitution.

Deng's hand-picked successors, Jiang and Hu, followed Deng's path, and there were no art exhibitions blatantly displaying paintings worshipping incumbent leaders.

It was only after the Xi era began that this changed so drastically.

Recently, another work sparked controversy. The painting, which appeared at an exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of Deng's "reform and opening-up" policy, depicts a 1979 meeting involving Deng, Xi's late father Xi Zhongxun and others. At the time, the elder Xi was a provincial leader, in Guangdong, yet he, and not the paramount leader, is at the center of the picture.

The piece drew criticism from within the Chinese Communist Party, with some members saying it was part of an effort toward building a cult of personality around Xi.

The smoldering discontent has been reflected in recent official media reports in ever so subtle ways.

On Friday, state-run Xinhua News Agency published an article headlined, "1966: 'Cultural Revolution' The start of the 10-year civil strife."

In describing the Cultural Revolution in a negative light, the article follows a tone that was common before Xi's "new era."

In mid-September, another article pointed to the internal controversy; it was published on the front page of the People's Daily, the party's mouthpiece, as one of the day's top stories.

It was a partial republication of a speech delivered by Xi five years ago at a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the National People's Congress, China's parliament.

Back then, Qiushi, the party's theoretical journal, published the full text of the speech. In the full version of the speech, there is a passage that refers to the introduction of a term limit system for leading cadres, an achievement of the Deng era.

By republishing the article, the paper seemed to be denying last year's revision to the constitution that abolished those term limits.

There is still lingering debate within the party over that national constitutional revision. The outcome of the debate will directly affect the top leadership reshuffle at the party's next national congress, in 2022.

In his National People's Congress speech of five years ago, Xi said he would govern the country based on the national constitution and stressed the establishment of national governance.

The People's Daily article could be interpreted as a reminder to the president of his own promises.

But then again, the national constitution has already been revised. If one were to follow Xi's words, it could be taken to mean "follow the new constitution," which gives Xi unrivaled powers.

The mystery will need more time to unravel.

A picture of arrested officials, including former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, is shown at the Beijing Exhibition Center. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

In another part of town, at the Beijing Exhibition Center, a 70th anniversary exhibition is under way that Xi recently visited.

Here, the anti-corruption campaign, which is supposed to be the biggest achievement in Xi's "new era," is rather low-profile. Only small photos of heavyweights snared by the crackdown are on display. One picture is of former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang.

This bucks the trend of the past several years and could signal a major change. How the anti-corruption campaign is hailed could give indications about the Xi administration's future.

On Monday, Xi, paid his respects to Mao at the communist state founder's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, accompanied by the six other Politburo Standing Committee members.

It was the first time they had visited the memorial hall as a group ahead of National Day.

In mid-September, before the visit to the mausoleum, Xi stopped by a newly opened revolution memorial hall in Beijing's Xiangshan. There he gave a speech while standing in front of a big statue of Mao.

Much time has passed since the last time a big Mao statue was erected at a public facility in Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center left, with former presidents Jiang Zemin, center right, and Hu Jintao, left, and  Premier Li Keqiang, right, attend the celebration to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, on Oct. 1.   © AP

Xi's visit to Mao's mausoleum and his speech in front of the statue probably reflects his desire to establish his status as "a people's leader," an honorific bestowed upon Mao.

By praising Mao, Xi is putting pressure on the proteges of Deng Xiaoping who still retain influence.

These disciples include ex-presidents Jiang and Hu as well as former Premier Zhu Rongji. Jiang and Hu stood on the Tiananmen rostrum on Tuesday, flanking Xi, though Zhu could not be seen there during the military parade. Jiang, 93, made the public appearance with the help of aides.

All are participants at the annual summer conclave in the seaside resort of Beidaihe, Hebei Province. For Xi, they are a force he cannot ignore.

To this day, Chinese politics happens behind closed doors. Outsiders have no choice but to ponder the lineup of leaders appearing on the Tiananmen rostrum, their facial complexions, the art they appear in at exhibitions and how these works are displayed. Only in these glimpses are there clues to understanding China, and the global economy it impacts.

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.

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