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Flags fly above the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)
China up close

Xi Jinping drops surprise hint over secret feud

Propaganda work is 'correct' and officials are 'reliable,' the president declares

TOKYO -- In a new twist that offers a glimpse into the political battle that took place last month at the Chinese Communist Party's gathering in the beach resort of Beidaihe, President Xi Jinping has publicly defended the party's embattled ideology and propaganda czar.

He did so at a national conference on publicity and ideological work in Beijing on Aug. 21-22. "Decisions and plans made by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee since the 18th National Congress in 2012 are correct," Xi said. "Officials on the publicity and ideological fronts are reliable."

Xi became the party's general secretary in 2012.

At first glance, the remarks look unremarkable, even negligible. But the two sentences testify to the scarring battle that played out in the Hebei Province resort of Beidaihe.

China is ruled by a single party that hews to an authoritarian style of governing. Its official policies are always deemed to be correct. Given this reality, why would Xi have to emphasize that the party's decisions and plans "are correct?"

And why would he single out publicity and ideology officials as "reliable?"

The natural train of thought would be that the Beidaihe gathering hosted debate that the publicity and ideological work is "not" correct and that "the officials" in charge are "not" reliable.

Wang Huning walks past President Xi Jinping, who has recently offered a public defense of the embattled propaganda czar.   © Reuters

All summer, there has been chatter indicating that the current propaganda policy -- especially that which smacks of a personality cult inflating around Xi -- is causing discontent among some party members.

The head of the ideology and propaganda team, the "officials" Xi was protecting, is Wang Huning, No. 5 in the party hierarchy, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and a man sometimes referred to as "China's Kissinger."

The reference is to Henry Kissinger, the highly influential but controversial U.S. secretary of state in the mid-1970s.

Wang has advised three successive Chinese presidents -- Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi -- and was central to authoring the leaders' respective signature theories, including Xi's "Chinese dream."

This summer, Wang had disappeared from the public eye. Rumors had it that he had been made the fall guy for what some party members perceived as excessive glorification of Xi.

The Aug. 21-22 conference on publicity and ideological work became a ceremony at which Xi defended Wang, his propaganda linchpin.

Who then, has expressed objections to Xi's style of propaganda?

Among those who come to mind are party elders such as former President Jiang, who turned 92 on Aug. 17, and Zeng Qinghong, once a close aide to Jiang and a former vice president.

This photo, on exhibit at a museum in China, shows former President Jiang Zemin, right, and former Vice President Zeng Qinghong.

The Communist Youth League is also an obvious place to look. The party's massive youth organization, which has served as a cradle for party cadres, is the power base of former President Hu and current Premier Li Keqiang.

But these names probably are not included in the correct answer.

The criticism is more likely coming from the ranks of the "second-generation reds," the children of revolutionary-era Communist Party leaders, and "princelings," children of prominent and influential party officials.

This major political bloc has supported Xi's leadership for six years now. But many of the princelings were forced to retire last October at the party's 19th national congress. A long-standing party rule requires those who have reached the age of 68 to retire without assuming any new post.

Xi, though, finagled an exception for longtime political ally Wang Qishan. China's former top graft buster is five years older than Xi and was already 69 at the time of the party congress.

Although Wang retired as the party's anti-corruption czar, he later returned as the nation's vice president, inviting disgruntlement.

Xi himself is a second-generation red. His late father, Xi Zhongxun, once served as the country's vice premier.

Wang Qishan's wife, Yao Mingshan, is a second-generation red, the daughter of Yao Yilin, a late former Politburo Standing Committee member who also served as vice premier. Wang is also counted as a second-generation red, thanks to his marriage to Yao.

Among the second-generation reds, former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping stands above any other leader in Communist China's history for the economic miracle that he ushered in.

This view is shared by the two whom Deng hand-picked to succeed him -- former presidents Jiang and Hu.

Deng took the helm of China after the death of Mao Zedong, the revolutionary hero who led China to communism, then ruled as a dictator. Deng initiated the policy of "reform and opening-up" in the late 1970s, lifting millions of people out of poverty, as well as allowing many second-generation reds to accumulate tremendous wealth.

Xi is challenging this common understanding -- a big mistake according to his dissenters.

Despite lacking much of a track record, Xi last year declared China had entered a "new era" -- his era -- relegating Deng, as well as Mao, to has-been status.

Xi's eponymous ideology -- "Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era" -- was enshrined in the party's constitution last fall and then in the Chinese constitution in spring.

Anbang Insurance Group Chairman Wu Xiaohui attends the China Development Forum in Beijing in March 2017.   © Reuters

The "new era" brought with it the purging of Communist entrepreneurs who had parlayed their relations with the powerful Deng family into huge financial windfalls.

Xi has significantly consolidated his power through his anti-corruption campaign, which has also allowed him to go after the profit generators owned by princelings and second-generation reds.

Wu Xiaohui, the top official of Anbang Insurance Group, provides an example. Wu was arrested, and the big private insurer he was building, through acquisitions of overseas companies and other means, was placed under state control.

Wu had tied the knot with the daughter of one of Deng's daughters. But despite this marital link to China's blue bloods, Wu was not spared.

Since the Communist Party's 19th national congress last October, a personality cultlike atmosphere has been nurtured under the party's propaganda policy. This has come despite the party constitution banning "any form of personality cult."

Some second-generation reds and princelings have spent a lot of time living abroad in somewhat liberal atmospheres. These Chinese globe-trotters have built relationships with reformist scholars and intellectuals. Many of them instinctively feel disgusted by Xi's personality cultlike propaganda methods.

Books about Xi cover a table at a bookstore in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, northeastern China. Similar displays can be found at stores throughout the country.

In another significant development, the party's regulations on disciplinary action on Aug. 18 were revised for the first time in three years.

The subtle change in wording is significant.

The revised regulations stipulate the importance of "resolutely upholding the core status of General Secretary Xi in the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the entire Party."

This sentence holds significant meaning and marks a step forward for Xi.

Earlier, the party had only talked about "resolutely upholding the Central Committee with Xi Jinping at the core."

The revised disciplinary regulations strengthen the wording regarding "core," giving the impression that Xi, not the party's collective leadership, is being highlighted. Now anyone who makes light of Xi faces punitive action.

Technically, there is one more person who was referred to as the "core" and still holds that title: former President Jiang. But many documents released recently refer only to Xi as the core.

In this connection, there is one interesting phenomenon.

In late August, state-run China Central Television ran a program that introduced the main points of the disciplinary regulation revisions, targeting the public. But no reference was made to the part related to Xi's core status.

The party's propaganda division keeps its spotlight away from anything that might draw a backlash. In a sense, Xi has taken a historic step in a low-profile manner.

Xi's side is refraining from launching high-profile propaganda campaigns. The number of banners, signs and posters highlighting only the president's name have dwindled in various parts of the country.

Yet, judging from the revised disciplinary regulations, which stress the importance of resolutely upholding Xi's core status, it is clear that any move to resist his authority will not be tolerated.

Furthermore, at the party's national congress last fall, Xi did not promote any potential successor to the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body.

And by doing so, Xi has secured the upper hand in a party tug of war over his extended reign. The battle continues.

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