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China up close

Xi, Trump share same Achilles' heel

Both play favorites, surround themselves with yes men

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- Shortly before Donald Trump's raucous presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, a fresh wave of political change began to sweep through a U.S. rival across the Pacific: China.

To further cement his grip on power ahead of a Communist Party leadership reshuffle later this year, President Xi Jinping has been promoting allies to top local government posts. On Jan. 20, Cai Qi and Ying Yong became the latest to join this growing political army. 

Cai, the acting mayor of Beijing, and Ying, the vice mayor of Shanghai, were both elevated to mayor of their respective metropolises.

The Politburo Standing Committee -- the Communist Party's top decision-making body, led by Xi -- is due for a shake-up at the next national party congress this autumn. Most of the seven current committee members have reached retirement age. The 63-year-old Xi, who doubles as the party's general secretary, will stay on.

Xi's maneuvering comes at a time of high tension between Beijing and Washington, on both the economic and security fronts. But the Chinese leader has at least one thing in common with Trump, the 70-year-old property tycoon and Republican outsider: a personnel policy based on favoritism, be it cronyism or nepotism.

Compared with their predecessors, both presidents were slow to jump into politics. Xi did it in his 50s; Trump much later in life. Having not spent their lives building political bridges, perhaps, they tend to rely on limited pools of like-minded talent. The problem is that teams filled with yes men are prone to malfunctioning.

Factions and friction

Xi rose to power at the party's last national congress in the autumn of 2012, when he assumed the post of general secretary. He became president in spring 2013. Since then, he has been using his anti-corruption crusade to bring down political foes and shore up his power.

Not a few rivals have already been purged. Those who remain are so frightened that they keep low profiles, hoping to ride out the storm. This creates an illusion that the party is united. But Xi has defied convention, both in how he emerged and how he rules.

Xi secured an unusual promotion at the party congress in 2007: He became a member of the standing committee and leapfrogged his way to the sixth-ranked post in the hierarchy. That was one notch higher than Li Keqiang, a protege of then President Hu Jintao.

This made Xi a shoo-in to succeed Hu. Li ended up as premier.

Unlike Xi, Hu was still in his 40s when he emerged as a leader of the future. To be sure, Hu tapped into his power base -- the Communist Youth League -- to fill a number of important positions. But he also advocated standardizing the criteria for promoting party officials.

Xi has shunned any institutionalized promotion system. Instead, he has tapped former subordinates and old friends for most key positions.

The No. 1 requirement for promotion: loyalty to the boss.

Broadly speaking, the Communist Party is divided into three groups: Xi's clique; the Communist Youth League faction, comprising former officials of the massive party youth organization; and former President Jiang Zemin's faction.

Xi's group, then, is split between the Zhejiang and Fujian factions. These are made up of former underlings from the days when Xi held party posts in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.

The majority of his personnel picks come from these two factions, with the folks from Zhejiang taking precedence. It was in Zhejiang that Xi became a top provincial official for the first time, serving as party chief from 2002 to 2007. He regards the province as his second home.

One prominent member of the Zhejiang faction is Chen Min'er, 56, the current party chief in the province of Guizhou. Chen served as president of the Zhejiang Daily Press Group when he was in his 30s. He later became the province's top propaganda official, tasked with supervising local media outlets.

Chen's knack for writing earned him a job as Xi's speechwriter while he was the provincial party chief. Chen has since climbed the party ladder quickly.

Ying, the new Shanghai mayor, also hails from the faction. When Xi was promoted to party chief in Shanghai in 2007, he brought Ying to the city with him.

At 59, Ying has a great deal of experience in judicial and public security affairs. But as mayor, he is useful to Xi in another way: countering the local influence of former President Jiang's group, known as the Shanghai faction. 

Xi spent nearly 17 years in Fujian, before moving to Zhejiang. He rose as high as provincial governor -- the No. 2 post, after provincial party chief. But insiders say his network of connections there pales in comparison to his Zhejiang ties, explaining why the Fujian faction plays second fiddle.  

Wang Xiaohong, Beijing's public security bureau chief, belongs to the Fujian group. The 59-year-old concurrently serves as the Chinese capital's vice mayor.

Wang is an expert on security, having served as the top security official in the Fujian city of Xiamen, but he is not necessarily familiar with Beijing. Yet Xi made him the top watchdog in the capital.

Apparently, Xi feared for his own physical safety and wanted someone who would never betray him.

Wang is also close to Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan. After divorcing his first wife, Xi married Peng, a popular singer in the military, during his time in Fujian. 

Some close aides straddle both factions. Cai, the 61-year-old new mayor of Beijing, is one. Xi got to know Cai in his Fujian days and brought him along to Zhejiang.

Another example is Huang Kunming, 60, the executive deputy head of the Communist Party's Publicity Department. Huang is in charge of manipulating public opinion.

Circle of friends

Xi has also reached further back into his past and tapped old friends for crucial jobs.

Chen Xi, 63, serves as executive deputy head of the Communist Party's Organization Department. The department oversees personnel affairs -- a critical position ahead of the next national congress.

Chen Xi and the president both graduated from Beijing's Tsinghua University, where they were roommates.

Liu He, 65, is the oldest pal among Xi's close aides. They both graduated from the prestigious Beijing 101 Middle School -- the school of choice for many children of senior Communist Party and military officials.

Liu is Xi's top economic adviser. He currently serves as director of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, the party's key economic panel.

Anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan, 68, and Xi also go way back.

During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, "intellectual youths" from the cities were sent to live and work in rural areas under the "Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement."

When Xi was 15, he too was "sent down" from Beijing to a remote farming village near Yan'an, Shaanxi Province. Wang was sent to the area around the same time. Today, Wang is spearheading the crackdown on graft as head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and is one of Xi's most trusted allies.

The Communist Party's General Office is headed by Li Zhanshu, 66. Li and Xi became acquainted in Hebei Province, when the future president was in his 20s.

The executive deputy head of the General Office, 54-year-old Ding Xuexiang, served as Xi's secretary when he was the party chief in Shanghai. Ding is also head of the General Secretary's Office.

Trump's way

It is easy to see similarities in President Trump's approach. For starters, he made his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser, raising concerns about potential conflicts of interest.

One diplomat who has been stationed in the U.S. and Europe weighed in on Trump's personnel appointments.

"When it comes to security, he thinks of generals he's seen in war movies and appoints military personnel to government posts," the diplomat said. "As for the economy, he can think of only financial people he knows on Wall Street, such as those from Goldman Sachs."

Trump, who never held public office prior to becoming president, is forming a team with plenty of yes men, much like Xi. 

Politically, this is a particularly sensitive year for China. The tug-of-war within the party is expected to intensify before the new leadership lineup is announced in the autumn. Various forces will be looking to put their rivals at a disadvantage, and could seek to exploit tensions with the U.S. 

The question is: Will the two presidents' yes men manage to find common ground amid growing friction over trade and security?

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