February 12, 2018 8:00 am JST
China up close

The dust has settled and the immortal Wang Qishan is back

Vice president's role would put him in position to succeed Xi in a contingency

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

There is speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping has planned all along to install his boyhood friend Wang Qishan as his vice president.

TOKYO -- Wang Qishan, the anti-corruption czar who had to retire in October due to age, is returning to a central role in Chinese politics. He has been elected to the National People's Congress, the country's parliament.

Although he is no longer in the Politburo Standing Committee, the Chinese Communist Party's top decision-making body, come March, when the parliament holds its annual fortnight session, he will be in position to assume a new high-level post. Xi is said to have two positions in mind -- vice president or the czar of a newly created anti-corruption body, the National Supervisory Commission, which will be even more powerful than the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which Wang has so effectively run for the past five years.

As far as the vice presidency is concerned, recent custom dictates that Wang had to be elected to the National People's Congress to be considered for the post. He cleared that hurdle on Jan. 29, being elected as one of the 118 deputies from the central province of Hunan.

No one before Wang had ever been elected to parliament after stepping down from the Politburo Standing Committee.

What exactly are the powers of a vice president? The Chinese Constitution has two interesting references.

Article 82. The Vice-President of the People's Republic of China may exercise such functions and powers of the President as the President may entrust to him.

Article 84. In case the office of the President of the People's Republic of China falls vacant, the Vice-President succeeds to the office of President.

For the past five years, Li Yuanchao, a key member of the faction led by former President Hu Jintao, has been vice president. But in October, Li was not even elected to the 19th Central Committee despite being short of retirement age at 67.

While his title might speak of power, Li has little. Yet if Wang steps into Li's shoes, he is expected to play an extremely important role, based on Article 82, acting on behalf of Xi.

Maybe even more important is the latter article, which would put Wang in place to succeed Xi should anything happen to the president.

There have been numerous rumours of assasination attempts during Xi's first term, as the president embarked on a ruthless anti-corruption crusade that jailed hundreds of senior officials, often from rival factions. 

If Xi's foes, eager to weaken the anti-corruption drive, were to plot to remove the president, they might think twice. The man in waiting would be their most fearful enemy, the very man behind the hunt for both "tigers and flies."  

The unofficial retirement age, which pushed Wang out of office last year, was put in place by former President Jiang Zemin in 2002. Jiang came up with the rule to force one of his rivals into retirement.

The rule is known as "qi shang, ba xia," literally "seven up, eight down." Once 68, party members will not assume any new positions and should retire, it has been agreed since.

Said one political source in Beijing, "As a result of Wang's comeback, the party rule requiring those who have reached the age of 68 to retire could come to exist in name only."

If so, it would pave way to bigger fish.

Under the national constitution, a Chinese president can serve up to two five-year terms. Xi is supposed to retire as president in 2023. But the party's general secretary has no such constraints, although Jiang and Hu relinquished both posts almost simultaneously upon their retirement.

If Xi follows custom, he would retire as party chief at the next national congress, in 2022 after ten years in office. But it is doubtful he will do so. More accurately, he cannot easily do so, due to fears that his foes will retaliate -- against himself, his family and many of his close aides.

The best way to prevent this is by not stepping down. Xi looks back at Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang -- all of whom clung to certain levers of power as long as they could. Only Hu, Xi's immediate predecessor, let go of all his levers upon retirement.

And now Hu's entire clan is being torn apart.

Wang's election to the National People's Congress actually marks his second political comeback. His first, although of smaller impact, came last September.

During the summer of 2017, a Chinese billionaire who fled to the U.S. began leveling his own corruption charges against Wang via social media. Guo Wengui stressed that Wang's family, including his wife, were engaged in financial wrongdoing at the HNA Group.

HNA is a private conglomerate and parent of Hainan Airlines, a major Chinese carrier. It has been saddled with a huge amount of debt after an aggressive overseas acquisition spree.

It is suspected that Guo was being fed information about Wang's family by President Xi's political enemies. Guo's Twitter and YouTube storm came ahead of the party's 19th national congress, when there was an intense power struggle between the factions led by Jiang, Hu and Xi. 

For a moment in the summer, Wang disappeared from the public eye. With so many days passing without any mention of Wang in state-run news programs, there was speculation that he had fallen from power.

The hiatus ended on Sept. 3, when Wang began a three-day inspection tour of Hunan, the birthplace of Mao Zedong.

As chief of the party's Central Leading Group for Inspection Work, Wang presided over a roundtable discussion while in the province. He cited some remarks once made by an influential non-communist figure had made in front of Mao. 

In 1945, four years before the People's Republic of China was founded, the figure shared his view that even if the communist party were to take power, its rule, like that of China's ancient dynasties, would eventually crumble.

Citing this anecdote, Wang said the Chinese Communist Party "must break the historical cycle," and continue to rule. Key to survival of the party would be effective supervision, Wang said. Self purification, self-improvement, self innovation were needed, he stressed. 

Wang's appearances and rhetoric in Hunan sent an implicit message -- Xi's anti-corruption campaign needs to continue. The party's survival rests on Xi extending his reign, he hinted.

And Wang is now back at Xi's side to ensure that the general secretary can continue beyond the party's 2022 national congress.

Xi will be 69 then, but the party's survival comes first, the argument would go.

Looking back, Xi had already decided in September to ensure that Wang would stay in power.

On Sept. 6, one day after the Hunan inspection, Wang made another big splash, appearing in Beijing with his family at a roundtable discussion to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father in law Yao Yilin, a former Politburo Standing Committee member who once served as China's vice premier.

Alongside Wang was his wife Yao Mingshan -- Yao Yilin's daughter --, her younger sister Yao Mingduan and her nephew Yan Qing. The three had been continiously accused by Guo on social media. Xi had made arrangements to protect his right-hand man. 

As icing on the cake, Xi sent Premier Li Keqiang to chair the roundtable discussion. Li, Wang and two other standing committee members even posed for a commemorative photograph with Wang's family. State-run China Central Television, or CCTV, aired footage of this, making it a national spectacle.

It is no coincidence that Wang used Hunan -- the birthplace of Mao and a historic place for the Communist Party -- to stage his first comeback, in September, and that last month he was elected to be part of Hunan's delegation to the National People's Congress.

Wang's return and the downfall of Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang, two military generals, are two sides of a coin. 

Both fell from power in August 2017, just before Wang's first political comeback.

Fang, 66, was chief of the Central Military Commission's Joint Staff Department. Zhang headed the commission's Political Work Department. Zhang committed suicide on Nov. 23.

Military purges are usually carried out by the military's discipline inspection unit, but in this case the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Wang's team was also involved. And it was only after he had laid the groundwork to snare Fang and Zhang on corruption charges that Wang resurfaced.

Xi Jinping, left, shakes hands with former President Jiang Zemin at Beijing's Great Hall of the People in October 2017. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Fang and Zhang are both connected to Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, former vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission now infamous for their practice of selling officer posts. They are also members of the Jiang faction. 

Guo was sentenced to life in prison, while Xu died of bladder cancer in March 2015 while under detention.

Now Wang is making another re-emergence. And as he does, another military strongman finds himself in jeopardy.

In mid-January some media outlets, including Hong Kong's Sing Tao Daily, reported that Fan Changlong had fallen from power after being placed under investigation by the military's discipline inspection unit at the end of last year.

Fan is a 70-year-old incumbent vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the People's Republic of China and Fang's former superior. Until October, he was also one of the 25 Politburo members.

It is no coincidence that each time Wang has managed a political comeback, high-ranking military figures were purged. This is Xi's way of eliminating dissent.

In a development that came as a big surprise to many, Xi attended a military-related event on Feb. 2 -- accompanied by Fan. The annual event recognizes retired soldiers' services ahead of Chinese New Year.

Did his appearance with Xi mean Fan is in the clear?

No. In fact, Fan can only hope he is not put on the same track as Xu Caihou, the former top military general.

Fan is surely disquieted by the similarities of his and Xu's stories.

In March of 2014 it was formally announced that Xu had become another of Xi's captured tigers.

Just two months earlier, Xu had accompanied Xi to the annual event for retired soldiers, smiling and shaking hands with old military officers.

It was his last major public appearance.

The formal announcement regarding Xu was made immediately after the National People's Congress wrapped up its annual session in March.

Now Fan must wait to find out his fate.

The rise and fall of central figures show that the political saga in Beijing is not over. In October, Xi could not finesse Wang past the retirement-age rule and keep him on the Politburo Standing Committee. But this time around, in choosing the deputies for parliament, Xi has effectively made a sham of the "seven up, eight down" rule.

He has gotten his way, and Wang is back. As the dust settles, it is clear that Xi has been able to keep his right-hand man at his side all along.

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