August 8, 2017 11:09 am JST
China up close

Xi flexes military muscle in quest to follow Mao

But a close aide is hit by 'friendly fire,' giving political foes more ammunition

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews troops in Inner Mongolia on July 30. (Xinhua/Kyodo).

TOKYO -- Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over a massive military parade for the second time in just two years recently, and the reason is no secret: to go down in history as a national leader on a par with Mao Zedong.

By demonstrating his full control of the military, the Chinese leader aims to further consolidate his power ahead of the most important political event in five years, the Communist Party congress. It is at that gathering, where the top leadership will likely be reshuffled, that his ambitions will be approved or thwarted.

On July 30, television stations across the nation broadcast the military parade held in Inner Mongolia that day to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army on Aug. 1. Decked out in a camouflage combat uniform, Xi, who doubles as the ruling Communist Party's general secretary, reviewed 12,000 PLA troops during the extravaganza.

Tellingly, the troops referred to the 64-year-old leader as "zhuxi" (chairman) instead of "shouzhang" (leader or commander), the title usually used during such official inspections.

It was the second time the title of zhuxi -- a designation that Mao used and which was later abolished -- had been trotted out for Xi during a military parade. The first time was when he reviewed 3,100 PLA troops stationed in Hong Kong during a military parade on June 30. Xi was there for a July 1 ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule.

Xi came to power as the party general secretary in autumn 2012. The following spring, he became president. In China, even the national government plays second fiddle to the Communist Party.

Mao, the revolutionary leader who led China to communism and later became a dictator, kept the title of "party chairman" until his death. The designation conveyed total power over the party and thus the country.

But the post was formally abolished in 1982 to prevent the kind of dictatorship that gave rise to the disastrous 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Under the current collective-leadership system, the highest position in the party is general secretary.

Even Deng Xiaoping, the former supreme leader who oversaw the Hong Kong handover negotiations, as well as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi's two predecessors, used the title of shouzhang when they reviewed troops.

By using the title zhuxi in Hong Kong and again in Inner Mongolia, Xi was essentially making it known that he wanted to reinstate the long-defunct post of party chairman for himself.

That the president was the only member of the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body, to attend the military parade in Inner Mongolia was likely aimed at making the military pledge allegiance to him alone.

Parallels with Deng

That parade had echoes of a huge military exercise in 1981, also in northern China, that Deng orchestrated after he took control of the military as chairman of the Central Military Commission.

That exercise, held near Zhangjiakou, Hebei Province, underscored the fact that Deng had become China's paramount leader following the 1976 death of Mao and subsequent downfall of the "Gang of Four" -- four key players in the Cultural Revolution that included Mao's last wife, Jiang Qing.

Footage of that event shows Deng wearing a military uniform that seemed incongruous with his small stature and delivering a speech in his strong Sichuan accent.

Three years after that -- on Oct. 1, 1984 -- Deng held a massive military parade in Beijing to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

In this, too, there are present-day parallels, with Xi presiding over two huge military parades in just two years. The president's first was in Beijing on Sept. 3, 2015, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of China's victory in "the war of resistance against Japanese aggression" as well as "the world anti-fascist war."

Xi predecessors Jiang and Hu, both designated by Deng as future leaders, held military parades only once while in power.

Li Zhanshu

When Xi was presiding over the festivities in Inner Mongolia, his inner circle was busy preparing for the party's twice-a-decade congress this autumn.

A core member of that team is Li Zhanshu. The 67-year-old is one of the president's closest aides and currently serves as director of the party's General Office, a post that can be likened to the chief cabinet secretary in Japan.

Many observers will be watching to see if the party rules will be revised at the upcoming congress to pave the way for Xi to upgrade his status from party general secretary to party chairman. Here, Li is a key player.

He is trying to smooth the way by maneuvering behind the scenes to secure consent from rival political forces and outspoken party elders.

The bold proposal, if realized, will effectively sound the death knell for the collective leadership system that has defined the post-Mao era.

Xi and Li have built a relationship of trust over nearly 35 years. After serving as a secretary at the General Office of the Central Military Commission, Xi became the top official in Zhengding County, Hebei Province, while still in his 20s. The young Xi thought the world of the older Li, who at the time was the top official in neighboring Wuji County.

Friendly fire

Less than two weeks before the July 30 parade, the South China Morning Post made waves by publishing an unusually biting article.

Titled "How's the 'Singaporean' investor in The Peninsula's holding company linked to Xi Jinping's right-hand man?," the article reported on the Li family's suspected accumulation of huge wealth.

Among other things, the article said that the address of a person with the same name as Li's daughter was identical to that of a young billionaire who just became a major shareholder of the luxury hotel chain operator.

But when the article started attracting serious attention, the South China Morning Post retracted it. The newspaper issued a statement apologizing to its readers and said it retracted the article because the story did not meet its "standards for publication."

Media industry insiders in mainland China and Hong Kong say the episode reflects the complicated situation surrounding China's politics and economy ahead of the party congress.

Newspapers in Hong Kong have been reporting on the behind-the-scenes activities in China's political world, but recently they have been censoring themselves more as Beijing tightens the screws on them.

The South China Morning Post did just that with the article about the Li family. The episode has sparked speculation about the article's information sources.

No one is safe

It is worth noting that Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group acquired the South China Morning Post about a year and a half ago. Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma, 52, was born in Zhejiang Province. He is said to have hit it off with Xi, who once served as Zhejiang's top official.

Xi's "Zhejiang faction," which comprises his former subordinates in the province, is rapidly gaining political ground, with many members getting unusual promotions.

One high-profile member of that group is Chen Min'er. Chen, 56, replaced Sun Zhengcai, the 53-year-old disgraced former rising political star, as the top official in Chongqing in mid-July.

The superrich Ma has close ties with the Zhejiang faction. But Alibaba's business could suffer if a media outlet affiliated with the online retail giant is seen as having bared its fangs at Li, one of Xi's closest aides.

The power struggle currently playing out is so relentless that even the future of a business tycoon from Zhejiang is not secure. That has already been illustrated by the fate of Wu Xiaohui, another native of the province.

The 50-year-old chairman of Anbang Insurance Group, a relatively new but major Chinese insurer, suddenly disappeared from the public eye in June. Anbang said in a statement that Wu is  "temporarily unable to fulfill his roll."

The Chinese media have also reported that Wu's freedom is being restricted because he is under investigation by the authorities. It is a stunning reversal of fortunes for Wu, who married the granddaughter of Deng, the late paramount leader, and became a corporate success story.

Musical chairs

The uproar sparked by the newspaper article about the Li family is tied to the fact that Li is a possible candidate for being promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee at the party congress.

Most of the current seven committee members are supposed to retire at the autumn gathering because of their age, although Xi and Premier Li Keqiang will stay on.

Li Zhanshu is currently one of the 25 Politburo members. Whether he can score political points by helping Xi claim the party chairman post will have a significant impact on his political fortunes. Li was relatively unknown before being elevated to the head of the party's General Office shortly before the party's last national congress, in 2012.

Xi wants to surround himself with trusted allies to survive the intense power struggle with his political foes. Li, who always accompanies Xi on the president's overseas trips, is the linchpin of the leader's inner circle.

One person familiar with party affairs said Li always asks Xi to sign off on every decision, even on seemingly trivial matters, because he understands the president's "penchant for deciding everything for himself."

Li always takes a back seat and keeps a low profile, but observers say he rises to the occasion and sticks his neck out when the chips are down.

In one example of this bravery, Li reportedly led a team of Central Security Bureau members when it stormed the home of Zhou Yongkang in Beijing's Zhongnanhai area -- the country's political center-- and placed the former Politburo Standing Committee member under secret observation.

The Central Security Bureau, which is directly affiliated with Li's General Office, is responsible for the safety of Chinese leaders and security in the Zhongnanhai area, where they are based.

Zhou, a tough-looking politician and one of Xi's former main political foes, once controlled China's internal security apparatus, including the police. Zhou fell victim to Xi's anti-corruption campaign and was sentenced to life in prison.

For the Xi regime, Li is an indispensable player, as is Wang Qishan, a 69-year-old Politburo Standing Committee member and China's anti-corruption czar.

Since taking power as president, Xi has used his sweeping anti-corruption campaign as a tool to fight political foes and consolidate his power.

As head of the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Wang has spearheaded the anti-corruption crusade, which has already netted many influential figures.

Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire who fled to the U.S., has been attacking Wang on Twitter and YouTube recently, accusing Wang's family of being involved in serious corruption.

Some of Xi's political foes in the party are widely believed to be behind a series of bombshells dropped by Guo about the Wang family. Like Wang, Li is likely to become the target of attacks. Should Wang and Li be discredited, Team Xi would take a huge hit.

Ling Jihua incident

Political forces within the Communist Party are broadly divided into three groups -- the Xi faction; the Communist Youth League faction, which comprises former officials of the Communist Youth League; and the faction under former President Jiang.

The Communist Youth League is the party's massive youth organization, and the faction is led by former President Hu and current Premier Li.

Li Zhanshu's immediate predecessor as the director of the party's General Office is Ling Jihua, a close aide to former President Hu and prominent member of the Communist Youth League faction.

Ling tried to cover up a deadly car crash that involved his son while he was driving a Ferrari in Beijing in March 2012. The son, who was driving the luxury car, was killed instantly.

Ling saw the incident as an obstacle to his possible promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee at the party's national congress later in 2012. The 60-year-old eventually fell from power and was sentenced to life in jail.

The Ling debacle was a big setback for the Communist Youth League faction. It lost a fierce tug-of-war with former President Jiang's faction over the lineup of a new Politburo Standing Committee at the party's 2012 congress.

With only a few months to go before the autumn congress, Xi cannot afford to let his guard down, lest his faction suffer the same fate as the youth league bloc.

A big question is whether Xi will be able to craft the new party leadership team to his liking.

Every summer, the party holds an annual conclave in the seaside resort of Beidaihe, in Hebei Province. It is an opportunity for the country's leaders and retired party elders to informally discuss important issues.

It was at the closed-door Beidaihe meeting in August 2012 that Ling's fate became clear. At the party congress months later, his bid to join the Politburo Standing Committee was thwarted.

The Beidaihe meeting season has arrived again.

The South China Morning Post retracted the controversial article about the Li family. But the content has already gone viral, possibly giving Xi's rivals powerful ammunition.

On the night of July 30, the main news program broadcast by the state-run China Central Television was packed with content related to Xi's attendance at the military parade in Inner Mongolia. The CCTV program made no mention of the six other Politburo Standing Committee members, including Premier Li.

On Aug. 1, all seven members of the powerful committee attended a ceremony in Beijing to mark the 90th anniversary of the PLA. In a speech there, Xi stressed the need for the military to follow the leadership of the party's Central Committee.

Even as he demonstrates his full control of the military, Xi is racing against the clock to secure the post of party chairman. His bid to assume a title that until now has been used only by Mao is entering the home stretch.

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