May 2, 2016 6:00 pm JST
China up close

Xi Jinping vs. Li Keqiang

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- Political tensions are rising in China in a prelude of what is expected to be an all-out battle between the country's top two leaders -- President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

Relations between the two have deteriorated sharply in the past year or so. This could be seen during the past two annual meetings of the National People's Congress, China's parliament.

As they did a year earlier, Xi and Li this past March sat next to each other during the plenary sessions. But they never shook hands. They also spoke to each other only briefly. They even avoided making eye contact.

Their behavior was highly unusual. Even last year, the two at least glad-handed and smiled for the sake of the TV cameras, not to mention all those around them.

"Relations between Xi and Li have seriously soured," one political source in Beijing said during the closing days of the Chinese parliament's annual meeting. "Their rivalry could even be divined from a speech Li gave [during the most recent congress] and will become even clearer in due course."

In a government work report that Li gave in speech form on March 5, during the opening session of the annual meeting, he said, "We will improve oversight and accountability systems, root out incompetence, inertia, and negligence, and show zero tolerance for those who are on the government payroll but do not perform their duties."

Li came down hard on paper-shuffling bureaucrats immediately after referring to President Xi's anti-corruption campaign and saying that the Chinese government will step up its fight against corruption.

Apparently, this was Li's way of highlighting the negative effects of Xi's anti-corruption drive, especially the widespread phenomenon of slacking off. It was also a veiled attack on the Chinese president.

Sitting and waiting

Since being inaugurated about three years ago, President Xi has wielded an anti-corruption campaign against his political foes and as a tool to consolidate power.

Even Li cannot squarely challenge how Xi has implemented his campaign; doing so would put his own political fortunes at risk. But Li can play up the issue of officials at all levels of government slacking off.

Hundreds of thousands of government and Communist Party officials at both the national and local levels have been placed under investigation, detained or punished for corruption.

While the officials caught in Xi's dragnet have been labeled by their wrongdoings, it is also true that they helped to boost China's gross domestic product, now the second largest in the world.

Without Xi's anti-corruption crusade, they might have continued to be highly evaluated.

Xi has cracked down on both "tigers" and "flies" -- powerful leaders and low-level officials. But the drive has also left behind officials who now are so afraid of being netted that they deliberately avoid fulfilling their responsibilities.

Unlike in the past, Chinese bureaucrats now shy away from negotiating public works deals while out at night; they fear being turned in, even by their subordinates, for being wined and dined. Instead, they sit, hoping to wait out the raging political storm.

Adverse economic effects

This has adversely impacted the Chinese economy, with numerous projects in various parts of the country being delayed or stalled.

Before Xi became president, local governments would compete with one another to bring higher growth to their economies. Their officials were always ready to heap praise upon themselves.

After Xi took office, though, more than an anti-corruption campaign hit China. The country's economy fundamentally shifted. Years of high-speed growth gave way to a slowdown. Policy changed with the times. It now prioritizes structural reforms that might lead to stable growth.

This, however, has made local government officials even less willing to work hard.

It is a situation that Li, who is supposed to be China's economic czar, regards as intolerable. But what is Li to do? Xi's aggressive consolidation of power has left him with no real authority.

So he is relegated to giving pep talks, like the one he delivered during the National People's Congress. Unfortunately for Li, most bureaucrats are fully aware that the premier's authority is limited. "I will not change anything unless Xi himself gives assurances that I will not fall victim to his anti-corruption campaign," one local government official said.

But since Li's latest pep talk, China's political winds have been shifting, though slightly. The Communist Party is even hearing calls for someone to counterbalance Xi.

The shift reflects party concerns that:

  • Xi has concentrated too much power via his anti-corruption campaign;
  • there is a personality cult being built around Xi;
  • Xi's silencing of the media has gone too far;
  • his political campaign has adversely affected the economy.

Fully realizing how the political climate now favors him, Li has decided to take a first step to counter Xi's unrivaled power.

"Li was also probably feeling a sense of crisis," a Beijing intellectual said. "He apparently thought that if he does not demonstrate his presence now, he could be removed from his post of premier."

On April 15, Li visited the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, Xi's alma mater, where he stressed the importance of education, especially in science and technology. Later in the day, he visited Peking University, his own alma mater.

It was a calculated move to visit Xi's alma mater first. Li was accompanied by Vice Premier Liu Yandong and Guo Jinlong, the Communist Party chief in Beijing who is close to former President Hu Jintao.

The entourage also included many members of the Communist Youth League faction, Li's power base and a massive political force within the Communist Party that comprises former officials of the Communist Youth League.

The faction, which boasts 90 million members, has been led by Hu and Li. Hu has already retired, which leaves Li alone to secure promotions for as many faction members as possible at the party's national congress in the fall of 2017.

Support base

"Li looks as if he picked a fight with Xi, who is unpopular with intellectuals," a university official in Beijing said.

The aim of Li's visits to the two universities was to drum up support among students and intellectuals. Many members of the Communist Youth League faction at the two universities were mobilized for Li's inspection tour.

While lacking support among intellectuals, Xi initially won the hearts and minds of many Chinese thanks to his crackdown on corrupt officials. This fostered an image of Xi as "a champion of justice," though his once astronomically high popularity now appears to be waning.

Xi belongs to both the princeling faction and the second red generation. Princelings are the children of prominent and influential senior party officials; the second red generation is a smaller group of children of revolutionary-era party leaders.

Xi's late father, Xi Zhongxun, once served as a vice premier.

There are many members of the second red generation in the People's Liberation Army, which Xi sees as a particularly reliable support base.

Intellectuals and the soldierly

Highly alarmed by Li's gambit, Xi wasted no time in countering it.

On April 20, Xi made an inspection tour of the Central Military Commission's joint operations command center, in Beijing, and delivered an important speech stressing the results of his military reform drive.

Xi doubles as chairman of the commission, which commands the armed forces. He made a big splash by wearing a camouflage uniform when he visited the military facility, something his civilian predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, never did.

Images and photos of the top national leader in camo went viral. They symbolized a warning of sorts: "The military is on my side. You'd better stop going against me."

Xi's visit to the Central Military Commission's joint operations command center may have also sent a message to another foe -- the U.S. China and the U.S. are locked in an increasingly tense military face-off regarding the South China Sea.

At any rate, Xi's inspection tour and photo op effectively checked Li's move, though the two are expected to continue shadow boxing in the run up to the quinquennial national congress, still a year and a half away.

So it's the intellectuals versus the soldierly as China's two top leaders jockey for position.

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