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President Xi Jinping waves at the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party congress in Beijing on Oct. 18. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Xi Jinping and the end of collective leadership

'The gang of six corrupt arch-villains' now a warning to those who resist

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- China is transitioning from a decades-old party-led collective leadership to one that is led by one man, Xi Jinping.

After months of wrangling with factions led by former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin over just how much power the current leader should be given, Xi, the Communist Party General Secretary and state President, sent shock waves across the country on Oct. 14, the final day of the seventh -- and last -- plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party.

The communique that wrapped up the plenary session -- the curtain-raising event to the 19th Communist Party national congress, currently underway in Beijing -- omits the words "the firm maintenance of the collective leadership system." The phrase has been in communiques of previous central committees and has been the political consensus since the days of Deng Xiaoping. They have served as a reminder not to return to the charismatic but erratic days of the Mao Zedong autocracy. 

"Whatever rule changes are made at the national congress, the leadership system will become one in which President Xi Jinping calls the shots," one party source said.

Former Chinese President Hu Jintao still has many proteges within the Chinese Communist Party leadership.

The communique calls for power to be concentrated in the hands of Xi. Furthermore, the plenary session moved to enshrine Xi's political thought in the Communist Party's constitution during the current national congress.

Former President Jiang Zemin at the Chinese Communist Party's national congress on Oct. 18. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

The political calendars of recent weeks hint that it was not an easy ride. The Party's Politburo normally meets once a month, but from late August to late September the group met three times. Xi was trying to muscle his way through, but the discussions dragged on.

Unable to get the upper hand, Xi bet on support at the much larger seventh plenary session of the Central Committee. Xi once again turned to his proven methods of getting his way: anti-corruption and his control of the military.

"Many Central Committee members facing potential corruption problems will retire when their current terms expire," one observer said. "For a peaceful retirement, they are trying to gauge the feelings of the man in power for the sake of security."

The session was attended by 191 full members and 141 alternate, or candidate, members. The number of participants was significantly lower than at previous sessions because many full members have fallen victim to Xi's anti-corruption crusade and have been replaced by alternates.

Xi's purge of senior military officials just before the national congress also helped to shudder dissenters. The gambit paid off.

Sun Zhengcai, the 'lead culprit'

The groundwork has been laid for a while. The Beijing Exhibition Center, an old Russian-style building, has been hosting a major event designed to showcase Xi's achievements during his five years in power.

This collage of "the gang of six corrupt arch-villains" is on display at the Beijing Exhibition Center. Clockwise from top left, they are: Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Guo Boxiong, Ling Jihua, Sun Zhengcai and Xu Caihou.

The exhibition highlights Xi's anti-corruption campaign and historic shakeup of the military as his signature achievements. Xi shows every sign of continuing to use these as weapons to take down adversaries and to further strengthen his hand.

Wang Qishan, Xi's long-time ally, has spearheaded the corruption crackdown as head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party's top anti-graft body.

The main feature of the ongoing exhibition is a collage of six photos showing what the Xi regime apparently regards as "the gang of six corrupt arch-villains."

The popular section also exhibits copies of essays written by some once-influential figures to repent for their misconduct. They are addressed to Xi. Among them is a composition written by Huang Xingguo, a former top official of the key city of Tianjin.

A photo of Sun Zhengcai, a former top official of Chongqing, another key city, at the bottom center of the exhibit shows Sun sitting with his head down and eyes closed.

The five other "corrupt arch-villains" are: Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou and Ling Jihua. Bo is a former top official in Chongqing. Zhou is a former member of the Communist Party's Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body. Guo and Xu are former top uniformed military officers. Ling was a close aide to former President Hu. Xu died of cancer in 2015 while in detention.

Exhibits about the downfall of Sun, a former rising political star, were prepared hastily after he was dismissed as Chongqing's top official on July 14. Only a little more than two months later -- on Sept. 29 -- the 25-member Politburo decided to expel him from the party.

The Sun-related exhibits must have been completed by Sept. 25, when Xi and other leaders visited the show, although Sun had not yet been stripped of his party membership. Xi had to have been racing against the clock. At the time, he was also dealing with the political fallout for detaining two military strongmen on corruption concerns.

The two are Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang, both members of China's Central Military Commission, the top military organ that supervises the People's Liberation Army. Xi is the powerful commission's chairman.

As a result of the political turmoil, the list of 2,287 delegates to the party's 19th national congress was finalized only shortly before the powwow -- or more than a month later than it was before the 18th national congress.

All about Xi

A still-young Xi Jinping mingles with locals in Zhengding County, Hebei Province, in this photo on display at the Beijing Exhibition Center.

The exhibition focuses on Xi rather than the party. It is full of photographs and portraits from his past. Many photos of Xi taken during his time in Zhengding County, Hebei Province, where he served from 1982 to 1985, are also on display. He was 30 when he became the county's top official, an unusually senior post for one so young. The exhibition praises Xi for visiting as many as 200 villages as a young leader to hear the views of Zhengding residents.

Trumpeting the incumbent leader's youthful accomplishments ahead of a politically sensitive national congress is something Xi's two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, would never have dreamed of doing.

Xi's thinly veiled ambition is to put himself on a par with revolutionary heroes Mao and Deng, the latter having begun China's "reform and opening-up" policy in the late 1970s, which paved the way for the country's rapid economic development.

Xi's political legacy, as he sees it, is the fulfillment of the "Chinese dream," which is the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

There is more to the dream. Xi wants China to regain the great power status it enjoyed before it became a quasi-colony of foreign powers following the 1840 to 1842 Opium War, and to do so by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

Yet recent developments, including the staging of the Xi-extolling exhibition, have raised concerns among many intellectuals in Beijing. "The exhibition is scary because it is reminiscent of the personality cult during the Mao era," said one.

The elevation of a single leader over the party has been taboo since the end of the Cultural Revolution, which Mao launched to gain the upper hand over his political foes.

The next steps

A new Central Committee is to be elected during the current party congress, followed by a new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee. Xi is now focusing on putting as many of his faithful in the Politburo.

Xi has already taken steps to achieve this by, for example, introducing new criteria for promoting nengshang nengxia officials. The term refers to performance-based promotions or demotions.

The new criteria has three important aspects. First, how much economic growth each candidate delivered in their respective positions will not count. Second, past scores on promotion evaluation will not be taken into account. Third, the candidates age will not be a factor.
The new criteria were among the things highlighted at the Beijing Exhibition Center as Xi's achievements as China's top leader.

Whatever rules or norms regarding promotion that existed until the Hu era have been thrown out of the window. The new ones will allow Xi's close aides who lack sufficient track records to nonetheless be promoted to the Politburo.

Will the new team be firmly painted in Xi's colors? We will find out Tuesday.

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