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People's Liberation Army naval soldiers stand inside a Chinese military vessel featuring a photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping.   © Reuters

Xi clobbers dissent in final stretch to party congress

Ousts two generals close to predecessor, Wang Qishan back on center stage

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- Kill, hand, club. Those three Chinese characters make up the word shashoujian, or assassin's mace, a legendary secret weapon that appears in ancient Chinese folklore.

With the club, the assassin would incapacitate his enemy, unexpectedly and totally, ensuring success even if it meant ignoring the rules of contact.

With the clock ticking toward the Chinese Communist Party's crucial national congress, the party's "core" leader Xi Jinping has effectively declared it zero hour for a last-ditch offensive against his political rivals.

In a surprise gambit and prelude to the final battle, Xi wielded his modern-day shashoujian against two generals, relieving them of their jobs.

Less than a week after the Communist Party announced that its quinquennial event will start on Oct. 18, the public was made aware that Xi had used his anti-corruption mace on the two generals.

On Sept. 6, the list of the military's 253 delegates to the national congress was released. It hit with a bang; the names Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang -- two figures on the 11-member Central Military Commission, the party's top military organ --were not included in the delegate list.

Fang, as former chief of the CMC's Joint Staff Department was in charge of the military's operations, while Zhang was responsible for its political affairs as head of the CMC's Political Work Department. Both 66, they find themselves in retirement even though they have not reached retirement age.

Blood-and-guts battle

Xi's fight is with his predecessor Hu Jintao and the party leader before him, Jiang Zemin. Xi is 64, Hu 74 and Jiang 91. Many influential members of the Hu and Jiang factions have been among those targeted and ruined by Xi's anti-corruption campaign.

Fang and Zhang have been detained and placed under investigation for corruption. Xi's intention here is "very obvious," supporters of the two disgraced military strongmen say, according to a Chinese security source.

It was Hu who made Fang and Zhang generals, and both men belong to the Hu faction. The generals helped Hu rein in the enormous influence his predecessor Jiang continued to wield within the military after stepping down.

Xi's ulterior motive in snaring the two is to pressure the members of the Hu faction who remain in the military.

By tightening the screws, Xi can also heap pressure on the Jiang faction. This is because the two generals have links to the disgraced Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, two former vice chairmen of the CMC known to have been close to Jiang.

Xi's anti-corruption czar earlier went after them for buying and selling general officer posts within the military. Guo was sentenced to life in jail; Xu died of cancer in 2015 while in detention.

Xi's abrupt but belated Fang-Zhang purge, ahead of the party's national congress, reflects the president's blood-and-guts battle with the Hu and Jiang factions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao watch a military parade in Beijing in September 2015.

Departure from practice

"The recent series of moves," one party source said, "is related to divisions among the rival factions that became clear at the Beidaihe meeting."

China's leaders and retired party elders get together in the seaside resort of Beidaihe, Hebei Province, every summer to informally discuss big topics. At this year's conclave, the political battle was over the country's top decision-making body -- the party's Politburo Standing Committee -- whose members are to be reshuffled at the October party congress.

Beside the personnel appointments, there are some ambitious proposals designed to help Xi further consolidate power. One is to enshrine his political doctrine in party rules. Another is retaining 69-year-old anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan as a Politburo Standing Committee member despite his being beyond the traditional retirement age, 68. Retaining Wang would be a clear departure from party practice.

There is also talk of allowing Xi to extend his reign beyond the party's 2022 national congress -- where he is supposed to step down as China's top leader after a second five-year term -- and of reviving the post of "party chairman" for Xi.

The post of party chairman was held by Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader who led China to communism, but the almighty status was abolished after his death. Under China's collective leadership system, the current top party post is general secretary.

The proposals designed to help Xi further concentrate his power apparently failed to receive a favorable reaction from party elders, including Hu and Jiang's proxies, at this year's closed-door Beidaihe meeting.

The next focal point is whether Fang's and Zhang's fates will be formally made known during the seventh plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party, set to convene on Oct. 11, ahead of the national congress.

This is an issue that will affect the political fortunes of Hu Chunhua, the top official in Guangdong Province. Hu Chunhua is one of the most promising next-generation leaders and a protege of former President Hu.

Like the mentor, the protege hails from the Communist Youth League, the party's massive youth organization. The elder Hu wants to see the younger Hu step into Xi's shoes as top national leader some day.

The return of Wang

The Fang-Zhang purge coincided with Wang Qishan reappearing in public life. Wang has spearheaded Xi's anti-corruption drive as head of the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

After weeks of absence from Chinese official media, the graft buster was reported on Sept. 5 to have inspected Hunan Province.

The next day, Wang made a bigger splash as he appeared at a round-table discussion in the capital with his wife, Yao Mingshan, her sister and her nephew -- all who have been targets of attacks from New York-based billionaire Guo Wengui. The fugitive tycoon has been relentless in accusing Wang's family on Twitter and YouTube of being involved in corruption at the HNA Group, a Chinese conglomerate expanding its overseas operations.

The round-table discussion was held at Beijing's grandiose Great Hall of the People to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yao Yilin, Yao Mingshan's father.

The late Yao, Wang's father-in-law, is a former conservative Politburo Standing Committee member who once served as a Chinese vice premier.

The attendee list said it all. Delivering a speech was the country's number-two, Premier Li Keqiang. Number-five Liu Yunshan and number-seven Zhang Gaoli were also present. Including Wang, a total of four Politburo Standing Committee members were at the event.

The four, together with Li Zhanshu and Zhao Leji, both Politburo members and close aides to Xi, took a commemorative photograph with the Wang family.

This CCTV footage from Sept. 6 shows four Politburo Standing Committee members, including Premier Li Keqiang and Wang Qishan, and some of Wang's family members, including his wife, posing for a photo.

Said one media industry source: "The state-run television station took the unusual step of airing footage showing the Wang family and leaders together for the commemorative photo. This apparently reflects Xi's determination to pull out all the stops to protect the Wang family."

Three other close aides to Xi took part in the round-table discussion: Liu He, Xi's economic adviser; He Lifeng, chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission; and Zhong Shan, the Chinese commerce minister.

And if the message was not clear enough, one only had to see Xi's younger brother Xi Yuanping also there. The president had mobilized the entire spectrum of the leadership to demonstrate his solidarity with Wang.

On the same day that the round-table discussion was held, Guo Wengui's lawyer said the tycoon had applied for political asylum in the U.S.

Propaganda TV

On Sept. 7, state-run China Central Television, or CCTV, began to broadcast "Sharp Sword of Inspection," a political documentary series that trumpets the considerable achievements made by teams of graft busters across the nation.

The title refers to an imperial sword that an ancient Chinese emperor bestowed upon an envoy. The subject was sent on a mission to rural areas and told he could use the sword to kill corrupt local bureaucrats on behalf of the emperor.

It can be said Wang is wielding the modern-day version of this sword -- one handed down by Xi.

Former acting party secretary of Tianjin, Huang Xingguo, and former party secretary of Liaoning Province, Wang Min appeared in the documentary series, confessing to their crimes.

Wang Qishan had personally mentioned the two figures in an article that he recently contributed to the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, touting the results of the anti-corruption campaign. Huang has been taken into custody; Wang Min was given a lifetime prison sentence.

The TV series, mostly propaganda, gives viewers the impression that the alliance between Xi and Wang Qishan will remain unchanged, even after the national congress.

But will it? A Beijing-based contact told me, "no one knows what will happen."

The party congress commences a month from today.

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