TOKYO -- In a surprise gambit, Chinese President Xi Jinping has broken with a long-standing military tradition in a bid to strengthen his political position ahead of the Communist Party's leadership reshuffle later this year.
It happened when Xi, who doubles as the party's general secretary, paid a high-profile visit to Hong Kong for a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the former British colony's return to Chinese rule.
On the eve of the July 1 handover anniversary ceremony, he attended a military parade to review the 3,100 Chinese troops stationed in Hong Kong. Although the military event drew little attention, a significant thing happened there.
Apparently at Xi's behest, the troops referred to him as "zhuxi" instead of "shouzhang," the title usually used during such inspections.
Shouzhang is a generic Chinese term used to refer to a leader or commander, but zhuxi -- or chairman -- is a term usually used specifically to refer to the top leader of the state and the country's powerful Central Military Commission.
Xi came to power as the party's general secretary in the autumn of 2012 and became president in the spring of 2013. Even the national government plays second fiddle to the Communist Party.
In Hong Kong, Xi addressed the troops as "comrades" from a car and they responded by shouting in unison, "Hello, chairman!" This significant departure from party protocol reflects the president's ambitions in this politically sensitive year.
Another Chinese leader in modern times used the title of chairman: Mao Zedong, the revolutionary boss who later became dictator.
Mao's title signified his primacy as the party's top leader and status as all-powerful. But the post of party chairman was later abolished; today, under the collective leadership system, the party head is called the general secretary.
Even Deng Xiaoping, the former supreme leader who oversaw the Hong Kong handover negotiations, and Xi predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao used the title of shouzhang when they reviewed troops.
Xi was called shouzhang by the troops in a Beijing military parade in September 2015. But his political strength has greatly increased since then, as seen in his successful push to establish his status as the "core" of the party -- a word packed with significance.
The term "core," which sets Xi apart from and above other party leaders, was adopted in October last year at the sixth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party.
This time, Xi is using another term -- "chairman" -- for symbolic effect. But why?
"Xi is trying to put himself above past leaders and be on par with Mao," said a source familiar with the inner workings of the Communist Party.
"Xi has switched from 'shouzhang' to 'zhuxi' to make clear that he is the only person the troops should remain loyal to," the source said. "This means he has taken full control of the military."
Another source said, "Xi has in mind a higher status than just general secretary of the Communist Party."
This name game and various other recent incidents -- some of them mysterious -- are all related to the upcoming party leadership shake-up. Xi's aim is to eliminate the influence of party elders and thereby form a new leadership team of his choice.
The Politburo Standing Committee, the party's top decision-making body, will be reshuffled this fall at the party's national congress. Most of the current seven committee members are supposed to retire because of their age, although Xi and Premier Li Keqiang will stay on.
One puzzling incident happened in early June, when Wu Xiaohui, chairman of Anbang Insurance Group, a relatively new but major Chinese insurer, suddenly disappeared from the public eye.
His absence came soon after China's insurance industry regulator ordered Anbang, which had run into financial problems, to stop selling new products for three months.
Anbang said in a statement that Wu "can't perform his duties for personal reasons." There were also reports in the Chinese media that the executive's freedom was being "restricted" because of investigations by the authorities.
Caixin, an influential Chinese economic magazine, had earlier run a feature story about Anbang's financial woes. Months earlier, rumors were swirling that Wu had been detained, but he tried to lay those to rest by, among other things, giving an interview to a local newspaper.
Anbang is little over a decade old, but it spent money like an old pro, splashing out aggressively on overseas investments.
In 2014, for example, it acquired the venerable Waldorf Astoria New York hotel, traditionally used by U.S. presidents when they attend U.N. General Assembly sessions.
Wu dined with Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a senior White House adviser, at a restaurant in the Waldorf in November 2016, although he did so without getting prior consent from the Xi regime.
"Second red generation"
Anbang does, as Caixin magazine pointed out, have financial troubles. But the insurer's deeper problem, like with many other Chinese corporate behemoths, is tied to politics.
Since his inauguration, Xi has used his sweeping anti-corruption campaign as a tool to topple political foes and consolidate power.
Wu's apparent detention shows that the anti-corruption crusade has spread to people close to the "second red generation" -- the children of revolutionary-era party leaders and, until recently, seemingly untouchable.
Wu married the granddaughter of Deng, the late paramount leader who introduced and pushed ahead with the policy of "reform and opening-up" that paved the way for the country's rapid economic development.
Anbang enjoyed the behind-the-scenes support of Chen Xiaolu, an influential member of the second red generation. Chen is the son of Chen Yi, one of the 10 marshals of the People's Liberation Army. With the backing of the Deng family and Chen, the company expanded with breathtaking speed.
But according to a Caixin report, "the suspension of the marital relationship" between Wu and Deng's granddaughter "was confirmed." In other words, they are practically in a state of divorce.
Anbang refuted Caixin's reports about the company's shaky finances and moved to sue the magazine. It is worth noting that Caixin's prominent female editor, Hu Shuli, is close to Wang Qishan, a key Xi ally and China's anti-corruption czar.
Wang, who is also one of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members, has spearheaded the corruption crackdown as the head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party's top anti-graft body. By attacking Caixin, Anbang was effectively challenging Wang.
But as is often the case in China, Wu vanished from the public eye before he could explain his situation.
Even if Wu makes a comeback, he will find himself in a completely different environment, as the Deng family is unlikely offer its support.
When China began opening up in earnest in the 1980s, members of the second red generation and "princelings" -- children of prominent and influential senior party officials -- who were not allowed to enter politics chose business as their avenue to power.
Those entrepreneurs from blue-blooded political families unquestionably played a role in driving China's high economic growth. But they were also plagued by rampant corruption, using their political influence to move the market.
Today, that group still wields enormous political and economic influence. It comprises several hundred members, and none hold more sway than the Dengs.
Xi -- the son of Xi Zhongxun, a former Chinese vice premier -- also belongs to the second red generation. But the Xi family is not known for its clout, hailing as it does from the deeply rural province of Shaanxi.
Since taking office, Xi has vowed to battle corruption. As such, he cannot afford to turn a blind eye to any misdeeds, even those related to the politically powerful fellow members of the second red generation or their businesses.
The Anbang affair suggests that the Deng family has become more willing to respect Xi's power.
Containing the old guard
Political forces within the Communist Party are broadly divided into three factions -- Xi's group; the Communist Youth League faction, which comprises former officials of the Communist Youth League; and the former President Jiang faction.
The Communist Youth League is the party's massive youth organization. Heading that faction are former President Hu and current Premier Li.
Jiang does not belong to the second red generation, but he rode on Deng's coattails. It was Deng who designated Jiang as Chinese leader, paving the way for his long rule.
Former Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong, a prominent member of the Jiang faction, is big hitter within the second red generation.
Factional sparring was seen recently when Xi and Wang bared their fangs at high-profile Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua, who has close links with the Jiang group. Xiao disappeared from the posh Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong immediately before this year's Chinese New Year holiday.
The tycoon is thought to have been taken to the mainland by Chinese authorities. He is among those businesspeople who have moved the Chinese market in accordance with the wishes of the second red generation.
In April, Xiang Junbo, chairman of the China Insurance Regulatory Commission and someone with links to Xiao, fell from power after being placed under investigation by the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection for "serious disciplinary violations."
The Xi regime has been showing zero tolerance for companies and billionaires it cannot control; the same applies even to members of the second red generation who show signs of resisting.
"This is (Xi's) battle to demonstrate who is the owner of the Communist Party," said an influential Chinese businessperson. If Xi wins, he will be able to rein in the influence of outspoken party elders. There will be desperate counterattacks from his political foes, however.
The fierce tug-of-war will enter its endgame this summer ahead of the party's all-important national congress.