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Xi digs in for the long haul

China's leader is set to take his power to new heights at the party congress

  © Getty Images

Xi Jinping will enter the Chinese Communist Party's national congress in Beijing on Oct. 18 as the country's most powerful leader in decades. When it is over, he hopes to emerge as the Mao Zedong of the 21st century.

In the five years since the last party congress, when he was named general secretary, Xi has greatly expanded the powers of his office. He has fortified his political position by ruthlessly deploying an "anti-corruption" campaign that has snared acquisitive billionaires, rival party members and local government officials. He has embraced the title of "supreme commander" to symbolize his control over the People's Liberation Army. He has sought more influence over the economy. And he has strengthened the state's stranglehold on the free flow of information.

Now, as the congress approaches, the 64-year-old Xi is looking to extend his hold on power. He harbors a thinly veiled ambition to stretch his rule into a third term at the party's 2022 national congress. "Xi Jinping is in no hurry to pick a successor," says Willy Lam, a China expert and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

If he prevails, Xi could well oversee a new era for China. Shortly after taking the helm of the Communist Party, Xi outlined his ideal of the "Chinese dream," a "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." The aim is to restore China's status as a great world power. In his first term, he has sought -- with moderate success -- to position China as a counterbalance to the U.S.-led world order. He introduced the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as an alternative to the Asian Development Bank and the Washington-based World Bank, and through his $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative presented a China-centric trade-and-aid package to developing nations. As President Donald Trump pushes his "America first" agenda, a hodgepodge of protectionist trade policies and isolationist foreign policy ideas, there could well be a leadership vacuum for China to fill.

In this article, Nikkei correspondents in China reveal episodes that demonstrate how Xi has consolidated his power over the last five years -- and give an indication of how he may run the country during the rest of his tenure.

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Sun Zhengcai was destined for great things. After rising through the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, he was named farm minister at the youthful age of 43. In 2012, he was elevated to the 25-member Politburo at age 49. Now 54, his ascent was supposed to continue this year at the party congress, when many thought he would be elevated to one of the vacant seats on the Politburo Standing Committee -- placing him in the small pool of candidates in line to succeed Xi Jinping as president one day.

It didn't work out that way. On the morning of July 14, Sun woke up as the party secretary of Chongqing, a fast-growing southwestern city with a population of about 30 million. By nightfall, however, he had been transformed from the face of a new political generation to a detainee. He had been picked up by the authorities in Beijing and held for "violations of discipline," making him the latest leading politician to be swept up in Xi's signature anti-corruption campaign.

That same afternoon, about 700km away in Qingdao, Sun's political future was dealt another blow when officials from China's Supreme People's Procuratorate raided a villa not far from his hometown. Inside was Sun's 53-year-old wife, Hu Ying. When officials presented a warrant for her arrest, she asked: "Are you kidding?"

Some observers say former President Hu Jintao, left, has warned his protege, Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chunhua, center, not to give the impression that he covets Xi's job.   © Getty Images

The pincer movement took out a rising political star just a few months before the party congress, reinforcing what some see as an implicit message from Xi to fellow party members: Don't start picking my successor.

Most of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members are expected to retire at the upcoming party congress because of their age, although Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, ranked second in the party hierarchy, will stay on.

Party watchers are focused on who will join the powerful committee, since those new members will be seen as likely candidates to step into Xi's shoes one day. But it is unclear when -- or even whether -- a full-fledged succession race will play out. Xi will be 69 when his second five-year term as party chief expires in 2022, but he is widely believed to crave a third term, defying the party's unofficial retirement age of 68.

Xi's allies have been locked in a fierce power struggle with rival factions led by two predecessors -- 91-year-old Jiang Zemin and his successor, 74-year-old Hu Jintao. Their aim is to remove those close to the two former presidents as a way to further tighten Xi's hold on the party.

Sun, who is associated with the Jiang camp, appears to have been caught up in this power struggle. His ousting, while neatly timed ahead of the party congress, appears to have roots in an earlier crackdown by Xi's anti-corruption enforcers.

In January 2015, Mao Xiaofeng, president of China Minsheng Banking, resigned abruptly after being placed under investigation by anti-corruption authorities. Mao had allegedly set up a "ladies club" inside the bank -- a way for people to provide various favors to the wives of high-ranking party officials. Gu Liping, wife of Ling Jihua, was one of those ladies. Her husband was former President Hu Jintao's right-hand man and was purged after Xi come to power.

Sun's wife, Hu Ying, was a former employee of the bank who also belonged to the club. While one person said that the members were "just enjoying yoga," one club source noted that "Sun's wife was a central figure of the club and attendants were always nervous, fearing that they might offend her."

"The ladies' club was used as an excuse to purge Sun," a source noted. But perhaps just as important as Hu Ying's membership in the ladies' club was Sun's membership in former President Jiang's faction. Sun was close to Jia Qinglin, one of Jiang's trusted allies.

Like Sun, Hu Chunhua, the 54-year-old party secretary in Guangdong Province, had been widely seen as a possible successor to Xi. But he appears to have escaped Sun's fate, despite having a close relationship with former President Hu Jintao -- thanks in large part to some carefully choreographed public posturing.

In late January, former President Hu made a surprise appearance at a flower market in Guangzhou accompanied by Hu Chunhua. Both of the men hail from the Communist Youth League, the party's 90-million-member youth organization whose leadership Xi is seeking to weaken.

Many felt that the elder Hu was using the flower market visit to publicly endorse his protege as a candidate to become China's next top leader. (The two Hus are not related, despite sharing the same family name.) But some party sources saw the high-profile appearance differently. "The real purpose was for Hu Jintao to whisper to Hu Chunhua: 'Don't push yourself,'" one party source said.

According to the source, the message the elder Hu wanted to directly convey to the younger Hu is: Xi is already eyeing his third term as party leader. Carelessly demonstrating your eagerness to take over from Xi could be dangerous.

There is also growing speculation within the party that the former president has assured Xi that the younger Hu "will never betray" him. In April, Xi praised the younger Hu, saying, "I highly evaluate his job performance in Guangdong."

At the same time, Xi has been elevating many of his close aides, including 57-year-old Chen Min'er. Long a low-profile figure, Chen has become the latest rising political star, winning promotion after promotion. His latest job: party secretary of Chongqing -- Sun's old position.

When Wang Qishan dropped out of sight for several weeks this summer, it prompted a torrent of speculation.

Wang has spearheaded Xi's sweeping anti-corruption campaign as head of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. His crackdowns often came after he fell out of public view for long periods -- hence the worry this summer. Many local officials who fear Wang's abrupt disappearances refer to them as "shen yin," which literally means "god" and "hide."

His latest shen yin ended in early September, but as the party congress grows closer the speculation about Wang has only intensified. Xi, who doubles as party general secretary, is said to want Wang to remain on the Politburo Standing Committee, even though the 69-year-old is already over the unofficial age limit.

Wang has expressed a desire to step down in October, multiple sources have told The Nikkei. "Wang has health problems and is hoping to end his career on a high note with his success in cracking down on corruption," a party source said.

Wang and Xi have deep ties. Under Mao's "Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement" during the Cultural Revolution, "intellectual youths" in cities were sent to live and work in rural areas. Xi and Wang were both sent to farming villages in Shaanxi Province in the late 1960s to live a "sent-down" life. Their shared hardships formed the basis of a strong bond.

But the speculation over Wang's future comes after months of scrutiny over his own relationship with a fast-growing Chinese company, HNA. In April, Wang became the subject of a barrage of attacks from Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire who fled to the U.S. In an interview with the Voice of America, a U.S. government-funded broadcaster, Guo disclosed that Wang's family is a major shareholder of HNA, an acquisitive group that has purchased a 9.9% stake in Deutsche Bank and spent $6.5 billion on Hilton Worldwide Holdings. (VOA cut the interview short, leading some to question whether there had been interference from the Chinese government, which the broadcaster denies.)

Since then, the Chinese whistleblower has continued to attack Wang on Twitter and YouTube, accusing Wang's family of being involved in serious corruption at HNA. Some of Xi's political foes are believed to be behind a series of bombshells dropped by Guo about the Wang family, though it is unclear who they might be.

Chinese authorities placed Guo on an international wanted list. At their behest, China's state media reported on his alleged illegal accumulation of wealth. But Guo responded with a broadside against Wang's wife, Yao Mingshan, alleging that she and her relatives have amassed fortunes through HNA.

Many of Guo's charges are difficult to prove. But it is clear that Wang has ties with Chen Feng, 64, HNA's top official.

In the second half of the 1980s, Chen worked under Wang at China Rural Trust and Investment. Wang served as general manager and secretary of the party committee at the company.

Wang supported Chen's entry into the airline business and even introduced him to George Soros, the billionaire investor. When Wang became Hainan Province's top official in 2002, Chen greeted him at a local airport.

Since then, HNA has grown from an airline operator into a sprawling international enterprise, spending $40 billion on overseas investments since 2014.

"It is true that Wang has supported HNA's growth," said a former executive at a major Chinese airline.

In June, Guo's attacks on Wang were making a splash and began to create problems for HNA.

At the suggestion of Yu Zhengsheng, a 72-year-old Politburo Standing Committee member close to former President Jiang, Chinese authorities stepped up their surveillance of five major conglomerates aggressively making high-profile overseas acquisitions.

Among them were Anbang Insurance Group and Dalian Wanda Group. But Wang and HNA were seen by some as the real targets of the Chinese authorities' move, as HNA accounted for 80% of the conglomerates' overseas acquisitions in the first half of 2017.

HNA's activity hasn't slowed since it came under scrutiny. While most of the other conglomerates being monitored have moved to divest some businesses and review their overseas acquisitions, HNA has kept up its investment spree. HNA completed its acquisition of equity stakes in Dufry, the world's largest duty-free retailer. In early September, the Chinese company made a formal offer to buy major Singaporean logistics company CWT.

It was around this time that Wang reappeared in public after about a month of shen yin. The slim politician appeared with his wife, and both seemed to be in good health -- a detail many noted following rumors that Wang was suffering from terminal liver cancer.

Wang's future in the party is unclear, with some speculating that Xi will offer him a post focusing on the economy to keep him on. The outcome will affect the fate of not only HNA but also Xi's rule.

In the five years since the last party congress, held in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, Xi has greatly expanded and consolidated his power.   © Reuters

At the end of August, a special vehicle arrived at a military facility in Beijing carrying Fang Fenghui. The 66-year-old had come not to perform his duties as one of the country's highest-ranking military officials, but to face an investigation by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection on suspicion of "serious disciplinary violations."

Only a week earlier, Fang had been a top official at China's Central Military Commission, the 11-member group that supervises the People's Liberation Army. Xi serves as the commission's chairman.

The timing of Fang's detention was a shock, since he had just held talks in Beijing on Aug. 15 with Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America's highest-ranking military officer. Dunford, accompanied by his wife, had hoped to forge a personal relationship with Fang, who would become his counterpart if he were elevated to vice chairman of the CMC as was widely expected.

Xi reviews People's Liberation Army troops in Inner Mongolia on July 30. His choice of attire was as rare as it was telling about his place in the military hierarchy.   © AP/Xinhua

Since coming to power, Xi has taken one of Mao's most famous maxims to heart: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." He has moved to take full control of the military, often employing the anti-corruption campaign that he has used to take out political rivals.

Fang's downfall was related to his alleged involvement with Guo Boxiong, a disgraced former vice chairman of the CMC close to former President Jiang. Xi had issued orders to "wash off Guo's poison."

"Xi targeted Fang to fill the military nerve center with people close to him," a military source said. "If Xi is to further cement his grip on power, taking full control of the military is crucial."

In July, state-run Xinhua News Agency started referring to Xi as the military's "zui gao tong shuai (supreme commander)," a title previously used only for Mao and Deng Xiaoping, both of whom placed the military under their full control while in power.

At the end of July, Xi presided over a military parade in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to commemorate the 90th founding anniversary of the PLA on Aug. 1. He reviewed PLA troops wearing a camouflage uniform instead of the customary Mao suit. The message was unmistakable: Xi is in command of the military.

Xi appears to have learned a lesson from former President Hu, whose regime was on a weak political footing because senior military officials close to Jiang remained firmly in control of the PLA.

For China to realize Xi's ideal of the "Chinese dream," it must regain the great power status it enjoyed before it became a semi-colony of foreign powers following the 1840-42 Opium War, by 2049 -- the 100th anniversary of the founding of People's Republic of China.

But the dream cannot come true if China lacks a strong military, a message Xi drove home in August when he quoted Mao to demand the military's allegiance. "Our principle is that the party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the party," he said.

In Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province, not even jaywalkers can escape China's all-seeing eye.

A massive screen has been erected in an area that is home to many universities. When pedestrians ignore red lights at a nearby intersection, their faces are caught on camera and displayed for all to see. Sometimes the local police even post the images online, along with the peoples' names, ID numbers and addresses. One public security source put it bluntly: "We aim to keep track of every move people make."

It is one sign of what some see as the ever-lengthening reach of the state under Xi Jinping. Such complaints can be heard from pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, authors on the mainland or posters on social media site Weibo, who see their comments deleted by government censors. In Xi's China, major foreign news sites are shut down when an article rankles the authorities.

Surveillance cameras and a video screen are ready to expose jaywalkers to the public in Jinan, Shandong Province.

Censorship is nothing new in China, but Xi has taken the practice to new extremes in the name of preserving stability and order. The clampdown has intensified as the party congress has approached. This summer, tough new guidelines were introduced that could greatly expand censorship on digital media, singling out over 60 categories of video content that should be blocked from the public. Among them: anything that is "derogatory to, spoofs, or causes damage to the revolutionary leader, his heroic image and reputation."

Cambridge University Press came under fire in August for violating academic freedom by blocking online access in China to academic articles related to the 1989 Tiananmen protests and Tibet. It reversed the move, acknowledging it took the controversial action in response to pressure from the government. And Apple was criticized for removing its "virtual private network," or VPN, apps from its App Store in China. The VPNs allow users to circumvent China's censors. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, said the company "would obviously rather not remove the apps" but was obligated to follow the law in countries where it does business.

In August, the Cyberspace Administration of China launched probes into Tencent Holdings' WeChat mobile chat service, Sina's Weibo microblogging service and search engine giant Baidu's Tieba forums. In late September, Sina and Tencent were slapped with the maximum fines for violating the rules, which will likely lead them to begin shutting down accounts and wiping out content that regulators deem inappropriate. "Regulators have taken a big step toward complete control of online public opinion," an executive of a major internet company told the Nikkei.

In July alone, Weibo deleted around 118,000 posts related to politics and suspended or took other action on more than 400 accounts. Among them were posts about Liu Xiaobo, the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate and pro-democracy activist, who died on July 13.

Willy Lam, the adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, notes that Xi agrees with Mao's belief in shaping the minds of Chinese people from kindergarten to the grave. But Xi has tools at his disposal that the revolutionary leader could not have dreamed of, including artificial intelligence, facial recognition software, big data and cloud computing.

"Xi's top priority is to maintain the Communist Party's monopoly of power," Lam said.

Compiled from stories written by Nikkei deputy editor Masahiro Okoshi, Head of Nikkei's China Headquarters Tetsushi Takahashi and Nikkei staff writers Yasuo Awai, Shunsuke Tabeta, Wataru Kodaka, Yusho Cho, Yu Nakamura, Issaku Harada, Oki Nagai, Daisuke Harashima and Kensaku Ihara. Kenji Kawase, Business and Markets news editor for the Nikkei Asian Review in Tokyo, contributed to this report.

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