Ahead of 19th Party Congress, Xi’s Struggle Continues

’s long-running crackdown on Party corruption culminated earlier this month with a life sentence for Ling Jihua, a former top aide to Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao. Since its launch after his ascendency to the highest echelon of Party power in 2012, Xi’s corruption crackdown has been described by many as, at least in part, a means to consolidate his power. The “tiger hunt” has felled officials from Party cliques in direct competition with Xi’s own “Zhejiang faction,” a new caucus that the president has built by promoting allies from his days at the helm of the eastern province. Ling Jihua and former state security chief Zhou Yongkang, also serving life in prison, are two of the best examples of fallen competition. (In Xi’s own words, the combatting of factionalism is a primary goal of the anti-graft campaign, though prior to the campaign’s launch, the that he represents had not yet emerged as a major power base.)

In just over a year, Xi will oversee the 19th Party Congress, at which five of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee—the very epicenter of Party power—are expected to be replaced. Only Xi and Premier —himself representative of the —are expected to remain. Last week, The Wall Street Journal published on Xi’s moves to date to squeeze members of rival out of power, and on suspicions that his number two, Li Keqiang, may be in the crosshairs ahead of the congress:

Mr. Xi has targeted in particular the Communist Youth League, the power base of Mr. Hu’s faction. Its budget has been cut in half and its leaders forced to make self-criticisms about their “elitism.” By intimidating other power-brokers, Mr. Xi has cleared the way to put his supporters in key positions. Last week Xi ally Xu Lin was unexpectedly named the new head of internet censorship.

The culmination of these maneuvers could be the removal of Premier Li Keqiang, the one Hu ally on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of Chinese politics. Mr. Li would normally serve a 10-year term through 2022, but rumors are flying that Mr. Xi will force him to retire at the Party Congress next year and move other Hu allies into ceremonial positions.

Attacking rival factions’ right to exist violates a key tenet of Chinese elite politics since Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1979. The top leader has always governed in consensus with other leaders who maintained their own power bases. These factions competed for key positions but did not seek to eliminate each other. This tradition was designed to prevent a repeat of Mao’s purges. Mr. Xi has upended this decision making by consensus and made himself the decider in all policy realms. [Source]

Debunking the popular belief that autocratic rule like China’s is a boon to decisive policymaking, Minxin Pei explains at the Nikkei Asian Review that behind-the-scenes political jockeying complicates things for China’s rulers. In the essay, Pei explains why the 19th Congress is instrumental for Xi to rein in control of the Politburo:

If things go well, he could place his supporters in the Politburo and, most importantly, on the Politburo Standing Committee. Under the existing, informal rule of mandatory retirement, five of the seven members of the committee are slated to step down next year. If Xi can appoint three of his loyalists to the committee, he will control the party’s top decision-making body.

There is also speculation about even more consequential changes at the next party congress, such as the end of the informal rules on term and age limits, and the practice of appointing a successor-to-be five years ahead of the anticipated succession. If a successor to Xi is to be anointed, it will occur at the 19th congress.

[…] But what does all this political maneuvering have to do with economic policy? The short answer is everything.

The popular notion that the Communist Party is a top-down dictatorship, in which the most powerful rulers can impose their will on those at lower levels of the regime, has no basis in reality. The present regime is an elitist coalition consisting of numerous factions and interest groups. One particular group or individual in this regime may be more powerful than any of its or his individual competitors, but even this dominant group or individual can seldom completely disregard the unified opposition of other groups.

What complicates the political calculus of today’s top Chinese leaders, and particularly of Xi, is that the party’s leadership selection process is constrained by formal and informal procedures in which subnational leaders, in particular provincial party chiefs and governors, could exert real influence. Between now and the 19th congress, the most crucial event in determining the lineup of the next Politburo will be an informal gathering of the Central Committee and a group of retired senior leaders (former Politburo members) in June next year. […] [Source]

Ahead of the 19th Congress, some anticipate an attempt by Xi to stack the leadership with his own allies. At the Nikkei Asian Review, Katsuji Nakazawa writes on the rise of Zhejiang faction members during Xi’s tenure, some of whom may see Politburo and CCP Central Committee promotions at next year’s meeting:

The new leadership team to be formed next year will include likely candidates to succeed Xi as leader of the world’s most populous country.

[…Tianjin Party secretary] Huang [Xingguo, a core member of the Zhejiang faction] is so close to Xi that he may be promoted to a higher post, possibly to the Communist Party’s 25-member Politburo, at next year’s national congress.

Another person with the same family name is also expected to be promoted. Huang Kunming, the 59-year-old executive deputy head of the Communist Party’s Publicity Department, was born in Fujian but is now an influential member of the Zhejiang faction.

Huang Kunming, who caught Xi’s attention while serving long stints in Zhejiang, assumed his current post after serving as party chief in Hangzhou.

Clearly riding Xi’s coattails, Huang Kunming moved to Beijing a year after Xi became the party’s general secretary in the autumn of 2012.

[…] Chen Min’er, the 55-year-old party secretary in Guizhou Province, is particularly promising among the core members of the rapidly ascending Zhejiang faction.

Chen won Xi’s trust when Xi was party secretary in Zhejiang. Chen, who served under Xi at the time, has been stepping up the party ladder ever since. [Source]

Nakazawa continues to note that the rise of Xi allies could complicate early predictions on who will take the helm of Party power after Xi steps down in 2022. If he continues with the classic trend of stacking the leadership with allies and influencing power from behind the scenes, the installation of figures like Chen and fellow Zhejiang faction member Li Qiang, recently promoted to Jiangsu party secretary, could upset earlier forecasts. Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua, Party secretaries of Chongqing and Guangdong, respectively, have previously been tipped as likely candidates to succeed Xi.

More dramatically still, some suspect that Xi will seek to defy the current convention of 10-year leadership terms. One of the recently abducted Hong Kong booksellers published a book last year on such plans; the subsequent detentions may have been intended to help uncover his sources. Last month, Stuart Leavenworth wrote in The Guardian of Lam Wing-Kee’s claims to that effect. Lam, another abducted bookseller, refused to return to China after being released, instead holding a press conference on his eight months in detention.

Lam Wing-kee said his interrogators were particularly interested in who had supplied information for the book Xi Jinping’s Dream of a 20-year Rule, published last year by , who later went missing.

[…] Lam said he believed the crackdown was aimed at rooting out a clique within the party suspected of seeking to undermine Xi.