Leadership transition in the Chinese regime is a messy affair. Party leaders who cannot align themselves with the stance of key founding revolutionaries and Communist Party elders—persons with oversized importance—soon find themselves replaced. Leaders with less forceful personalities or pedigree get subjugated.
Xi Jinping, having spent his time in office battling with entrenched political interests, appears to be on the cusp of fully coming into his own as Party head.
When the top 300-plus Chinese officials gather in an undisclosed location in Beijing for a secretive “all-hands” meeting from Oct. 24 to Oct. 27, Xi is expected to pass regulations that govern the conduct of top leaders—a move that will in time bring to heel a rival political faction helmed by former Party leader Jiang Zemin.
The appearance of unruffled administration in recent years is deceptive. Before Chinese leader Xi Jinping was appointed General Secretary, a would-be Chinese defector told U.S. officials in China of a serious struggle for the Party’s leadership, according to a well-connected American national security reporter. Xi seemed to allude to an attempted coup when he accused purged elite officials of forming “cliques and cabals” to “wreck and split” the Party in a 2015 speech.
If Xi feels really confident and assured, he might also assume the mantle of the Party’s “core,” or “hexin” in Chinese—a symbolic gesture aimed at shifting the Party away from the previous “core” leader Jiang.
No False Moves
At the end of July, Xi Jinping announced that the “major issue of strictly governing the Party” will be addressed at the 6th Plenum. Elite cadres in the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the Politburo Standing Committee will have to “normalize their political life,” the statement on Party mouthpiece Xinhua read. Two earlier regulations on Party discipline—one drafted in the time of Deng Xiaoping and the other under Hu Jintao’s leadership—are also slated for revision at the plenum.
Xi’s advanced warning is unusual because the agenda for Party plenums are typically set between 10 to 14 days before they commence. In hindsight, Xi appears to have used the three-month lead up to the 6th Plenum to mount a major offensive, in the Party’s coded manner, against Jiang Zemin and his key allies in the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, Zhang Gaoli, Zhang Dejiang (no relation to Zhang Gaoli), and Liu Yunshan.
First to be put on notice was Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli. In mid-September, Tianjin acting Party Secretary Huang Xingguo and deputy mayor Yin Hailin were purged. Because both men owed their promotions to Zhang when he was Tianjin chief, an investigation into their misdeeds could implicate their political patron.
But bearing the brunt of Xi’s offensive is Zhang Dejiang, the head of the regime’s rubber stamp legislature and the top Chinese official overseeing semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
September saw the unprecedented mass sacking of legislators from the northeastern province of Liaoning for vote buying; a clear stain on Zhang. Weeks later, the pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper Sing Pao Daily launched a sustained attack of Zhang through very critical commentaries and cartoons on its front page. Sing Pao’s unusual audacity and the fact that an official publication by the regime’s anti-corruption agency approvingly cited the newspaper in a report has led observers to believe that Sing Pao has the blessings of the Xi Jinping camp.
When the Global Times, a nationalistic mainland Chinese publication, ran a scathing critique of Sing Pao (and invoked this newspaper as an intended jibe), Sing Pao responded by dragging propaganda chief Liu Yunshan into the fray. The Hong Kong newspaper claimed that Liu was behind the Global Times piece, and added that he and Zhang Dejiang were able to stir trouble in Hong Kong and escape accountability because they came under the “umbrella” of Jiang Zemin.
Sing Pao’s commentaries appear to have made explicit, and even official, the lines of alliances leading up to Jiang that this newspaper has long identified.
Jiang Zemin, the puppet master himself, has also been flagged.
In a recently released notice, Party internal investigators strongly criticized the 610 Office, a Gestapo-like organization that Jiang founded to oversee the persecution of Falun Gong, a traditional Chinese meditation practice. Investigators also hinted at the 610 Office’s illegal nature, and accused its senior leadership of not being discerning of the political winds; the Xi Jinping leadership has made signals over the years that it is shifting its stance on the Falun Gong issue.
Xi Jinping’s attack on Jiang Zemin and his three Politburo Standing Committee allies seems to signal: No false moves before my coronation as Party paramount.
‘Core’ of the Party
Messages encouraging Xi to assume the role of “core” leader—supreme status accorded to only Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin—have appeared in mainland Chinese in recent weeks.
Tapping on Party history and rhetoric, Party theoretician Fan Dezhi stressed the importance of having a “core” leader to stave off “disintegration,” and enable the Party to unite in “various types of struggle.” Fan’s Oct. 9 piece in Guangming Daily was carried by other mouthpiece media.
Nine days later, an article on People’s Forum, a subsidiary of the state-run People’s Daily, said that 98.7 percent of over 15,000 people it polled were clamoring for a “core leader.”
Li Tianxiao, a political commentator with the New York-based broadcaster New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD), says that the actions Xi Jinping has taken in recent weeks suggest that he feels confident enough to take up the mantle of the Party’s “core” at the 6th Plenum.
In that scenario, Li added, the “revisions” to the regulations on Party discipline to be discussed and passed at the plenum could revolve around editing the references to cadres needing to heed the Party’s “collective leadership” to “core leader” instead.
The concept of “collective leadership” was long deployed by Jiang Zemin to control his successor Hu Jintao. Before leaving office, Jiang added two more members to the seven-men Politburo Standing Committee, stacked it with his loyalists, and shackled Hu so effectively that he couldn’t get orders pass the leadership headquarters in Zhongnanhai, according to Chinese observers.
After centralizing power in himself, Li says, Xi can then focus on getting a “consensus” on holding Jiang accountable for the ills of the regime.
First as Party leader, then as a godfather-type figure, Jiang Zemin nurtured a culture of corruption that greatly enriched many Party cadres and their families, while widening economic disparity in society. Jiang Mianheng, the elder son of Jiang Zemin, is believed to have become a state telecommunications mogul by leveraging on their relationship.
Also, in a recently aired documentary series co-produced by the anti-corruption agency and state broadcaster China Central Television, purged cronies of Jiang made televised confessed to princely living, while investigators describe needing weeks to confiscated their ill-gotten wealth.
Further, Jiang has overseen one of the worse cases of human rights violation in modern China in persecuting Falun Gong practitioners. If the Xi Jinping leadership is indeed moving away from Jiang’s campaign, they could deflect the full blame of the persecution onto the Party elder.
With the 376-member Central Committee rallying around Xi, the 6th Plenum could thus become, according to Li Tianxiao, “an excellent platform” to go after Jiang.