Xi Jinping is China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping
On July 30th 2017, China assembled 12,000 regular troops and over 600 armoured vehicles to mark the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Occurring almost two years to the day since China’s last major display of military strength, the parade at the Zhurihe military base in Inner Mongolia represented an even more dramatic display of military power than the one in Beijing. The vast expanse of the Gobi desert brought into sharp relief the densely packed columns of main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and ballistic missiles that now make up the increasingly modern inventory of the PLA.
From a purely visual standpoint if the parade’s intention was to intimidate, then it most certainly succeeded. However as with many such events in China, the spectacle was heavily choreographed and primarily intended for a domestic audience upon which it sought to impart two very distinct messages.
Firstly, that the bloated, obsolete and outdated PLA of the 20th Century was now a thing of the past. At the 2015 parade in Beijing, President Xi announced a sweeping reorganisation of the military that included cutting the PLA’s strength by 300,000 personnel with the savings invested into research and development. Two years later the fruits of this policy are now beginning to be visible. Half of the equipment on display was reportedly being viewed for the first time. Even more dramatic, the parade saw the J-20 stealth fighter displayed for the first time serving as a powerful symbol of 21st Century China’s technological and military prowess.
With infantry formations and vehicles alike decked in digital camouflage, the parade sent the message that the PLA was a leaner, more mechanised and more potent military force.
Secondly and more importantly, the parade sought to project the message to the 88.7 million members of the Communist Party that President Xi Jinping, who has already accumulated more personal power in Beijing than any previous Chinese leader, is now in complete control of the People’s Liberation Army ahead of the 19th Party Congress later this year. Appearing in military fatigues and atop an open top jeep, Xi took the salute alone, in contrast to two years prior where former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were also present. Having awarded himself the title of ‘Commander in Chief’ of the PLA in April 2016, Xi now sought to look the part, with China’s state broadcaster CCTV airing the footage continuously to reinforce the point that the armed forces answered solely to him.
In demonstrating control of the military, Xi Jinping has sought to secure his position ahead of the 19th Party Congress in October. However in the murky factionalism that still dominates the Communist Party, Xi’s political future is far from secure.
Retaining the Core Leadership
As the head of the military, the party and the state, Xi Jinping is afforded multiple titles. In the Western press he is casually referred to simply as China’s president, but Xi also serves as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Within the Chinese government, Xi is already known to directly chair multiple policyplanning committees on foreign policy, Taiwan and the South and East China seas. Whilst always having the final say on foreign policy, President Xi’s decision to directly chair these committees represents an expansion of the role of the president, well beyond that undertaken by his immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.
Having been designated the ‘Core Leadership’ of the 5th generation of China’s leaders, a title never awarded to his predecessor Hu Jintao, Xi is seeking to retain this position during the 19th Party Congress.
At present Xi has not indicated any potential successor from the 6th generation, who increasingly constitute the majority of China’s provincial party standing committees. Xi is widely anticipated to promote members of the 6th generation to the new Central Committee much as he himself was elevated from the role Fujian to Shanghai and then to the vice presidency. The key to success for Xi will be to ensure that his own loyalists retain a majority in order to keep himself in position. The sudden and dramatic downfall of Sun Zhengcai, the party secretary of Chongqing over alleged corruption is revealing. Appointed in 2012, Sun was seen as a potential rival to Xi, given the size and importance of the role of Chongqing party chief within the Communist system. His replacement by Chen Miner, a reported Xi loyalist suggests a determined ruthlessness to prevent alternative poles of power to develop ahead of the October Party Congress.
Indeed of the many figures now coming into view as future politburo members, the common trend appears to be their ties to China’s current strongman.
Rising to prominence in 2016 following his promotion to Tianjin party secretary, Li Hongzhong is a current favourite within the 5th generation to enter the Politburo after endorsing early on Xi’s designation as ‘Core Leader’. According to the Epoch Times however, Li is considered a political chameleon given his prior outbursts of loyalty to Xi’s arch rival Jiang Zemin, Li likewise has reportedly close ties to Liu Yunshan, China’s propaganda chief and Xi’s principal rival on the current Politburo standing committee. These ties may ultimately prove to be Li’s undoing.
Another potential Xi loyalist is Cai Qi, who was elevated to the position of Party Secretary of Beijing in May 2017 after previously serving as the city’s mayor. As one of the most prestigious positions in all China, whoever holds the office of Beijing party chief is destined for further positions of power. Cai’s own biography explains his rise. Cai is a native of Fujian province and met Xi Jinping during the president’s time as Governor of Fujian from 1999 to 2002. In 2004, Qi became party secretary of the city of Taizhou answering to Xi whilst he served as Party Secretary of Zhejiang province from 2002 to 2007. Despite not being a member of the Central Committee, his elevation to Beijing suggests Xi sees Qi as a valuable ally in the power struggle that lies ahead.
Securing the transfer of power in 2022
What is apparent is that Xi Jinping is securing a power base not only within government but also among the wider Chinese public. Xi’s consolidation of power in Beijing is increasingly being matched by what many observers have termed a nascent cult of personality. Since assuming power, the Xi administration has demonstrated increasingly authoritarian, even Maoist, tendencies, launching diatribes against the cultural and political influence by foreigners, while at the same time state outlets such as Xinhua, the People’s Daily, and the international broadcaster CCTV have presented fawning coverage of Xi.
This rise of personality cult comes at an incredibly sensitive time for China. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao Zedong to reclaim control over the CCP through purges that saw over 2 million people killed by Mao’s Red Guards and much of China’s cultural heritage destroyed. The party has shown incredible reluctance to even acknowledge the anniversary, let alone allow comparisons between Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. Editions of Time Magazine and The Economist that have done so have been banned in China.
A recent controversy in China regarding depictions of the Cultural Revolution has revealed a potential power struggle against the increasing centralisation of personal and political power by Xi Jinping.
In early May 2016, a Maoist themed Cultural Revolution concert that included Red Guard songs from the era calling for “people of the world unite to defeat American invaders” was held in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. At repeated intervals, images of Xi Jinping appeared alongside Chairman Mao as the 56 Flowers choir extolled the virtues of the ‘Great Helmsman’ and the Cultural Revolution, inferring Xi was comparable to Mao Zedong.
Such a comparison is politically poisonous in China, as the post-Deng Xiaoping decentralised structure of the CCP is intended to never again allow one-man rule and the cult of personality in China. In 2012, Bo Xilai the Communist Party Secretary of Chongqing was arrested for attempting to revive such a Maoist personality cult at the regional level.
It has been suggested that forces within the CCP close to Jiang Zemin deliberately arranged for the concert to take place in order to portray President Xi’s leadership as a Mao-style personality cult.
Tellingly two days after the Maoist concert, Xi gave a speech warning ‘cliques and conspirators’ were active within the Communist Party seeking to undermine his government. The list of suspects powerful enough to allow or permit a Maoist revivalist concert in the Great Hall of the People is indeed short. One name that is mentioned however is propaganda chief Liu Yunshan, a high level member of the Politburo Standing Committee with reportedly close ties to Jiang Zemin.
The 19th Party Congress in less than a months’ time will reveal just how secure is Xi Jinping’s position truly is. On the face of it, his control of the party, government and military seems absolute, but Chinese history is replete with emperors whose control was unquestionable right up until the moment it wasn’t. The system designed to avoid one-man rule in China is beginning to strain. For now Xi Jinping is China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, but the question is for how long?