China's President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of B20 Summit ahead of G20 Summit, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song
China's President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening ceremony of B20 Summit ahead of G20 Summit, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, September 3, 2016. REUTERS/Aly Song

Clearly the big prize is to dominate the Politburo and the Central Committee at the Party Congress next year, and thus to have the votes to push through the changes and the reforms he deems necessary to move the country forward.

“He” is Xi Jinping, head of the party, the government, and the army, who in recent years has been accruing as much power in China as possibly only Mao Zedong before him had. Yet he does not have enough clout to push through the reform of the ailing and under-performing State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), which has been on his mind, in his speeches and programs since the first day he took power in 2012.

It is a strange situation: Xi sits on all the power—none of his opponents has enough strength to topple him—but the antagonists can muster enough force to slow down or stop Xi’s plans for change. The vested interests in the country and the party are well rooted, widespread, and unwilling to give up all of their privileges and money for the general benefit of the country – or what they may believe are Xi’s personal ambitions. It is almost a political deadlock, and for both Xi and his opponents, it may be a fight to the bitter end.

For Xi to achieve the necessary votes and desired pull, according to party procedure, the next plenum of the Central Committee, opening on October 24, will have to prepare an agenda for the 2017 Party Congress in line with his wishes. This is why this plenum may be crucial for both Xi, and his adversaries. Perhaps a measure of Xi’s difficulties can be found in an episode at the end of August.

Then Wang Jianping, 62, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department under the powerful Central Military Commission, was arrested in Chengdu for violating Party discipline, a euphemism for corruption. Wang was an accomplice of disgraced security czar Zhou Yongkang, also arrested for corruption. Still Wang was possibly the first high-ranking general arrested while in office since the fall of the Gang of Four in 1976. Other senior generals were arrested before him but all were in retirement.

This may indicate that the reform of the People’s Liberation Army, launched earlier this year, is moving ahead with difficulty. Many senior officers are stonewalling or clearly opposing the reform that is about to shed 300,000 personnel, some 15% of the force. With this reform, the army should be more combat-ready, but even more importantly, Xi would have full control of the “hard powers,” which in China are the army and security. Xi took control of security with Zhou Yongkang’s downfall.

In this complex situation, the next plenum could be crucial to gauge Xi’s future power. None of his future intentions is clear. There are rumors he wants to stay after his expected retirement time, in 2022, and there are also whispers he may want to break the party rule that imposes age limits and thus retain his close ally Wang Qishan, head of the Party Discipline Commission.

He has definitely shelved the authority of the leaders of Jiang Zemin’s generation, who had retained influence until 2013–2014. He praises his predecessor Hu Jintao. Hu has fully retired and through this paved the way for Xi’s present concentration of power. Finally, Xi may want to promote people loyal to him and in line with his political plans, but judging from what we have seen so far, Xi may want people he knows well, thus not necessarily people who were just loyal to Hu. The problem with Hu’s people, many of whom were groomed through the Youth League of the party, is that some might not be trustworthy. Hu’s main aide, Lin Jihua, was found to be in cahoots with Hu’s main enemies, Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai, Chongqing’s disgraced party chief.

Moreover, next year’s Party Congress will be dominated by incumbent leaders, not retired ones, as was the case for all congresses since the 1980s. Then Deng Xiaoping and other party elders, who came back to power after arresting the Gang of Four, devised a two-layer leadership structure. The elders were semiretired and in charge of big, long-term plans, and the younger generation in charge of the day-to-day routine. This structure was progressively adjusted over the years but basically it remained. Hu Jintao, for instance, was chosen by Deng Xiaoping, over the wishes of Jiang Zemin who might have preferred his “hatchet-man” Zeng Qinghong, and also Xi Jinping was chosen as party chief by Jiang and other elders over the wishes of Hu Jintao, who at the time might have preferred Li Keqiang to Xi.

With the full retirement of Hu, which de facto forced the full retirement of those in the party older than him, Xi is the first leader in decades to have a strong hand in choosing his successors. But because of the very high stakes in next year’s congress, which could take trillions of assets of the SOEs away from a privileged class of senior party officials, Xi is trying to make sure he will not share decision-making control on the future of the country not only with the retired elders but also not with the senior and mid-ranking officials in the party, who so far had acquired a fair amount of bargaining power. To have that, next year he must have a Politburo (about 25 people) and possibly also a Central Committee (about 300) firmly with him. For that, he has to set the agenda at the plenum this year and possibly. Here a decision over the future rules could determine the personnel choices one side wants to achieve.

A decision over the rules is key to the promotions and demotions at the Congress in 2017. In 1997, at the 15th Party Congress, Qiao Shi (head of the Party School, parliament, security, trade unions, organization and disciplinary departments, secretariat, et cetera), who was de facto the number one in the party, was forced to retire because of the introduction of age limits. Qiao, who wanted the party to be ruled by laws and not men, was trapped by the introduction of the new rule. He could have fought it, but decided to give in to preserve the party unity. Xi’s opponents are unlikely to repeat Qiao’s gentlemanly behavior and probably will struggle with tooth-and-nail to hold on to their privileges.

Will the party now decide to concentrate even more power in the hands of Xi Jinping and thus give him ample room to demote and promote according to his wishes? Or will the party go for bylaws that will set objective standards to gauge if a man is fit or unfit for a position? In a democracy, the choice by popular vote of the head of state leaves the president or the prime minister free to pick most of his staff. China decided to do without the popular mandate of a vote but tried to restrain anyway the concentration of power that characterized Mao’s rule by setting up a series of measures to check leaders and officials.

These internal measures have grown into a jungle and created an enormous space used by leaders and officials to protect themselves. Xi is in a very difficult spot. If he chooses to accrue even more power, he could be accused of trying to become a second Mao; if he chooses the move according to new rules, he will run the risk that someone in the party could try to use the rules against him. Xi might try to move between this Scylla (more power) and Charybdis (navigating the rules) or invent something new. He has so far proved to be unpredictable and might well be again. In this situation it may be just to early to think of the names in the future leadership. The next Congress will replace five or four of its seven members? Who will be the new guys? The central issue seems the power of Xi or that of his enemies.

It is a very delicate moment. There may be a last-ditch effort by Xi’s adversaries in the party, and they may use all kinds of plays and games to survive and defeat their enemy.

Francesco Sisci

Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He works for the Catholic research center

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