Since his appointment by the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012 as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and President of China—simultaneously for the first time in 30 years—Xi Jinping has steadily consolidated his position. He has also substantively enhanced his power and authority.
Today Xi Jinping holds 13 formal positions—more than any Chinese Communist Party leader including Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. Included among the organisations under his direct supervision are the sensitive national security apparatus, cyber security, the National Security Council, the military and the economy.
A major step that signalled the formal consolidation of political power by Xi Jinping was when in October 2016, the CCP Central Committee’s (CC’s) Sixth Plenum designated him the “core of the leadership”. Earlier, in June 2014, the party’s authoritative theoretical journal Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth), described Xi Jinping as “one of China’s greatest Communist leaders”, thereby placing him above his peers. Reports presented at the 10-day session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2017, also pointed to Xi Jinping’s enhanced authority. Together these augment Xi Jinping’s political power and pave the way for his speeches and guidelines to be enshrined at the upcoming 19th Party Congress in November 2017 as either “Xi Jinping Theory” or “Xi Jinping Thought”. Only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping have been credited in such manner. Xi Jinping’s hold over the party, government and armed forces has been facilitated by the unprecedentedly protracted and vigorous campaign against corruption spearheaded by Wang Qishan, his schoolmate, fellow princeling and Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member. The campaign had, by last year, felled over 176 cadres of the rank of central vice minister and above in the party, Government and State owned Enterprises (SoEs). Similarly, in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), at least 86 officers of the rank of major general were under investigation or had been arrested for corruption. By March 2017, a total of 4,885 PLA officers were officially reported to have been “punished” for graft. Another 50 generals were retired this January, clearing the way for Xi Jinping to promote over 135 general officers and ensure that the PLA’s senior echelons are filled with persons of his choice. Xi Jinping has already begun filling top-echelon appointments with younger professionally qualified officers, as illustrated by the appointments in January 2017 of a new PLA Navy (PLAN) commander and, for the first time ever, a PLAN officer as commander of the Southern Theatre Command.
The upcoming 19th Party Congress scheduled to convene in Beijing in October/November this year is an important event for Xi Jinping, when over 60%, or nearly 200, new members will be appointed to the CC. The selection of 2,300 delegates from 40 electoral blocs to the 19th Party Congress is well underway and will be completed by June 2017. If informal norms stipulating the retirement age that have been in force since 2007 are followed, then there will be five vacancies in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), which is the party’s highest body, and 11 in the Politburo (PB).
Xi Jinping is well positioned to promote loyalists and cadres of his choice to the CCP’s CC at the 19th Party Congress. By February 2017, over 130 senior provincial level cadres were promoted and positioned for possible induction to the CC or Politburo. Xi Jinping will strive to promote his loyalists and protégés to strengthen his authority and ensure implementation of his policies. A number of Xi Jinping’s protégés are young and will be first time entrants to the CCP CC, thereby ensuring that Xi Jinping’s influence will last at least ten more years. Some of them have publicly articulated tough stances supportive of China’s claims on territory and sovereignty.
However, indications have recently begun surfacing of possible opposition within the party’s higher echelons to Xi Jinping’s plans. Between last August and March this year, the Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing Sing Pao newspaper published accusations against Hong Kong chief executive C.Y. Leung, the Liaison Office and PBSC member and chairman of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), Zhang Dejiang. Hinting at high level backing to Sing Pao, the anti-corruption watchdog body headed by Wang Qishan, published a report in November of the findings of its Central Inspection Team of the Hong Kong-Macau Affairs Office and its subsidiary units. More recently in March 2017, Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, suspected of having close links to China’s intelligence apparatus and currently living in New York, began airing accusations of corruption and infighting at the highest levels of the CCP over his Voice of America programme. He claimed that Xi Jinping doesn’t actually trust Wang Qishan and that Xi Jinping’s confidant and Vice Minister of Security, Fu Zhenghua was investigating Wang Qishan and Meng Jianzhu, head of the country’s security apparatus, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission.
While Xi Jinping will probably be able to promote many of his loyalists at the 19th Party Congress and further his agenda, it appears that his personnel plans including to retain Wang Qishan in the PBSC could run into rough weather.
Jayadeva Ranade is a former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India and is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.