The white-knuckle countdown to China’s party congress


BEIJING/DALIAN Chinese President Xi Jinping has put his political enemies on notice: They had better watch their step ahead of the Communist Party’s National Congress about a year from now.

The decisions made at the quinquennial event — particularly changes to the party leadership lineup — could not only rock the country but also sway the global economy and regional security. Xi, who rose to power as the party’s general secretary at the last National Congress in 2012, is locked in a fierce struggle over the makeup of the leadership team.

One of Xi’s latest warning shots came around midnight on Aug. 5. Dozens of men gathered in the darkness at Xinghai Square in Dalian, Liaoning Province. Armed with heavy machinery, they set about tearing down a 20-meter monument, which featured an image of a rising dragon carved in precious white stone.

Dragons are considered a symbol of power in China; in 30 minutes, the pillar was reduced to rubble.

The left photo shows a stone pillar erected by former mayor Bo Xilai in Dalian’s Xinghai Square. The right photo shows a fountain being constructed after the column was demolished.

The column had been erected by Bo Xilai, the disgraced former mayor of Dalian and party chief of Chongqing. Bo had resisted the transfer of power from former President Hu Jintao to Xi. In 2013, the year Xi became president, Bo was sentenced to life in prison for corruption.

In slaying that stone dragon — a vestige of his old foe’s legacy — the president seemed to be reminding his rivals that he will not tolerate anyone who gets in his way.

SWIRLING SPECULATION Power struggles typically intensify ahead of each party congress. It is not rare for some of the Politburo’s 25 members to be ousted. Top officials in Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing fell from power ahead of the 1997, 2007 and 2012 gatherings, respectively.

But the stakes for the autumn 2017 congress are especially high. Most of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee — the party’s top decision-making body, led by Xi — are supposed to retire due to age. The big question is whether Xi will be able to form the new leadership team he wants.

China’s President Xi Jinping © Reuters

Some observers say Xi, 63, will seek to retain right-hand man Wang Qishan as a member. As head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Wang has been instrumental in the sweeping anti-graft campaign that has brought down a number of Xi rivals and consolidated the president’s power.

The anti-corruption czar, however, will turn 69 next year. The retirement age for Politburo Standing Committee members was set at 68 at the 2002 congress, though this is an unwritten rule. There is speculation the age might be raised this time around.

There is also talk that a possible successor to Xi could emerge at the 2017 congress. This is fueling whispers that the president might try to ensure no rising stars are promoted to the standing committee, in a bid to further concentrate power in his own hands.

One way to do this could be to trim the number of committee members. The tally was reduced from nine to seven in 2012.

TUG OF WAR Political forces within the Communist Party are broadly divided into three groups: Xi’s faction; the so-called Communist Youth League faction, which has been led by Hu and his protege, Premier Li Keqiang; and former President Jiang Zemin’s faction.

The Communist Youth League faction comprises former officials of the party’s massive youth organization. After focusing on Jiang’s clique in his anti-corruption crusade, Xi now seems to be turning his attention to the Youth League contingent.

In any case, while systematically driving out his rivals, Xi has been elevated to the “core” of the party. The “core” title only went to three leaders in the past — Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.

In June, Li Zhanshu, one of Xi’s close aides and a Politburo member, sang the president’s praises as the core of the party before senior party officials. Li Hongzhong, who became party chief in the strategic port city of Tianjin in September, echoed that view, ostensibly pledging his allegiance to Xi despite having close ties to Jiang’s faction.

In late October, a communique issued by the party’s Central Committee made it official, using “core” to describe Xi.

Yet Xi faces pushback over his aggressive screw-tightening. In August, elders vented their frustration at the party’s annual conclave in the resort district of Beidaihe. Some argued that no matter how far the president pushes his anti-corruption drive, the people will not be better off — an apparent rebuke to Xi’s highhanded style.

Chinese President Xi Jinping passes behind his predecessors Hu Jintao, front left, and Jiang Zemin. © Kyodo

There is also conspicuous friction between Xi and the second-ranked official in the party hierarchy, 61-year-old Premier Li.

In July, state broadcaster CCTV reported on separate instructions issued by Xi and Li concerning the reform of state-owned companies. While Xi called for the enterprises to be enlarged, Li stressed the need to make them leaner and healthier.

“It is no longer possible to cover up the differences of opinion between the two leaders,” one party source said.

Comments Xi made in late September were widely taken as a sign the president is struggling to sideline Li. At a time when his relations with Li and Hu are deteriorating, Xi praised a selection of published works by Hu as “important and systematic teaching materials.”

But that conciliatory approach was short-lived. The Central Committee meeting that produced the “core” leader communique also endorsed new party rules. These rules enhance the top echelon’s control and corruption-fighting ability, giving Xi still more power.

Prior to this key conference, Xi called a meeting to hash out the agenda. The preparatory meeting was held the day before Li returned from a trip abroad.

The president did not bother to wait for the country’s No. 2 leader to return to Beijing.