Xi has consolidated a mass of power in his own hands and is not averse to a Mao-like personalised fame.
By Pinaki Bhattacharya
By the end of the year, the Chinese will be witnessing the curtains go up on the 19th CPC Congress. In normal circumstances, according to a leadership tradition established by Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang would be embarking on their final five years in the office of presidency and premiership.
Leadership change in China has been quite smooth since Jiang Zemin laid down office in 2003, as the fourth generation leaders took office in 2007 at the 17th Congress. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were the representatives of this generation for ‘two fives’ i.e. two five-year terms. Thus, at the 18th Congress, the fifth generation took over in the form of Xi and Li.
Presently, an infectious speculation has begun — largely fuelled by the US-based China watchers — whether Xi will give up office at the 20th Congress, due in 2022. For Xi has turned into being a leader of what can be called a neo-Maoist group. This is the group that has joined hands with the Shanghai group of Jiang Zemin. Xi, in his turn, has consolidated a mass of power in his own hands and is not averse to a Mao-like ‘personalised’ fame.
Even as the 2008 finance capital crisis hit the specially Western world, expanding into a general economic recession, it has affected the Chinese economy in terms of its export-driven model growth. Its pace has declined to a more modest approximation of seven percent and thereabouts. Again the Western commentators on China had been speculating for long that a slow growth rate might cause severe social turmoil. For, they said that the Chinese people had struck a Faustian bargain with the authoritarian party-state : “You give us prosperity, we will keep you in power.”
A recent Pew research study has claimed that only about 2.5 percent of the Chinese population earns less than $2 a day. Looking at the information from a top-down angle shows that the Chinese middle class expanded to 31 odd percent of the population in 2012. Will this slowdown in Chinese economy displace the nation from its goal of becoming a middle income country by 2020?
If this question has arisen, it has become coupled with Zhongnanhai residents’ knowledge that the deeply corrupt mandarinate, including senior leaders, was already leaving a dark imprint on the psyche of the people. So Xi launched his campaign of ‘catching tigers and flies.’ The first to go was a fellow ‘princeling’, Bo Xilai, the provincial chief of Chongqing, which was once a capital of the Nationalist Chinese government. Bo’s father was Bo Yibo, an associate of Mao, and a commander of the revolutionary Red Army. The former, once a Polit Bureau (PB) member, is now serving a rigorous imprisonment.
The next two ‘tigers’ to go was Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, who had even higher reach and stronger tentacles. They had been heading personnel selection and deployment department of the PLA. And of course, they were taking fat bribes for prized posts in the various military regions (MRs) that existed, from senior armed forces officials coveting those jobs. In fact, in the last three years the PLA has purged 200 officers (flies) for various misdemeanours.
Now these actions by Xi have added much muscle to his office and political credits for himself. He clearly could not have done all this without the support of other ‘princelings’ in top jobs currently, and more importantly of Jiang Zemin and his cohort. Jiang had not handed over his chairmanship of the CMC for a year to Hu Jintao, when he became president of the nation. An emergency replacement for Zhao Ziyang in the midst of the Tienanmen Square crisis, Jiang Zemin, had a solid lock on the PLA with whom he had the last word. Xi clearly enjoys Jiang’s support, even though he himself has his own constituency in the PLA.
On the back of all this, Xi seems to have disarmed the Premier Li Keqiang, a Communist Youth League (CYL) group leader and a protégé of Hu Jintao. He had the same background as Li Keqiang.
Zhu Rongji, who had replaced Li in 1998, was in any case a darling of the West as he liberalised the PRC economy faster. He also was a graduate of prestigious Tsinghua University where he studied engineering.
But while Li Keqiang is tasked with day-to-day management of the economy, the main driver of economic policy-making remains Xi. He underlined that fact in January this year when for the first time the highest Chinese official attended the World Economic Forum jamboree in Davos. Xi’s speech was hailed as the most important statement by the PRC seeking to lead the world in terms of ‘globalisation’ seeking to replace the West as it remains mired in economic crises.
As Xi manages these huge tasks of detoxification of the rank and file of the officialdom, along with steering the PRC economy in times of severe trouble, the speculation whether he would show intent to step down after the end of the ‘second five’.
The first sign of that will be available in how Xi composes the Standing Committee of the Polit Bureau. Considering five of the seven members of the apex committee would be superannuating, Xi should choose his and Li’s likely successors from the midst of the sixth generation leaders and elevate them to the Standing Committee. They would then work as understudies till the 20th CPC Congress, when they take-over the reins of the Party and the State. The world is looking forward to the end-of-the-year action with bated breath.