Xi Jinping, the current Chinese leader is easily the most powerful leader that China has had ever since Deng Xiaoping faded away in the early 90s. But in order to understand his power, we have to go back a bit in time in modern Chinese history.
Mao was a tyrant and supremely powerful in China and until his death, he was simply the sole power centre. But that degree of concentration of power resulted in chaos in China – the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution being two big disasters. When he died, the elders decided that no single person should ever be allowed to accumulate such power. Deng Xiaoping became the preeminent leader, but there was a rival power centre in Chen Yun and to a lesser extent in Li Xiannian. Multiple purges later, Jiang Zemin was appointed the Secretary of the Communist Party immediately after the infamous Tiananmen incident in 1989.
Jiang accumulated a fair degree of power, but was never all powerful. He led the party out of the post Tiananmen crisis and then earned his own notoriety by the brutal suppression, and virtual extermination, of Falun Gong – a cult loosely based on mysticism, but which was feared by the Party as a political movement. By the norms set by Deng, which he followed and reinforced, he stepped down after some 12 years as the Secretary of the Party and handed over to Hu Jintao, who was handpicked by Deng himself before his death. However, Jiang continued to remain the Chairman of the Central Military Commission and therefore in his first term Hu really did not have much power and had to constantly “handle” Jiang. Jiang continues to remain a power centre and is the leader of the Shanghai faction. However he is getting old (he’s past 90) and his power is fading, helped along by Xi’s efforts to undermine this faction.
Hu Jintao is a colourless and plodding leader, who even while he was the Secretary of the Party, was never a charismatic leader. His hold on power was weaker. When he handed over the reins to Xi Jinping, he quit all his formal roles. He leads the Youth League, another faction, but is not a powerful leader.
Xi Jinping comes from a group called the “princelings” – their fathers were revolutionary leaders in the Mao era and their positions, at least to some measure, is owed to their parentage. When Xi took over, he swiftly started to consolidate his power with a massive anti corruption drive, the likes of which China has never seen.
Ostensibly Xi was tackling one of the greatest scourges of China – corruption. The scale of corruption in China is simply unbelievable. Nowhere has mankind seen anything like this. It is all pervasive . I won’t say anything more – I still wish to travel to China !! Let me just say that whatever you think is the level of corruption in China, the reality is probably tenfold worse. It is an existential threat to the Party. Therefore tackling corruption was a popular thing to do.
But the anti corruption drive was also a big consolidation of power by Xi. It was positioned as catching “tigers and flies” – both the small fry as well as the really powerful. Unsurprisingly, the people targeted the most were political opponents. More than 100,000 flies have been indicted, but more importantly so have nearly 200 tigers. This includes some 100 senior people in the military including two former Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (the equivalent would be Defence Secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US military being purged). The biggest tiger of all who was jailed is clearly Zhou Yongkang, a past member of the Standing Committee. Such a thing is simply not done in Chinese politics – the upper echelon of the Communist Party was thought untouchable.
Xi’s main ally who has carried out the anti corruption drive is Wang Qishan, a current member of the Standing Committee and 6th in the formal order of seniority. But clearly the real no 2 in China is Wang Qishan. He is a star economic leader in China – having held a number of economic portfolios in the past. But for the last 5 years he has been Xi’s enforcer in the anti corruption drive. Crucially he is 69 and by the tenets of the unofficial retirement policy, he should retire in October. All the rumours swirling around China are that Xi will keep him.
The formal No 2 is the Premier Li Keqiang. His job is to run the economy and the general consensus is that he has not been successful. His power base is small and he belongs to the Youth League faction of Hu Jintao. In fact at the time of Xi’s succession it was rumoured that Hu actually wanted Li to succeed him and not Xi. Li is only 62 and can continue as Premier for one more term. This blogger has a view (wild guess) as to what might happen to both Wang Qishan and Li Keqiang and he will boldly articulate a prediction in a subsequent post !
Two other names need mention. When Xi and Li were appointed, there was also speculation as to who would succeed them in 10 years time (the next generation of leaders). Two names were mentioned – Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai. Both were included in the politburo last time around and given important positions. Just two months ago, Sun Zhengcai was summarily replaced and an anti corruption investigation started against him. Clearly he lost out in a power struggle.
How do the Chinese themselves view all this ? You may be surprised ! Watch out for the next post.
PS – Chinese names are not easy to pronounce to Western tongues. Here is an approximation
Mao Zedong – Mao Tze Dhong
Deng Xiaoping – Dhung Hsiao Ping
Jiang Zemin – Jiang Tze Min
Hu Jintao – As written
Xi Jinping – Hsi Jin Ping
Li Keqiang – Li Khe Chiang
Wang Qishan – Waang Chi Shaan