Xi’s growing personal power worries China’s elder leaders

April 2, 2014

In authoritarian states there is always a fine line between campaigns against social cancers such as corruption, disposing of political rivals in the process, and riding the upheaval to unchallenged personal power.

In China the anti-corruption drive of President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping is now well on the way to becoming a drive for unrivalled authority. Xi’s ousting of his rivals and gathering of power in his own hands has reached the point where even retired party leaders are voicing concern that he has gone too far.

On Monday Xi’s campaign took another significant step when the state-controlled news agency Xinhua reported a retired senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer, Gen. Gu Junshan, will be tried for corruption.

Until now Xi’s investigators have concentrated on hunting down corrupt officials within the Communist Party, and Xi, as commander-in-chief of the PLA, has relied on the political support of the generals to deter opposition to his campaign. To that end, Xi has until now overlooked the financial empires of senior PLA officers, but investigators are reported to have recently detained Gen. Gu’s former boss and Politburo member, Gen. Xu Caihou, also on allegations of corruption.

If this comes to a trial, and in China an investigation almost inevitably leads to a trial, Gen. Xu will be the highest ranking military officer ever tried for corruption during the Communist dynasty. This is new territory for the Communist Party, but officials are describing this extension of the anti-graft campaign as an effort to improve the effectiveness of the military.

The desire for a professional and dependable military certainly fits in with the highly nationalistic foreign policy Xi is pursuing, especially over territorial disputes with China’s neighbours. In internal speeches, Xi has also expressed his determination to use his position as commander-in-chief to take real control of the military. He has blamed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s on the failure of then leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to keep the military under effective political authority.

And while Xi is using the anti-corruption campaign to destroy potential rivals and to embellish his own prestige by removing well-established political figures, he has also taken considerable administrative power into his own hands. The Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reform, set up last November to promote economic reform, would usually fall under the authority of the Prime Minister, Li Keqiang. But Xi has decided to take control of this key agency himself.

There are consistent reports from Beijing that other senior Communist Party figures are worried that Xi’s power is rapidly becoming uncontrollable. Former President Jiang Zemin, who stepped down in 2003, is said to have sent Xi a message saying “the footprint of this anti-corruption cannot get too big,” and Xi’s predecessor as President and party boss, Hu Jintao, is said to have expressed similar reservations.

Both have previously voiced support for Xi’s anti-corruption drive, but are now warning his motives seem self-serving and will pit him against too many powerful families at the top of the Communist Party hierarchy. Of course, like the families of all senior Communist Party officials, the relatives of Jiang and Hu have profited greatly by their connections, and it may be the two retired leaders are fearful for their own safety.

But President Xi does not appear yet to have complete confidence in his own power. His opening of a new front in his war on corruption in the military comes as he appears to be still uncertain about whether he has garnered enough power to move against the biggest target of his campaign so far.

Zhou Yongkang was a member of the hub of power, the Politburo Standing Committee, and the head of China’s internal security agencies  from 2007 until his retirement in 2012. He is reported to be under house arrest and dozens of his close associates and relatives have been detained for questioning, especially those linked to the China National Petroleum Corp., which Zhou once ran.

The Reuters news agency on Sunday quoted unnamed Communist Party sources as saying investigators have confiscated the equivalent of $14.5 billion in allegedly illegally acquired assets from the Zhou family.

However, the case against Zhou seems to be stalled at the moment, in all likelihood because Xi is facing serious resistance from the top families in the party. Since the death in 1976 of the regime’s founder and mass murderer of his own people, Mao Zedong, the Communist Party has for the most part adopted a collective leadership style to prevent the rise of another tyrant. An essential unwritten rule in this pact has been that current or retired members of the Politburo Standing Committee be immune from legal or other attacks.

By launching the investigation of Zhou and detaining dozens of his associates and family members, including his son, two brothers and sisters-in-law, Xi has broken this pact that provided China with a degree of stability at the top.

The decision to go after Zhou apparently stemmed form the support of the former security chief for his protégé, Politburo member Bo Xilai, who in 2012 ran a very public campaign challenging Xi’s right to succeed Hu as President and party leader. Bo’s campaign collapsed after his wife’s murder of a British business associate became public knowledge. Last year Bo himself was convicted of corruption and abuse power, and sentenced to life in prison.

But while Xi appears to be successfully riding the turmoil he has created, he has loosed a dangerous animal that might yet devour him. The family alliances and Byzantine intrigues at the top of the Communist Party look increasingly like the traditional palace dramas of China’s politics, and those feuds are always merciless because that is the only way to survive.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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