Xi Jinping, China’s Communist Party boss for less than two years, is already positioning to shape the next generation of leaders, with the biggest corruption crackdown in three decades offering a chance to promote allies.
Amid front-page attention in state media on the party’s expulsion of China’s onetime deputy military chief this week, two personnel moves received scant focus. The nation’s top economic planning agency got a new deputy in He Lifeng, and Ying Yong was named vice party chief of the financial hub Shanghai.
The promotions of the two, colleagues of Xi earlier in his career, are the most recent high-profile examples of his efforts to appoint proteges. China’s top leadership team serves a maximum of 10 years, with a reshuffle at the half-way mark that signals the next party head and sees new members of decision-making bodies picked. The more allies Xi, 61, elevates before 2017, the greater sway he may have securing influence after he retires.
“All major party factions have started making arrangements for the next round of power transition,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian who previously worked at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and whose father was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution after being a vice minister. “Xi needs to accumulate political capital within the first few years in office so he can be in a strong position in 2017 to push his agenda.”
Xi’s campaign followed an ascent to office complicated by the worst turmoil in the party since the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. The tumult was capped by the ouster of rising-star Bo Xilai, party leader of Chongqing and ally of Zhou Yongkang, who held one of the then-nine spots on the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, the highest body of power.
Part of Xi’s efforts have been directed at dismantling the network of the retired Zhou, who had headed the national oil company and China’s domestic-security agency. At least seven people with close ties to Zhou were taken down, including his one-time secretary and vice governor of Hainan province, and a former vice minister of public security.
The initiative has stretched into the People’s Liberation Army with Xu Caihou, former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, ejected from the party for bribery on June 30 during a Politburo meeting presided over by Xi, making him the highest-level military official ensnared in corruption charges in more than six decades.
Xi’s offensive -- which has included ordering cadres to undergo self-criticism sessions and a clampdown on lavish official spending on banqueting and gifts that’s hit sales at luxury-goods makers such as LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA -- has multiple objectives, according to Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political-science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“He’s killing three birds with one stone,” said Cabestan, who has analyzed China for more than three decades. The crackdown is to consolidate Xi’s power, reinforce the legitimacy in public eyes of a party that continues to rebuff democracy and sweep away resistance to economic-policy restructuring designed to shore up the nation’s slowing growth, Cabestan said.
The Communist Party general secretary, in office since November 2012, emerged as the likely successor to Hu Jintao as top leader at the once-in-five-years congress in 2007. Xi and Li Keqiang -- now China’s premier -- led new members of the Politburo’s Standing Committee onto a stage in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
The party in 2017 will hold its 19th congress, when all of the seven Standing Committee members except Xi and Li are scheduled to retire, having reached the age of 68. Six out of the remaining 18 members in the Politburo, the second most powerful body in the hierarchy, are also due to step down by then.
“An overriding influence in the Politburo would make him have the power of discourse and the power of decision-making, because all of the most important matters will have to be discussed and approved by the Politburo,” said Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology. Xi stands a good chance of stacking more of his supporters on the Central Committee, the wider panel that selects the Politburo, Hu said.
“Besides deterring potential opponents and winning subordinates’ allegiance, Xi’s anti-graft drive is also good at weakening ’politics by elders,’” Hu said.
Xi’s predecessor suffered the lingering influence of Jiang Zemin, who placed his acolytes in senior positions before retiring as general secretary in 2002 and retained for two years his title as head of the military.
The appointment this week of Ying Yong, 56, as vice party chief of Shanghai offers a sign of the waning influence of Jiang, along with confirmation of Xi’s widening grip. Shanghai was Jiang’s base before he took the nation’s helm. Xi worked with Ying when Xi was party chief of the eastern Zhejiang province from 2002 to 2007.
“Jiang’s influence is certainly in the decline,” said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong. “At the next party congress, Xi Jinping may have the Politburo in support of him and naturally he will also hope to influence the succession process.”
He Lifeng, 59, who was parachuted in to the National Development and Reform Commission this week in Beijing, is among Xi’s longest-serving colleagues, with the two having spent more than 15 years in the southeastern Fujian province, dating back to the mid-1980s.
Among other Xi associates winning promotions has been Ding Xuexiang, now deputy director of the party central committee’s General Office and Xi’s personal secretary. Ding served as Xi’s secretary during a brief tenure as Shanghai party chief in 2007. Huang Kunming, a onetime Zhejiang provincial propaganda chief during Xi’s term in the province, was promoted to vice minister of the Ministry of Publicity in October, a position from which he can help Xi control party ideology and propaganda.
One handicap for Xi is that the faction referred to as the princelings lacks a bank of talented young stars relative to the Communist Youth League faction, according to Zhang, the historian. Princelings are made up of children of former top officials -- such as Xi, whose father was a prominent revolutionary.
The man still seen as most likely to succeed Xi at this point is a protege of Hu Jintao, harking back to Hu’s leadership of the Youth League. Hu Chunhua, known as “little Hu,” is, at 51, the second-youngest member of the Politburo, and is party boss of Guangdong, the province with the biggest economy. The Youth League faction, known as tuanpai in Chinese, also features Li Keqiang.
Hu, along with Sun Zhengcai, Wang Yang, and Li Yuanchao are the most likely to advance to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2017, with “little Hu” groomed as heir-apparent to Xi, said Cheng. Sun, 50, the youngest member of the Politburo unveiled in 2012, is party chief of Chongqing, the southern municipality that Bo Xilai ran until his ouster over a murder scandal. Vice Premier Wang, 59, is a protege of Hu Jintao from Youth League days. Li, 63, is a tuanpai member who serves as vice president of China.
The breadth and depth of the anti-corruption drive means Xi will have opportunities to promote supporters across the party, government, military and state-owned enterprises.
About 30 senior officials at the vice minister level or higher have been put under investigation, charged with violations or expelled from the party since December 2012, according to a June 30 report by the state’s Xinhua News Agency.
All 31 Chinese provinces and municipalities have been represented in the total of those investigated and disciplined since the end of 2012, with the campaign reaching party and governmental agencies, state-owned enterprises, hospitals, higher-education and other public institutions, Xinhua said.
“This is a sort of modern witch hunt,” said Kerry Brown, the director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, who specializes in the politics of the Communist Party elite. Brown said the anti-graft efforts are mainly aimed at preserving the primacy of the Chinese Communist Party under Xi.
Brown said “it is a campaign about allegiance and faith, from a leadership spearheaded by Xi who feel that the Party belief system has to be reasserted or the CCP will go the same way as the USSR.”