Leadership test lies ahead for Xi Jinping

There are possible signs of disquiet inside the party. Intellectuals, academics, students and business entrepreneurs have been critical of Xi Jinping and the CCP leadership for the deterioration in relations with the US and China’s growing isolation. In the interim, Xi Jinping cannot afford to appear weak and this will dictate his policies on domestic and international issues.

Leadership test lies ahead for Xi Jinping

Grand ambition: Xi Jinping is making a determined bid to secure China’s three top and most powerful posts for the third time. Reuters

Jayadeva Ranade

President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy

WITH less than two years to go for the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — scheduled in the latter half of 2022 — the political climate in China is beginning to hint at some uncertainty. The popular perception that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who heads most of the Communist Party’s powerful small central groups is the ‘Chairman of everything’, could be questioned. This is despite the official Chinese media’s sustained efforts to project Xi Jinping and his activities almost double the number of times than his two immediate predecessors.

These signs of possible dissent come at an inconvenient time for Xi Jinping, who harbours global ambitions for China. Seeing himself as the Child of Red Destiny, he considers himself best suited to steer China to its rise. After all, when he announced the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, his acolytes acclaimed that ‘China under Xi Jinping has embarked on a third 30-year era like those of Deng and Mao before him’.

Xi Jinping is making a determined bid to secure China’s three top and most powerful posts of General Secretary of the CCP, Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and China’s President for a third term — unprecedented since 1980!

To reduce opposition, including in the provinces, Xi Jinping is highlighting the success of his flagship campaigns. He underscored the ‘success’ of his poverty alleviation project, acclaimed as a complete success at the end of 2020, at a seminar in Beijing on January 11, attended by “main leading cadres” at the provincial and ministerial level.

He has also been positioning loyalists in leadership appointments. At least five provincial capitals announced the reshuffle of top appointments on May 7. This was followed a month later by leadership changes in Shenzhen. Xi Jinping has continued to use the ‘stick’ too and the party’s anti-corruption watchdog body, the Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC), has this year alone placed at least 129 senior provincial officials under investigation. There have also been reports of the dismissal of a couple of CCP Central Committee (CC) and National People’s Congress (NPC) members and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Generals.

Nevertheless, there are possible signs of disquiet inside the party. Intellectuals, academics, students and business entrepreneurs have been critical of Xi Jinping and the CCP leadership for the deterioration in relations with the US and China’s growing isolation.

Chinese leaders have, over the decades, often used the Hong Kong media to bypass domestic opposition or float ideas controversial within leadership echelons. A prominent example is Deng Xiaoping’s well-known “southern tour” (or nanxun), which he undertook in 1992 to bypass opposition to his ‘open door’ and reform policies and mobilise popular support.

Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (80) now appears to have followed a similar route and published an article serialised (March 25-April 15) by the little-known Macau Guide. The concluding remarks of Wen Jiabao’s article attracted public attention. He wrote: “However, only sincere, simple and kind emotions cannot be faked. I sympathise with the poor and the weak, and oppose bullying and oppression. In my mind, China should be a country full of fairness and justice, where there will always be respect for the human heart, humanity, and always have the temperament of youth, freedom and struggle. I have screamed and fought for this. This is the truth that life taught me, and it was also given by my mother.” His remarks resonated with Chinese netizens and went viral on China’s social media.

As China’s Premier too, Wen Jiabao had occasionally made ambiguous comments hinting at the need for reform and democracy and his latest remarks could have been interpreted as criticism of Xi Jinping’s policies. The authorities appeared to endorse this by taking the post down overnight.

More recently, on May 13, the CCP’s official authoritative newspaper People’s Daily front-paged a box item on the 13th anniversary of the Wenchuan Earthquake which occurred on May 12, 2008. Since normally it is the quinquennial or decennial anniversaries that are commemorated in China,this item was intriguing and could allude to Xi Jinping’s failure to visit Wuhan at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in contrast to Wen Jiabao visiting the site of the earthquake within hours of its occurrence. This had provoked criticism on China’s social media at the time.

Another hint of opposition was one pointing to the party’s revised history issued last month. The new ‘Brief History of the Communist Party of China’, significantly downsized coverage of the Cultural Revolution and, instead of blaming Mao, credits him with fighting against corruption, special privileges and bureaucratism within the party and government. Surprisingly, a China Daily (May 11) article captioned ‘The Path to Glory’ described the ‘cultural revolution’ as “dealing the Party, nation and the Chinese people the most severe setback and losses since the founding of the People’s Republic of China."

It will be interesting to observe whether other hints of opposition to Xi Jinping’s bid for a third term emerge in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress. In the interim, Xi Jinping cannot afford to appear weak and this will dictate his policies on domestic and international issues. On territorial issues, there is unlikely to be even a suggestion of willingness to yield ground. The situation on the India-China border needs to be viewed in this backdrop.

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