Who is actually in power in Beijing?

Tags: Op-ed
Who is actually in power in Beijing?
Bloomberg
TOUGH TASK: Xi cannot rest on his laurels. He must be fully aware that he has to deliver on the economic front, but also secure social and political stability, where things can suddenly go wrong
Xi Jinping, the president of the People’s Republic of China, holds three important positions. Apart from being the formal head of state, he is secretary general of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). The latter is undoubtedly the most important of the three positions. The CMC, where the two deputy chairmen are high ranking generals of the People’s Liberation Army, is the highest body in China’s defence setup. The CMC must ensure the continuing observation of Mao Zedong’s principle that “the party must control the guns”.

When Xi Jinping recently visited India, the Indian government went out of its way to demonstrate cordiality and the Chinese leader and his wife seemed to reciprocate. Both prime minister Narendra Modi and president Jinping stressed that good relations between India and China are not only beneficial to both countries’ trade and economy. They also help to strengthen the position of Asia in the world at large. In spite of all that, Jinping’s visit was overshadowed by prolonged confrontations on the Indo-Chinese border. These provocative acts undoubtedly and substantially reduced the glamour of the Chinese visit.

Some observers speculate that these unwelcome events were a “punishment” for the support prime minister Modi had given prime minister Shinzo Abe on his visit to Japan earlier on. Others suspect that the incidents could be indications that Xi Jinping is not in total control in Beijing and that more nationalistic groups particularly in the powerful army, were out to scupper his attempts to substantially improve Sino-Indian relations.

All the speculations are a useful reminder to the world that, in spite of all the impressive economic and technological progress and the opening up towards the world economy, the People’s Republic essentially still remains a totalitarian, Communist one party system. There are no free elections and when it comes to important affairs of the party and the state, there is total censorship, leaving the Chinese people and the world at large, no other option than to read between the lines and indulge in idle speculation.

There are, however, a few principles that can provide some insights into the question whether Xi Jinping is in total control. First of all, the fundamental task of the party leadership, which on its highest level consists of the seven-member standing committee of the politburo of the CPC, is to ensure the survival of the current Chinese “dynasty”, the dynasty of the Communist Party of China that was established on October 1, 1949.

Ever since the death of chairman Mao Zedong in 1976, China has embarked on a course of collective leadership. Certainly, the architect of the modernisation and opening up of China, Deng Xiaoping, was an outstanding leader and clearly ranks above all those who followed at the top of the party and the state after the death of Mao. At present, the country and the CPC are run by members of the fifth leadership generation with president Xi Jinping and prime minister Li Keqiang being most prominent. The new leaders took over the reins of power in 2012/13. Their terms end in 2017/18 and it is foreseen that, if everything goes well, they will get another five years in office.

It is no secret that in the run-up to the change of leadership, there was a power struggle with the charismatic and overly ambitious Bo Xilai, then party chief in the important city of Chongqing, losing out. After a protracted trial, Xilai was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment on charges of corruption and abuse of power. Once he was out of the way, things seemed to take a smooth course and Jinping was quickly installed in all three important positions. His predecessor Hu Jintao had to wait quite some time until the preceding party leader, Jiang Zemin, relinquished his position as chairman of the CMC.

Soon after he assumed office, Jinping started a campaign against corruption which has gained momentum in recent months and which has reached the highest ranks in the party and the military. Already Hu Jintao had warned that widespread corruption was a danger to the very survival of Communist Party rule. As China still does not respect the rule of law, campaigns against corruption notoriously tend to be mixed with power struggles. It is no secret that within the CPC there are strong divergences on issues such as economic development, the growing wealth gap within the country and the positioning of the People’s Republic within the world.

It is obvious that Xi Jinping and his followers have used the campaign against corruption to consolidate their power. Former party chief Jiang Zemin, who for a long time acted as “éminencegrise”, seems to have definitely lost out. However, Xi cannot rest on his laurels. He must be fully aware that he has to deliver on the economic front, but also secure social and political stability, where things can suddenly go wrong. Most keenly observed will be his movements on the international scene, where any mishap that could be construed as a Chinese loss of face can put his position at risk, however powerful he may look right now.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)

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