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China's President Xi Jinping delivers a speech on the on 25th anniversary of handover of Hong Kong. (Photo Credit - Reuters)
China's President Xi Jinping delivers a speech on the on 25th anniversary of handover of Hong Kong. (Photo Credit - Reuters)

Xi stacks the CCP and PLA decks ahead of 20th Party Congress

ANI | Updated: Jul 04, 2022 16:20 IST

Hong Kong, July 4 (ANI): On 30 June, Chairman Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's return from British rule. This was Xi's first trip outside Mainland China, and he used the event to burnish his credentials ahead of the 20th Party Congress in the fourth quarter of the year.
Xi, his inner circle and the national media apparatus have been accelerating his personality cult. Indeed, national media have bestowed on Xi the title of lingxiu, a grandiloquent variant of "leader" in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lexicon. Its importance is seen in that the title lingxiu has only previously been ascribed to Chairman Mao Zedong.
As the 20th Party Congress draws closer, CCTV and Xinhua have already commenced a series of 50 video glorifying Xi and how he has made "momentous contributions" to the CCP.
For example, Xinhua adoringly said Xi had "sketched out the big picture of the domestic and foreign situation, put forward reform, development and stability... and [he is] responsible for progress in running the party, the country and the army".
Indeed, the hero worship lavished on Xi is quite nauseating for anyone not enamored with the CCP. Kowtowing Guangdong cadres noted, for example, that China was becoming wealthy and strong due only to "the power exercised by General Secretary Xi Jinping in making decisions [through his] personal authority and giving the final word".
After being appointed leader for life at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, there can be no doubt that China's 69-year-old leader will continue on for at least another five-year term after this year's gala.
Indeed, Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation think-tank in the USA, expects that this year Xi will have his status as "core and lingxiu for life" officially recognized, and that he will even be handed a fourth term at the 21st Party Congress in 2027.
"This means that Xi will rule until at least 2032, when the conservative, quasi-Maoist leader will be 79 years of age," Lam predicted.
Lam added: "Xi's continuation in power looks set to continue, despite widespread speculation that he has been severely criticized by party elders such as former premier Zhu Rongji, or that current Premier Li Keqiang - who will serve as head of government until next March - may be scheming to undermine his powers."
Xi is maintaining China's zero-COVID policy, even though the rest of the world has moved on and is learning to live with the virus. Consequently, Xi has attracted criticism, especially as the country's economy has been adversely affected.
Premier Li's own comments in recent times suggest a challenge to Xi's supremacy.
However, there is little anyone can really do to usurp the authoritarian leader. He is the only member of the Politburo Standing Committee possessing control over the People's Liberation Army (PLA), People's Armed Police (PAP), the ordinary police and intelligence establishment.
As Mao rightly said, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun". Xi totally controls that gun, and he points it at anyone he wants. Secretaries, drivers and security personnel for nearly all Politburo members and party elders are supplied by the CCP General Office. Its director is Ding Xuexiang, a confidante of Xi's.
Ding thus maintains surveillance on China's civilian and military leaders, even tapping phones and monitoring activities outside work hours. All this helps Xi keep tabs on potential rivals.
A warning from the CCP General Office on 16 May, telling party leaders not to "give improper opinions" about the leadership, was confirmation that there is discontent and grumblings.
China's economic woes, exacerbated by Xi's strict pandemic control measures, may well have forced Xi to make compromises with opponents.
This is seen in such things as Xi loosening tight controls over technology companies. Indeed, Politburo member and Vice Premier Liu He recently said regulations for IT firms must be "based on marketization, legalization and internationalization," and that control mechanisms must not harm the market.
It is rumored that Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang was Xi's favored choice to replace Li Keqiang as premier when he retires at the upcoming party congress. However, the former's stocks fell because of the fallout from Shanghai's extended lockdown earlier this year.
Lam elaborated: "The upshot is that, while Xi still towers over all other Politburo- and ministerial-level cadres, he has to make concessions in the key area of personnel arrangements to be endorsed by the 20th Party Congress."
The projected composition of the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee after the congress will include, according to Lam: General Secretary Xi Jinping; Head of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee Ding Xuexiang; and either Li Qiang or Chongqing Party Secretary Chen Min'er.
Two seats will probably be reserved for the rival Communist Youth League Faction led by Premier Li. The latter is pushing for Hu Chunhua, the vice premier in charge of agriculture, to succeed him. It is CCP tradition that a critical qualification for the premiership is that the candidate must have served as vice premier. However, none of Xi's preferred cadres is either a current or former vice premier.
Either Premier Li or Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Chairman Wang may remain on the Politburo Standing Committee. If Li does stay, he could move to the National People's Congress as Chairman. Lam noted: "The sudden prominence that Premier Li has enjoyed in the media over the past two months can be seen as an effort to strike a bargain with Xi. Namely, Li will not oppose the extension of Xi's tenure at the Party Congress in return for Xi's support for fellow Communist Youth League Faction members such as Vice-Premier Hu and CPPCC chief Wang."

Also staying on in the Politburo Standing Committee will be Zhao Leji, although interestingly he has changed from being a Xi confidante to a political foe. This still leaves a seventh slot for any other rising star without obvious affiliations to fill.
Lam of The Jamestown Foundation thus considers that Xi might end up with just three out of seven slots in the Politburo Standing Committee. However, things may change rapidly as the congress approaches.
If Xi does remain for another ten years till 2032, then some of his leading proteges such as Li Qiang, Chen Min'er and Ding Xuexiang of the 1959-69 era will already have reached retirement age and will be ineligible to continue in office.
Lam speculates that Xi's eventual successor might then be a younger person born in the 1970s. This will be an interesting generation to watch then. Of course, it is far too early to call who might get the nod to continue Xi's legacy, given that such people are currently only at the vice minister, vice provincial governor or vice mayor level.
Lam concluded: "Clearly, Xi's bid for lifetime tenure - and the fact that his economic and pandemic policies are meeting strong opposition within the ruling elite - demonstrates the highly undemocratic and non-transparent institutions of the party and state. It also shows the dangers of the Xi leadership's ignoring institutional reforms pioneered by greater architect of reform Deng Xiaoping and reinstating the earlier norms inaugurated by the late chairman Mao Zedong."
Another interesting question to ponder is who will make up the PLA's top leadership after the 20th Party Congress. Eli Y. Huang and Reginald Y. Lin studied this topic also for The Jamestown Foundation.
On 21 January, Xi promoted seven PLA and PAP officers to full generals. In fact, Xi has gone on a spree of unprecedented promotions, promoting far more than others before him and at more frequent intervals.
Those promoted in January were: Liu Qingsong, Political Commissar of the Northern Theater Command; Wu Ya'nan, Commander of the Central Theater Command; Xu Deqing, Political Commissar of the Central Theater Command; Qin Shutong, Political Commissar of the Army; Yuan Huazhi, Political Commissar of the Navy; Li Yuchao Commander of the PLA Rocket Force; and Zhang Hongbing, Political Commissar of the PAP. Xi has promoted a record 38 officers to the rank of general since 2019.
Uncertainty was injected into the PLA by reforms that kicked off in late 2015, and there has been intense speculation whether traditional objective qualifications such as age, seniority and experience have been sidelined in favor of Xi's subjective preferences.
A move towards joint operations certainly shook up the very stove-piped promotion system in the PLA. This overlapping of reform, alongside Xi's political preferences, makes it more difficult to discern patterns in PLA general promotions. It is known, however, that military personnel that Xi knew from his time in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces from 1985-2007 have received more opportunities.
Those most likely to be promoted have served 2-4 years in a sub-theater command position. Furthermore, those with diverse experience are more likely to be promoted. The average age for becoming a general dropped from 62 in July 2019 to 58 by January 2022.
Interestingly, despite an emphasis on joint operations, those from the PLA Ground Force are still more likely to be promoted. Since 2015, Xi has promoted 52 generals, of which 52 per cent were from the army, 13 per cent from the navy, and 22 per cent from the air force.
Huang and Lin noted: "Chairman Xi's preferred candidates can be broken down into two kinds: 1) those officers he knew when he worked in Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces, and 2) those officers who have occupied crucial positions focused on stabilizing restive regions." The latter includes those who have served in Tibet and Xinjiang.
It goes without saying that all theater-level commanders and political commissars are card-carrying CCP members. At the coming congress, those generals promoted to theater-level command are expected to be promoted to members of the Central Committee.
Huang and Lin identified three trends in terms of senior PLA promotions. The first is that the PLA's organizational needs are still a priority, and that Xi is wary of excessively politicization impeding military reform. The second is that candidates who have occupied critical positions or who have worked with Xi previously (proving their reliability and loyalty), do possess a decided advantage when it comes to promotion.
The third implication is important too. "The decreasing average age of promoted generals, especially those who do not have a party leadership position, implies Xi's eagerness to firmly grasp military power in order to successfully navigate the 20th Party Congress and continue his tenure as the top leader. It is also in line with the traditional thinking of the CCP that 'political power grows out of the barrel of a gun'. Hence, an obvious 'metabolism' among the top generals exists in the CCP. These new generals will be promoted to high-level party positions by Xi Jinping at the 20th Party Congress of the CCP, and become the main leaders of the army during his third term."
As the congress draws closer, there are two things to watch regarding the composition of the Central Military Commission (CMC), which is the top defense body in China.
The two CMC vice-chairmen Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia are due to retire because of age limits. The same is true of CMC members Wei Fenghe and Li Zuocheng.
This leaves the two CMC incumbents Miao Hua and Zhang Shengmin, who are therefore likely to be appointed as new vice-chairmen. This is not a given, however, since their experience overlaps and neither has a lot of experience in command and general staff.
Unless Xi does something unexpected at the congress, the four CMC vacancies will go to generals aged less than 65, and who are either currently serving or have recently stepped down from theater-level command.
One to watch will be the Eastern Theater Command leader Lin Xiangyang, who took up his role in January. He has risen rapidly under Xi's patronage, and it is possible he will be appointed to the CMC to help bolster Xi's third term.
Other CMC candidates are Xu Deqing, Political Commissar of the Central Theater Command; Qin Shutong, Political Commissar of the Army; Zhang Hongbing, Political Commissar of the PAP; Wu Yanan, commander of the Central Theater Command; and Wang Xiubin, commander of the Southern Theater Command. Xi is a powerful figure in China, but that does not mean he is without opposition.
However, with a legacy to protect and ambitions yet to fulfill, he will do everything necessary to ensure his transition into a third term as the supreme leader goes smoothly at the 20th Party Congress. (ANI)