Celebrity Politicking

China’s 19th Party Congress began Wednesday with a three-and-a-half-hour speech by Xi Jinping, a telling sign of a man who knows he has to be listened to. The general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party — usually referred to in English by his far less important title of “president” — is the heart of a weeklong love fest in Beijing as officials gather to determine the makeup of the leadership for the next five years and more.

But Xi’s power in office reaches far beyond the assembled delegates in the Great Hall of the People. Xi has near-absolute command over the ruling party and, through it, a state of 1.3 billion people, a 1.6 million-strong army, and an $11 trillion economy. The United States is still richer and stronger, but the office of the U.S. president — even when the officeholder is not deemed a “moron” by members of his own cabinet — is far more radically limited than the position held by his Chinese counterpart. Xi’s rule has tightened the grip of the party on his country and slashed away space for any opposition. While his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, struggled to make their authority felt, even before formally assuming office in 2013 Xi was purging his foes. Under the rules of the party, he’s about to reach the halfway mark of his term — but there’s a growing consensus that power in 2022 will stay in his hands, with no appointed heir in sight.

But Xi’s rise was not inevitable. The speed and range of his purges depended partially on his own political skills but far more critically on opportunities offered him by the rest of the party. Xi arrived at the party’s highest echelon at a moment of growing paranoia — triggered by public discontent about rampant corruption, deepened by the revolutionary Arab Spring in 2010, and reinforced by the Ukraine rebellion of 2014. Xi represented the possibility of deliverance for China’s autocratic, but consensus-based, political system — and a promise to protect it against any opponent, including Xi’s main rival in the Communist elite, Bo Xilai. Bo’s fall in 2012 gave Xi the momentum he needed to create a rolling attack on his foes that left him the only man who mattered.

And so Xi managed to thoroughly change the party — imposing absolute security and receiving absolute control — largely, if paradoxically, because he did so in the course of allegedly preserving it. Absent the paranoia-inspired acquiescence of his party colleagues, and the opening provided by Bo’s unforeseen fall, Xi would almost certainly still be president of China — but hemmed in by political rivals, restricted in his use of the party’s security machinery, and limited in his ambitions.

Before we go on, a caveat. The party’s code of omertà is tight, and the outside world’s knowledge of what happens behind the palace moats of Zhongnanhai, Beijing’s Kremlin, minimal. Reliable information has become even harder to come by in the age of Xi, where the fear of talking to media, and especially to foreigners, has become more acute than ever. Tales of the leadership — including entire alternate histories promising supposedly hidden truths — circulate online and among the Chinese dissident diaspora, but most of them are fantasy. This account relies on private conversations with insiders, media accounts, and the opinions of foreign experts to create a rough first sketch of a history that may never be fully revealed. Yet the outlines of the story are clear, as is what they mean for the future direction of the world’s largest country.

China's President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 18. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Xi’s ascent to the role of general secretary was fixed in 2007 at the 17th Party Congress, when his position as heir apparent was solidified. The horse-trading around this was part of a semicodified system of succession going back to 1989, when Jiang Zemin became general secretary following the Tiananmen massacre. Hu Jintao became Jiang’s heir apparent in 1997 and took on the role in 2002. Stability, as ever for the party, was paramount, but there was also a belief in rule by consensus and committee — at the top.

By the late 2000s, however, there was a strong feeling among the Chinese elite that Hu’s administration had been a failure. Despite the nominal ease of the succession, Jiang had never abandoned his desire to keep power in his hands, holding on to key military roles until 2005 and working through his political allies to hamstring his successor. Hu, once able to do a passable imitation of a human being, had become increasingly robotic, barely a presence in the public mind despite his constant unsmiling appearances on stage.

By 2007, Hu’s weakness had set up Xi’s strength; he was expected to be a more assertive, confident, and charismatic leader when he took over in 2012 — but still a party man to the core, one who had risen steadily through the system and was expected to serve it. By 2017 he’d pick a clear heir of his own, establishing a new generation of leadership to continue these traditions. But he would not be ruling alone; instead, he’d be guided, and constrained, by a range of other top figures on the Standing Committee, the seven to nine men who would make up the core leadership, and in the 25-seat Politburo.

Foreign observers often look for familiar patterns of “reformers” and “hard-liners” within authoritarian states. But the most important ties in the party at the time had very little to do with ideology. Instead, they were determined by affiliation: who you had come up with, served under, and were patronizing yourself. And so Xi’s new Politburo would be expected to include allies of Hu, Xi, and even the cadaverous Jiang.

The biggest challenge for the new administration would be rampant corruption, from the petty extortion of street vendors through to enormous payoffs for political influence and the wholesale ransacking of state resources. In percentage terms, Chinese corruption’s worst point had been the 1990s. But even if corruption had been slightly curbed since then in relative terms, in absolute ones China’s economic boom meant that the sums of money involved had become eye-bogglingly large, with scandals running into the billions of dollars.

From the party’s point of view, corruption was rotting the public’s faith and crippling the nation. From the point of view of most members of the party, however, if everyone else was getting rich, then why couldn’t they? Even a cursory glance at China’s new social media revealed that officials were seen as skinning the people, not serving them. Worst of all, the military itself was rotten — to the extent that a war, even a small one, could become a disastrous failure. The authorities were jailing 10,000 officials a year on corruption charges, but that was a droplet in a river. Helicopters were disappearing from bases, sold off to private firms; thousands of army license plates were flogged off to truckers so that they could avoid roadside tolls; and military officers — who had officially been told to get out of private business entirely a decade before — were running condom factories and Beijing nightclubs.

One reason why corruption was on everyone’s mind, though, was that the spaces available to talk about it had broadened. It can be hard to distinguish how much of the limited online and press openness of the late 2000s was deliberate policy and how much was laziness and indifference within an increasingly corroded system. But for some thinkers in the party, openness was seen as the solution to corruption. Online supervision of lower-level officials by the public, combined with more freedom of the press, would eliminate the rot at the bottom — while remaining carefully limited from going further. Chinese bloggers became adept at pointing out Rolexes on the wrists of city officials supposedly paid less than $1,000 a month. Even those deeply embedded in the system felt the need to talk in this language: “We want democracy and an open press in China,” a prominent nationalist provocateur claimed in private conversation. “But we have to go slowly, slowly. China is a complicated country.”

The Arab Spring put an end to these ambitions. An already present paranoia about Western cultural infiltration was given new life by the scenes at Tahrir Square. “Color revolution,” already a concern after the Central Asian revolts, began to grip the Chinese leadership’s imagination. The country’s founding legitimacy rests on revolutionary martyrdom — but it’s also twice been threatened by passionate (and unemployed) youth taking to the streets, in the Cultural Revolution and in the Tiananmen protests. That gave the scenes from the Arab world an extra edge and made the threat posed by revolt a tangled one: It had to be both discredited as a Western-backed, insincere form of revolution and sincerely crushed.

A few posts by online exiles about a “Jasmine Revolution,” a call for protest that never materialized, prompted a massive upping of security in Beijing. Chinese officials were prone to exaggerating the capabilities and role of U.S. intelligence in these events. “The Green Revolution was just caused by CIA spies!” one yelled down the phone when his account of how much the Iranian people loved their government, based on a weeklong trip, was questioned. Yet Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of U.S. capabilities further escalated the sense of threat from the West — as did the discovery and elimination of an extensive CIA network between 2010 and 2012. A renewed urgency about the reach of the West, and the need to reassert the dominance of the party, began to seize the leadership.

Source : http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/10/19/the-resistible-rise-of-xi-jinping/

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