HAS XI JINPING SOLIDIFIED POWER BASE FOR HIS SECOND TERM AS CHINA’S PRESIDENT?
How long will Xi Jinping’s reign last? To answer this question, one must consider a number of points. For instance, can Xi, now 64, manage to consolidate his position as China’s absolute autocrat on a par with Mao Zedong? And, very importantly, how much real control does he have over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)?
In his opening address at the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress in Beijing on October 18, Xi declared that by 2049 China will become “a modern socialist country that stands tall among the nations of the world.” That year will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Xi also vowed that by the CCP’s 100 anniversary of its founding in 2020, China will have improved its economy, its democratic participation, its education system, and its technological know-how to the point where its people will be able to live a more fulfilled and harmonious life in a “moderately affluent society.”
By 2015, Xi further pledged, China will become “a modern socialist state.” Xi’s intent is clear: he desires to create a China that will irrefutably replace the US as the world’s biggest economic power, exercising its cultural influence far and wide across the globe.
In yet another 15 years after that, Xi said, he will have transformed the PLA into one of the world’s dominant militaries. Throughout his three-and-a-half-hour address, Xi repeatedly stated that he will strive to enhance Chinese economic and military power to make China the strongest nation in human history and realize the Chinese dream of “standing tall among the nations of the world.”
With the Opium War of 1840, Xi noted in his address, “China was plunged into the darkness of domestic turmoil and foreign aggression.” But he stressed that China has subsequently realized great leaps in three stages—“rising (as a new nation)” under Mao Zedong; “becoming richer” under Deng Xiao-ping; and “becoming stronger” under Xi. Obviously, Xi intended to put himself on a par with Mao and Deng.
There is a popular view that Xi, spurred by his great ambition, chose to reinforce his rule under a Leninist autocracy by eliminating powerful successors-in-waiting during the congress. But there are specialists who object to this view, including Akio Yaita, former Beijing correspondent for the conservative national daily Sankei Shimbun.
Yaita’s take, expressed in his new book “The Tragedy of Xi Jinping” (Sankei Shimbun Publishing Co.; December 2017) is convincing. Especially noteworthy is his analysis of Xi’s relationship with the PLA.
Xi Does Not Trust PLA
The PLA was divided into seven major military regions by Deng in 1985, each with specific responsibilities. In February 2016, Xi regrouped the regions into five battle zones, ostensibly to implement a joint operative system to improve coordination. This, at least, is how I had read the move.
But that was not the case, according to Yaita. He explains that the reorganization Xi implemented was traceable to his power struggle with the Chinese military—far from a reform as it was purported to be. Yaita explains that Xi’s real goal was to eliminate two military regions, Shenyang and Lanzhou, commanded respectively by Colonel General Xu Cau-hou and Colonel General Guo Bo-xiang, both staunch Hu Jintao supporters.
Soon after coming to power in 2012, Xi launched a campaign to eliminate his political enemies under the pretext of a campaign to eradicate corruption. Xu and Guo were charged with corruption in 2014 and 2015, respectively, found guilty, and subsequently expelled from the CCP. Xi thus successfully eliminated the two highest ranked PLA leaders who had for years backed his predecessor.
Xi’s intention was to also disband the two military regions the generals had been in charge of, notes Yaita, but he was not powerful enough to do so at the time. Instead, Xi closed Chengdu and Jinan as he regrouped the seven military regions into five—East, West, South, North, and Central. Shenyang became the North Command, and Lanzhou the West Command.
Yaita writes that transfer orders the commanders received were stunning.
Far from ordinary transfers, notes Yaita, “four of the five new commanders were ordered to simply switch positions, ending up in areas they were absolutely unfamiliar with.”
Obviously, notes Yaita, Xi’s aim was to detach the commanders from their former troops, as he puts no trust in the fidelity of the soldiers. Xi, who is desperately aiming to hold absolute power over the military, has implemented reforms before. For instance, he dissolved four general departments considered the PLA’s nerve center in January 2016.
He then distributed the powers of the four departments—center general staff, general political, general logistics, and general armament headquarters—among 15 new functional units. As a result, Xi became the only person in China capable of grasping a complete view of the PLA. Clearly, Xi doesn’t trust the military.
As chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission, Xi is the top military leader of China. If Xi in his position cannot fully trust the top brass and the troops under their command, it is difficult to say that the military, for its part, fully trusts him.
On September 3, 2015, Xi invited then South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among other leaders, to a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of China’s victory in its war of resistance against Japan. On that occasion, Xi abruptly announced a plan to reduce the PLA by 300,000 men and women. Apparently, the PLA reacted to that plan with anger and anxiety.
The National People’s Congress was held in Beijing last March. Shortly before the congress, on February 22, thousands of PLA veterans staged a march in central Beijing to protest unpaid pensions, healthcare, and other benefits. Yaita describes the veterans as “well trained militarily” and “well organized,” noting that armed police in Beijing did little to disperse them. These veterans could be a major threat to the Xi administration.
What Drives China’s Anti-Japanese Campaigns
Yaita also points out the possibility of the PLA assuming a tough posture towards China’s neighbors in order to prove its raison d’etre. A case in point is the PLA’s incursion in June 2016 into Arunachal Pradish State between India and China. Some 250 Chinese soldiers comprising two PLA companies crossed over the territory, which is claimed by India. Tensions rose precariously as the Indian army quickly took up positions against the Chinese.
Xi’s style of governance is characterized by a high degree of concentration of power in his own hand and, on the other side of the coin, a stronger constriction of freedom for the populace, the PLA, and every other sector of Chinese society. Here lies the reason why he is perceived as aiming to become another Mao Zedong.
Yaita characterizes Xi’s foreign policy as a departure from: 1) the low-posture diplomacy of Mao; 2) the omnidirectional diplomacy of Deng; and 3) the economic diplomacy of Hu.
Xi’s foreign policy is fundamentally aimed at ruthlessly “taking my (i.e., the imperial Chinese) way,” under which sinister anti-Japanese sentiments constitute a crucial factor safeguarding his administration’s leadership. Since 2012, when the Xi administration was inaugurated, Chinese military aircraft and warships have repeatedly violated Japanese territorial airspace and waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
As part of its global efforts begun in 2013 to denounce visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese politicians, China has been using its ambassadors around the world. As a result, anti-Yasukuni voices have been heard in some quarters in African and Latin American nations, such as Sudan and Argentina.
China has since persistently followed up with a series of anti-Japanese actions. In 2014, it designated December 13 as the “National Memorial Day for Nanjing Massacre Victims.” In 2015, it staged an abrupt military parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of its victory in its war of resistance against Japan. In the summer of 2016, as many as 400 Chinese patrol ships and fishing vessels, with more than 100 armed militiamen on board, rushed into the waters around the Senkakus in one day, obviously to provoke Japan. Also in 2016, Chinese civil courts began proactively accepting law-suits against Japanese corporations that used conscripted Chinese laborers during the war. And this year, the Chinese media started circulating reports claiming that Unit 731 of the imperial Japanese Army headquartered in Harbin during the last war used biological weapons to kill 300,000 Chinese.
All of this reveals the motive behind Xi’s anti-Japanese scheme: in light of the absence of mutual trust with the military and his failed economic reform, Xi is forging ahead with campaigns to denounce and provoke Japan to enhance his leadership in a desperate effort to be on a par with Mao Zedong. We must correctly perceive the reality of the Xi administration, and prepare ourselves adequately for all possible circumstances.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 781 in the December 7, 2017 issue of The Weekly Shincho)