XI’S PUTINIZATION EVIDENT FROM STUNNING PERSONNEL DECISIONS
Varied personnel decisions announced during the recently completed 20th National Congress of China’s Communist Party (CCP) and the first plenary session of the CCP Central Committee that followed amply demonstrated Xi Jinping has established absolute authority as China’s president for a third term. And yet, once the veneer is taken off, one can see in Xi’s seemingly unbreakable power not a few disturbing elements that may lead to his downfall.
Hardline policies characterized a two-hour “political report” Xi delivered at the outset of the six-day convention which attracted plenty of attention—especially his bullish policy toward Taiwan going forward. Xi declared a complete reunification with Taiwan to be the CCP’s “historic mission and an unshakable commitment,” vowing: “We will never promise to renounce the use of force. And we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.” It was the first time that a use of force was referred to in the political report to the national congress by a Chinese leader.
Personnel decisions announced during the sessions created the impression that Xi has managed to complete his brand of authoritarianism, surrounding himself with only his aides and yes-men in the Politburo Standing Committee and the Central Military Commission he heads, each comprising seven members. Calling Xi’s personnel decisions “bizarre,” Akio Yaita, Taipei bureau chief of the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun, remarked on the Friday night “Genron” Internet TV news show I host:
“It’s like Prime Minister Fumio Kishida forming his cabinet with members of his own faction alone. Strong dissatisfaction would naturally erupt from the other factions within the ruling party. Xi arbitrarily suppressed any opposition and implemented his personnel decisions.”
On October 22 a part of the power struggle within the CCP unfolded unexpectedly before news cameras from around the world. China’s former top leader Hu Jintao (79) apparently wanted to remonstrate with Xi (69) about the party’s personnel matters and was let out of the Great Hall of the People in the middle of the closing ceremony. Yaita stated that, in order to come to grips with how it happened, one must view the happening according to the schedule of that last day of the congress.
“A total of 205 Central Committee members were elected behind closed doors from 9 a.m. that day. China has seven members serving the CCP Standing Committee. Under them are 25 Politburo members, and another 205 Central Committee members below them. These 205 are selected by the attendees of the congress, estimated at some 2,300, who cross out 17 from a list of 222. Red folders containing the names of new committee members were handed out to all the attendees. At exactly 11 a.m., all media representatives, including foreign correspondents, were in the Great Hall in Beijing.”
Xi’s Major Blunder
With all the news cameras from the world over standing by, the drama of Hu’s exit unfolded. Observed Yaita:
“It was around 11:13 a.m. Hu tried to open the red folder in front of him but it was taken away from him. He then reached for the red folder before Xi, who was seated to his immediate right at the front table. Of all things, Xi pressed his folder firmly with his fingers, blocking Hu’s attempt to get hold of it. Hu was soon escorted out of the hall, but his actions were caught clearly and spread across the globe live.”
Hu appeared to want to protest his successor’s personnel decisions. Since Hu handed over authority to Xi a decade ago, Xi has persistently enforced a cult of personality against the fundamental CCP governing philosophy. And Xi this time displaced from important posts all of those from the Chinese Communist Youth League (CYLC) Hu has favored, including Vice Premier Li Keqiang and Wang Yang, Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Hu obviously must have had mounting dissatisfaction with these developments.
This was a major incident for the CCP on the closing day of its congress. Yaita surmised that it led to other stunning developments. The day after the closing, new personnel posts that took the world by surprise were announced during the first general assembly of the new CCP Central committee. One of these was Li Qiang. Li, who has absolutely no experience in national politics, was dramatically promoted to be the second-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee, putting him second in Beijing’s pecking order. It was a lightening promotion for one of Xi’s key yes-men. However, where there is success, there also is downfall. Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, once seen as a possible candidate for the next head of state, failed to even keep his Politburo seat. Commented Yaita:
“The Politburo ordinarily comprises 25 members, but this time there are only 24. This is unprecedented. In China, all party committees are staffed with an odd number of members in order to avoid the possibility of an evenly split vote. The same goes for the Standing Committee and the Central Military Commission, each staffed by seven members. But surprisingly, there are only 24 Politburo members this time. I suspect that Xi, in a towering rage over Hu Jintao’s action, may have removed Hu Chunhua, who was Jintao’s right-hand man.
If so, the new Politburo has gotten off half-cocked before being able to find Hu’s replacement—a serious minus for the CCP’s important department in charge of political affairs. A part of the CCP’s intraparty power struggle has inadvertently been exposed to the world. Without doubt, it was a major blunder for Xi.
Xi’s anger was not limited to Hu’s expulsion. Xi had all of Hu’s essays deleted overnight from Qiushi (“Seeking Truth”), the CCP’s leading theoretical journal designed to publicize the party’s governing philosophy. Obviously, Hu has become an object of intense abomination for Xi. Could this be a harbinger of a new storm of purges?
The anomaly of Xi’s personnel choices applies to the Central Military Commission, too. As regards Taiwan, Xi said in his political report he would “never promise to renounce the use of force.” In other words, the use of force remains a possibility and one can see in the senior staff of the Central Military Commission a savage eagerness to launch just such an invasion of Taiwan.
Danger of Misjudgment
The Central Military Commission Xi heads has two deputies assisting him. One is Zhang Youxia (72). He is old enough to retire under the laws of Chinese personnel affairs but was retained as senior vice chairman of the commission. Explained Yaita: “In the late 1970s, when China invaded Vietnam, Zhang fought on the front lines as a junior officer. He was later promoted to head the PLA’s General Equipment Department. I figure that when China is to launch an invasion of Taiwan, Xi is hoping to put Zhang, who has combat experience and is versed in equipment, at the top of the invading forces.”
He Weidong is Xi’s other deputy on the commission. He joined the PLA at age 18 and has since been on the front line against Taiwan in Fujian Province, across the Taiwan Strait. He is in the vanguard of PLA generals who firmly believe China’s only policy toward Taiwan should be reunification by the use of force.
Another PLA general to watch is Li Shangfu, head of the commission’s Equipment Development Department. While being viewed as China’s possible next defense minister, Li is unable to enter the US, as he has been subject to US sanctions since Donald Trump’s administration. Given that Xi has appointed such a person to an important post in the military commission, one is led to feel that Xi may have no intention of engaging the US in negotiations over the Taiwan issue.
Will Xi be able to access accurate intelligence after having solidified his administration only with his close aides, eliminating those capable of offering dissenting views? Like Putin, he will likely run the risk of gross misjudgment of the international situation, if only intelligence his aides feel will please their boss is available. At a time when a prudent geopolitical analysis is called for, what one can see from Xi’s top personnel decisions involving the military commission is the possibility of their misreading the situation and an increased desire to launch an invasion of Taiwan.
Subordinating Russia as its junior partner and building up its strength on the Eurasian continent, Xi Jinping’s China is the biggest threat not only to Taiwan but Japan. It is mandatory for we Japanese to build stronger than ever deterrence against China while taking every possible measure to not let China misunderstand Japan’s intentions and determination. For that purpose, we must interpret America’s resolve and strategy precisely, bolster our military capability, and raise our national defense awareness across the board.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,023 in the November 10, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)