Xi shushes party elders as he marches toward 3rd term: Nikkei Analysis

A political document released in a rural part of China has raised eyebrows for including an unprecedented expression to praise President Xi Jinping. 

It was a combination of the word “eternal” and “lingxiu”  (leader). 

A communique issued after a Communist Party meeting in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region noted that it is necessary to be loyal to the core leader, “support the leader forever, defend the leader and follow the leader.” 

“Forever” has connotations of a lifetime leadership. “Linxiu” was a title used only by Mao Zedong. 

The April 17 document was not issued in Beijing, the capital and political center, but in Guangxi, a southern region bordering Vietnam.

In praising Xi, who is also the party’s general secretary, the communique uses language that defies conventional party wisdom, not to mention the party constitution banning personality cults.

There was a clear reason for all the adoration. The party’s Guangxi regional congress on April 22 unanimously elected Xi as a delegate to the all-important, quinquennial party national congress, to be held this autumn.

There are no rules regarding which region the top party leader represents at the national congress. At the last national congress held five years ago, Xi was a delegate from the landlocked and poor Guizhou Province in the southwest.

Back then, Chen Min’er, widely known as a close aide to Xi, was serving as the province’s top official. Chen later moved to Chongqing to take over from the disgraced Sun Zhengcai as the municipality’s top official and was promoted to the party’s 25-member Politburo.

Guangxi, which is now at the vanguard of efforts to pave the way for Xi to become an eternal leader, also broadcast a documentary TV series praising the leader.

At the party’s upcoming national congress in Beijing, Xi will attend the Guangxi regional session alongside delegates from the region. Guangxi, therefore, has become closely intertwined with Xi’s political fortunes.

The title of lingxiu, leader, had been all but monopolized by founding father Mao. In Mao’s case, it was more commonly used as the “great leader.” 

The use of phrases such as “eternal leader” and “people’s leader,” suggest that Xi is aiming to acquire the status of “party chairman,” which Mao retained for life.

In another development, a chorus of praise for Xi was heard in Heilongjiang, a northeastern province bordering Russia.

On May 2, at its regional congress, the party adopted a resolution that also smacks of a personality cult. It pledges to turn loyalty to the lingxiu into living practice for prosperity and development.

Liu Ning, the top official of Guangxi, and Xu Qin, who holds the same position in Heilongjiang, are relatively young, at least in terms of Chinese politics. Born in the 1960s, they have science and engineering backgrounds.

Analysts have noted that since the Xi Jinping era began, many officials with engineering background have been appointed to key positions. They are more politically obedient, the conventional wisdom goes. 

But have such communiques strengthened Xi’s position? It may not be so easy.

There apparently has been push back from various wings of the party — old cadres, those who do not belong to Xi’s faction and liberal intellectuals.

In one case, the propaganda division of the party in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi, published a red booklet to help people study Xi’s eponymous ideology, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

But the booklet evoked memories of “Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong,” also known as the “Little Red Book,” the reading of which was advocated by radical Red Guard student supporters of Mao during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

The series of Xi-praising activities in Guangxi had the blessing of Xi aide, Huang Kunming, head of the party’s Publicity Department. But he may have tried too hard to score points.

Photos of the red booklet are currently unavailable on Chinese search engines; they have been completely deleted.

It is believed that the top official in charge of ideology and propaganda, Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning had a hand in reining in the excessive moves, in full communication with Xi.

This is not the first time that the drive to upgrade Xi’s status has seesawed.

Five years ago, at the national congress of 2017, Cai Qi, a close aide to Xi and Beijing’s top official, praised his boss a “wise leader.”

Although there were not many party members who noticed back then, Cai’s remarks were part of preparations for the revision of the national constitution in March 2018. The eventual revision scrapped the limit of two five-year terms for Chinese presidents, thus paving the way for Xi to be leader for life.

Following the term-limit scrapping, a brief campaign to refer to Xi as the “people’s leader” emerged in the summer of 2018.

But it quickly fell out of use. Lying behind the turn of events were widespread concerns among party elders and non-mainstream factions about a personality cult; such cults are clearly banned by the party’s constitution.

The same cycle is repeating itself, but this time Xi’s aides have grown alarmed that the effort to upgrade and establish Xi’s status is not necessarily progressing smoothly. They have now taken an unusual step.

The General Office of the Chinese Communist Party, the secretariat that supports Xi’s duties, issued an aggressive notice telling retired party elders to, in effect, watch what they say in the lead up to the national congress. It was on May 15 that state-run media revealed the notice as “a recent event.”

It was an attempt to silence the elders — former members of the Politburo Standing Committee and other retired cadres. An official from the party’s Organization Department gave a detailed explanation about the directive. 

“They must not argue about major political policies of the Party Central Committee without good reason … must not spread politically negative opinions [and] must not participate in illegal social organization activities.”

Those who violate discipline “will be severely punished.”

The notice, which made the front page of the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, is a warning from the Xi administration that opinions will be monitored and controlled — even those of party elders.

One interpretation is that Xi had no choice but to take the step, even at the risk of giving the public a glimpse into the vicious tug-of-war going on in the party, in the hope of tipping the balance in his favor.

Around the time the notice was issued, Xinhua News Agency and other state-run media outlets relaunched a campaign linking Xi’s name with the title of “people’s leader.”

The rapid succession of political developments shows that an annual summer ritual is drawing near: the closed-door “Beidaihe meeting,” when current party leaders listen to retired elders at a seaside resort.

It is not known how this year’s gathering will take place, with COVID-19 still prevalent. 

The party’s General Office, which issued the notice for retired generations to shush, is headed by Ding Xuexiang, a reportedly competent official Xi ran into during his time in Shanghai.

Ding is supposed to play a key role in Xi’s labored dialogue with party elders, who have strong opinions. If he is successful in this role, he could put himself in line for a promotion, perhaps to the Politburo Standing Committee.

Xi is still aiming for a title that bestows greatness, and many close aides are competing to help him succeed in his quest. They are engaged in a fierce power struggle for survival. Naturally, they will be divided into winners and losers.

Who prevails will be decided in the coming weeks.  (Courtesy: Nikkei free news letter)

By Katsuji Nakazawa

(The writer is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei)