Xi Jinping’s Chongqing Tour: Gang of Princelings Gains Clout

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 25

Xi Jinping (L) and Bo Xilai (R)

Vice-President Xi Jinping’s brief visit to the western-China metropolis of Chongqing earlier this month has given important clues about the “crown prince’s” political orientations and his relations with key Chinese Communist Party (CCP) factions. After his induction into the Central Military Commission (CMC) last October, there is little doubt that the 57-year-old Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member will succeed Hu Jintao as Party General Secretary at the 18th Party Congress slated for late 2012. According to long-standing tradition, however, Xi has largely kept his beliefs to himself so as not to be seen as upstaging his superiors. During his "Chongqing tour," however, Xi dropped strong hints about his deeply-held ideology and aspirations. Equally significantly, Xi’s bonding with Politburo member and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai shows that the vice-president may be putting together his own team in the run-up to taking over the helm in less than two years’ time. Seeds of conflict between Hu and Xi, respectively the “core” of the CCP’s Fourth- and Fifth-Generation leadership, might also have been sown.

Since Bo became party chief of China’s most populous city in late 2007, the flamboyant former minister of commerce has made headlines with his no-holds-barred advocacy of Maoist norms. In his speeches, the charismatic Bo has profusely cited Mao-era slogans such as “plain living and hard struggle” and “human beings need to have [a revolutionary] spirit” (People’s Daily, June 7; Chongqing Evening News, June 28). He has resuscitated Cultural Revolution-vintage revolutionary operas. Bo, who is the 61-year-old son of conservative party elder Bo Yibo, even asks his secretaries to regularly text-message Mao quotations to the city’s students (See “The CCP’s Disturbing Revival of Maoism,” China Brief, November 19, 2009). On the economic front, the high-profile “princeling” has made waves with his attempts to go after “red GDP,” a reference to economic construction that exemplifies Maoist egalitarianism. Chongqing has emerged as a national pacesetter in social-welfare policies such as providing subsidized public housing to the city’s masses (Chongqing Evening News, May 1; China News Service, April 20).

While top central leaders including President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have refrained from commenting on Chongqing’s Maoist exploits, Xi heaped lavish praise on the city’s achievements during his two-day visit. Xi, who is also a ranking princeling, enthusiastically applauded the Chongqing tradition of “singing red songs, studying the [Maoist] canon, telling [Mao-era] stories, and passing along [Maoist] dictums.” “These activities have gone deeply into the hearts of the people and are worthy of praise,” Xi said. He indicated that they “were a good vehicle for educating the broad masses of party members and cadres about [politically correct] precepts and beliefs.” The former party secretary of Shanghai added that changhong, or singing the praises of the party’s “red” heirlooms, was “essential to propagating lofty ideals and establishing core socialist values in society.” Moreover, Xi seconded Chongqing’s myriad social security policies, especially its renowned subsidized housing schemes. “Chongqing’s public housing is a virtuous policy, a benevolent effort and a positive exploration,” Xi said. “We have to come up with more concrete measures that bring benefits to the people” (Xinhua News Agency, December 8; Chongqing Daily, December 12).

No less remarkable was Xi’s unreserved secondment of Bo’s controversial dahei or anti-triad campaign. While having pep talks with public security officers in Chongqing, Xi had this to say about the city’s “hair-raising struggle to ‘combat triad gangs and extirpate evil criminals’”: “Police and law-enforcement officers took the lead and went through the test of life and death to realize outstanding achievements.” “The Chongqing party committee has scored a major victory in safeguarding the basic rights and interests of the broad masses,” Xi noted. “The anti-triad campaign is deeply popular and it has brought joy to the people’s hearts” (People’s Daily, December 9; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], December 9). It is notable, however, that neither President Hu nor Premier Wen Jiabao has given Chongqing’s dahei movement public endorsement. Moreover, quite a number of triad bosses nabbed by Bo had flourished during the tenures of several of the city’s former party bosses and mayors who happened to be affiliates of Hu’s powerful Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction. The latter include Bo’s immediate predecessor, Wang Yang, who is currently Politburo member and Guangdong Party Secretary―and a key Hu protégé. Particularly in light of allegations that Xi had used extra-legal methods including harassing the attorneys of triad suspects, the princeling’s dahei campaign has been characterized as a political ploy against the CYL Faction (South China Morning Post, September 2; AsianCorrespondent.com, March 2; Washington Post, March 8).

Irrespective of the motives of Bo’s changhong and dahei maneuvers, Xi’s wholehearted championship of the “Chongqing experience” is most revealing of the future supremo’s political orientations. Unlike his father, former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun, who is a bona fide “rightist” and ally of the late party chief Hu Yaobang, Xi is believed to harbor much more conservative views (Wall Street Journal, October 19; Hong Kong Economic Journal, October 22). When delivering speeches in his capacity as President of the CCP Central Party School, Xi has indicated that while cadres must pass muster in morality and “Marxist rectitude” in addition to professional competence, the former comes before the latter. This is reminiscent of Chairmao Mao’s famous dictum that officials should be both “red and expert.” The Vice-President has repeatedly urged up-and-coming cadres to steep themselves in Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. One of Xi’s favorite homilies is that leading officials must “firm up their political cultivation and boost the resoluteness of their political beliefs, the principled nature of their political stance… as well as the reliability of their political loyalty” (See “PLA Gains Clout: Xi Jinping Elevated to CMC Vice-Chairman,” China Brief, October 23).

Since being inducted into the PBSC at the 17th Party Congress in 2007 as the most senior Fifth-Generation cadre, however, Xi has mostly discussed political ideals and slogans in abstract settings. His zealous affirmation of the Chongqing model is the most concrete indication the heir-apparent has given to date as to how he will run the country after succeeding Hu in late 2012. As well-known People’s Daily commentator Wen Hai indicated in his article “What important message has been transmitted by Xi Jinping’s inspection of Chongqing?”, the Chongqing model of upholding “core socialist norms” was tantamount to laying down “for all members of society basic yardsticks and criteria for discriminating between good and evil, and for differentiating between meritorious and detrimental behavior.” Wen noted that Xi’s secondment of the Chongqing experience was a signal that the city’s “system of core socialist values should be applied in other regions” (People’s Daily, December 13; Sina.com, December 10).  

Equally importantly, Xi’s apparent decision to join forces with fellow princeling Bo says a lot about the jockeying for position that is expected to intensify in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress. Despite having equally illustrious “revolutionary bloodlines,” Xi and Bo had until recently not been deemed to be close. Firstly, their career paths have never overlapped. More significant is the widespread impression that the differences and rivalry between Bo Yibo and Xi Zhongxun might have percolated down to their sons. Indications are aplenty, however, that partly owing to the encouragement of ex-president Jiang Zemin and ex-vice president Zeng Qinghong― both of whom played a pivotal role in Xi’s elevation at the 17th Party Congress― Xi is anxious to quickly assemble a team of like-minded colleagues prior to taking power. Zeng, who is often dubbed the “big brother among princelings,” has reportedly advised Xi to consolidate his links with the senior-ranked offspring of party elders. This is particularly in view of the fact that compared to recent CCP chieftains such as Jiang and Hu, Xi lacks a solid factional base in the party-and-state apparatus. The 71-year-old Zeng has also recommended several of his former aides to serve as Xi’s political advisers. Prominent among the latter is Deputy Director of the Policy Research Office of the CCP Central Committee Shi Zhihong, who used to be Zeng’s personal secretary (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], December 6 and December 14; Frontline monthly [Hong Kong], December 2010).

The big question, of course, is whether Xi can afford running afoul of President Hu, who seems determined to ensure the predominance of his CYL Faction beyond the 18th Party Congress. It is hardly a secret that Hu, 68, wants to promote as many as four CYL Faction affiliates to the nine-member PBSC to be set up at the pivotal conclave. There is also innuendo that following in the footsteps of ex-president Jiang, Hu hopes to remain CMC Chairman for at least a few more years beyond the Congress (See Jamestown Foundation Occasional Paper, “Changing of the Guard: Beijing Grooms Sixth-Generation Cadres for 2020s”). Given that these moves will constitute substantial constraints on his clout, Xi seems to be fighting back with the help of fellow princelings as well as still-influential elders such as Jiang and Zeng. After all, it is not the first time that Xi seems to have slighted Hu so as to play up his special relationship with ex-president Jiang. During a tête-à-tête with Angela Merkel in Berlin in October 2009, Xi presented the German Chancellor with two books written by Jiang before passing along the ex-president’s greetings to Merkel. According to official Chinese news agencies, the Vice-President did not even once mention Hu during the entire meeting (Xinhua News Agency, October 13, 2009; Asiasentinel.com, October 14, 2009). One reason for this apparent breach of protocol could have been that Xi was unhappy about having failed to make the CMC at the CCP Central Committee plenum earlier that month. Seen from this perspective, it is possible that Xi and his powerful supporters may employ even tougher tactics to rein in the inordinate ambitions of the soon-to-retire CYL supremo.