Xi grows in confidence

2014-08-06 20:56Asia Times

Chinese President Xi Jinping can look back with satisfaction over a summer of achievements. While stepping back from a maritime stalemate with Vietnam showed a new foreign policy restraint, his defusing of an electoral crisis in Hong Kong underlined his mettle. Most importantly, by making openly political charges against former security czar Zhou Yongkang, Xi signaled his absolute commitment to reform. - Francesco Sisci (Aug 5, '14)

As preparations for China's Party Plenum will likely go into full gear in August ahead of the event later in the autumn, it seems an appropriate time to assess how the domestic political landscape will look in the coming winter.

Currently, President Xi Jinping appears in full control, with a grasp over the party not seen since the times of Mao Zedong. In recent weeks, this has helped him make three very difficult achievements.

He stepped back from a complicated predicament with Vietnam by moving an oil rig that gave rise to clashes between fishing
boats in the South China Sea. He did that without accepting de facto a major setback because the Vietnamese had lynched some Chinese businessmen in protest and kicked almost all ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs out of the country.

He also found a way to at least partly defuse a huge political row on the future of democracy in Hong Kong. Beijing had issued a White Paper on politics in Hong Kong that stirred major opposition as it underscored that the 2017 elections in the territory would be held according to the present cumbersome procedure and not with universal suffrage. Hong Kong residents started a series of peaceful demonstrations demanding universal suffrage, and Beijing at first did not know how to respond.

Simply giving in to the demonstrators would've undermined the White Paper, and proved the government was weak, while cracking down on the protests would scare Taiwan and the world about the not so peaceful intentions of Beijing. Eventually, the head of the Chinese parliament, Zhang Dejiang, said that the 2017 elections will not be the end of political reforms in Hong Kong and thus opened the door to further future concessions.

Lastly, Xi made public what had been an open secret for months: that former security czar Zhou Yongkang was under investigation. Here, for the first time since the political demise of Zhao Ziyang (the party chief dismissed for his support of the students in Tiananmen in 1989),  Zhou's charges are not merely economic but also political. All other senior party officials dismissed in the meantime - Beijing Party chief  Chen Xitong, Shanghai Party chief Chen Liangyu, Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai - were simply charged with corruption.

The accusations against Zhou are highly political: "He was embroiled with centers of vested interests and hurdled the reforms". [1] These accusations are also very public, unlike with Zhao Ziyang who remained until his death a very difficult case to handle amid charges he was trying to split the party. This charge was hard to explain in the Leninist logic of the Chinese Communist Party because Zhao was the party secretary, the head, so in a way it was easy to argue that it was the party that split with him, not vice versa.

In all these cases, Xi proved innovative and able to move forward and back with dexterity. That is, he apparently has far more room to maneuver than his predecessors, who always had to garner a large and thus difficult consensus within the Party.

Definitely it is hard to believe that Xi can decide everything on his own, but he has space to move forward and back, the basic moves in politics, which in the past 20 years in China had been blocked by a complex system of internal and secretive "checks and balances" that made it difficult to make any decision and even harder to change things.

More importantly, Xi is showing a new mindset. In foreign policy, he is not afraid to make concessions, as he has done with Vietnam. He is also willing to move away when he has stepped into a hornets' nest, like in Hong Kong. Moreover, he is starting what could be a very important political campaign, accusing Zhou of obstructing reforms. This means that many people could be brought down and replaced not because they received a bribe - but because pushing reforms is of paramount importance. This signals the future political compass.

1. See here

Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People's University in Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.
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