While speaking to tech leaders in Seattle on Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping denied that his pursuit of corrupt officials was a “House of Cards”-style power play.
Although Xi has indeed taken out many senior leaders in the Communist Party and the Chinese military, he’s doing so not to protect his own seat of power, but to deal with the threat that factionalism poses to the Party.
When outsiders consider division within China’s Communist Party, they generally focus on rivalry between the princelings (sons of leading Chinese revolutionaries) and the shopkeepers (party members with no direct link to the revolution). While this dynamic certainly exists, Xi’s challenge is far greater.
Four major groups pose threats to Xi’s pursuit of his China Dream. They are the Communist Youth League group, led by Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao; the Shanghai Gang, led by Jiang Zemin; the Shanxi Gang, led until his incarceration by Ling Jihua; and the People’s Liberation Army. Each of these groups has been the target of Xi’s anti-corruption efforts, as well as his efforts to steer the Chinese economy through a transition from an export-dominated economy to one driven by domestic consumption. In order to keep the country functioning, Xi needs to control these factions without giving any one of them too much power.
The Communist Youth League (CYL) was Xi’s first target. In defeating Li Keqiang, Hu Jintao’s CYL protégé, Xi effectively marginalized Li, the most senior member of the CYL still in active service. Xi also wrested control of the Central Military Commission from Hu Jintao , rather than allowing Hu to retain control. This timing is in stark contrast to Hu’s own ascension to power, when Jiang Zemin retained control of the military for two years after stepping down as chairman. Finally, only Li Keqiang remains to represent the CYL faction in the Politburo Standing Committee, outnumbered six to one in a Committee that had, up to Xi’s rise, been relatively balanced.
Xi then focused on demonstrating his independence from Jiang Zemin, which culminated in the successful prosecution of Zhou Yongkang, former head of the State Security apparatus and a close associate of Jiang. Zhou’s prosecution led to some speculation that Jiang might be the next target, and certainly made clear that Xi would pursue his anti-corruption campaign to the highest levels. The prosecution left no doubt that, at least for the time being, both of Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, had been effectively marginalized.
Next, Xi worked to consolidate his control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).He began by targeting Xu Caihou, a retired general and Deputy Chairman of the Central Military Commission, which Xi chairs. The Central Military Commission charged Xu with corruption for accepting bribes and favors from both military underlings (in exchange for promotions), and cement companies (in exchange for government contracts). In an investigation that reportedly only lasted three months, Xi removed the most senior military member of the commission and sent a clear message that the PLA should focus on military competence rather than accumulation of wealth.
Xi made another step to assert his power over the PLA by announcing, just a week after the military parade celebrating the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War Two, that the PLA will reduce its forces by 300,000 troops — a cut that has not been well-received within the PLA.
Xi has spent great effort reinforcing his position — and believes that strength is necessary to guide China through its economic transition. Without that strength, the Party may be doomed. As it stands, China and its Communist Party are likely to weather this storm as they have the ones that came before.
There are good reasons to be concerned about China. But neither Xi, nor the Communist Party of China, is on its last legs.
Bill Johnson is a retired U.S. Air Force Officer, and a retired Foreign Service Officer. Bill was a philosophy professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy for 5 years. He served as the Senior Political Advisor for U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific from 2009-2011. Since his retirement, he has done consulting for the Naval Post-graduate School on China policy issues.