Xi Jinping sharpens focus on the military

November 03, 2017 09:39
President Xi Jinping plans to remain as chief of the party and its military commission for a long time. Photo: Xinhua

In Beijing, merchants in the sprawling flea markets who sell photographs, plates and statues of national leaders need to be politically savvy – the wrong product could put them in prison. Now they have a new item for sale – busts of Xi Jinping, next to those of Chairman Mao.

This item reflects the popular judgment of the 19th Communist Party Congress that ended last week. Like everyone else, the vendors noticed that, when Xi walked out with the six other members of the new Standing Committee of the new Politburo, there was no successor among them. He plans to remain as chief of the party and its military commission for a long time. There is no time limit on these two positions, unlike the state president who must step down after two five-year terms.

The phrase now being used by the official media is “the new era” – this means the Xi era.

To show everyone the meaning of this era, on Monday, Xi took his six colleagues in a private jet to Shanghai to the grey brick building in the former French concession where Mao and 12 others set up the Communist Party in July 1921. The seven swore allegiance to the party and all its decisions.

“For Xi, the downfall of the Soviet Communist Party is the object lesson the party in China must never follow,” said a European businessman in Beijing. “He regards Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin as the two leaders who betrayed Communism. They are traitors.”

As party chief from 1985 to 1991, Gorbachev introduced "glasnost" (openness) and "perestroika" (restructuring); he liberalised the media and public debate, allowed multi-candidate elections and appointed non-party members to high government positions. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Xi will do none of these things.

Yeltsin replaced Gorbachev and remained president of Russia until 1999. He oversaw sweeping privatization, the sale of precious state assets to a small number of oligarchs and widespread corruption. Again, these are the opposite of what Xi is going to do.

Four decades of reform have led to a booming private sector and the creation of some of the biggest private firms in Asia. Xi is wary of them and wants a party presence in the most important ones.

Of China’s 2.7 million private firms, only 67.9 per cent have a party branch; Xi wants to increase this. The state wants to have a stake in the largest such firms -- a 1 per cent stake in internet giant Tencent, content creator Weibo and Youku Tudou, which provides video content for Alibaba. It wants to have a seat on the board in these companies.

Jack Ma Yun is founder and chairman of Alibaba, with a net worth estimated at US$47.5 billion, is one of the wealthiest people in Asia. He is China’s most famous businessman overseas. “Ma should be more circumspect and less high-profile,” said Edward Leung, a business consultant. “Declaring that he would create one million jobs in the US was not wise. Xi believes business people like Ma cannot represent China. He and other political leaders must be the most prominent.”

Earlier this year, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and other private firms agreed to invest US$11.7 billion in state-owned China Unicom.

“Xi himself has little time or interest in economy and finance,” said the European businessman. “He leaves these to his advisers. His priorities are the military, police and secret police, ideology, propaganda, the anti-corruption campaign, diplomacy and China’s place in the world. We estimate that he spends no more than 30 minutes a day on the economy.

“After this congress, I wonder who will tell him the truth,” he said. “Previously, Wang Qishan did. He is a respected intellectual with a deep understanding of the economy. Many, including myself, expected him to become Prime Minister. But we were wrong.”

Wang’s removal from office was one of the biggest news of the congress. From 2008 to 2013, he was vice premier in charge of finance and commerce. Then he became head of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and led the fight against corruption, one of the most intense during the Communist era. He is 69 this year.

Improving the military will be another priority for Xi during his second term. China’s second aircraft carrier, the first to use its own technology and designs, is due to be launched in 2018. Two others are under construction. This will make the PLA a deep-water navy and give it military capability across the oceans.

“Some say that Xi needs a war to show his nationalist credentials, like Deng Xiaoping’s invasion of Vietnam in 1979,” said Leung. “This is possible. A limited war with India over a border dispute is the most likely.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.