BEIJING: China’s president, Xi Jinping, has opened a public campaign to deepen his grip on power in a coming leadership shake-up, using a huge military parade on Sunday, speeches and propaganda+ , along with a purge in the past week, to warn officials to back him as the nation’s most powerful leader in two decades.
Wearing his mottled green uniform as commander in chief of the People’s Liberation Army, Xi watched as 12,000 troops marched and tanks, long-range missile launchers, jet fighters and other new weapons drove or flew past in impeccable arrays.
Mao famously said political power comes from the barrel of a gun, and Xi signaled that he, too, was counting on the military to stay ramrod loyal while he chooses a new leading lineup to be unveiled at a Communist Party congress in the autumn.
“Troops across the entire military, you must be unwavering in upholding the bedrock principle of absolute party leadership of the military,” Xi said at the parade, held on a dusty training base in Inner Mongolia region, 270 miles northwest of Beijing. “Always obey and follow the party. Go and fight wherever the party points.”
Officially, the display was to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Liberation Army. But it was also the highlight of a week of political theater promoting Xi as a uniquely qualified politician whose elevated status as China’s “core” leader, endorsed by officials last year, should be entrenched at the party congress.
“These military parades could become a regular, institutionalized thing, but this one also has a special meaning this year,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor at a party newspaper in Beijing who writes current affairs commentaries. “It’s meant to show that Xi Jinping firmly has the military in his grip, and nobody should have any illusions of challenging him.”
The congress will almost certainly give Xi, 64, a second, five-year term as the party general secretary and chairman of the commission that controls the military, and it will appoint a new team to work under him.
No exact date has been fixed for the congress. An annual legislative meeting early next year will also almost certainly give Xi five more years as state president.
Some experts have speculated that Xi may want to retain power after those terms end, although the constitution says he cannot stay on as president. There are no firm rules for maximum terms as party general secretary.
Xi has accompanied the demands for unity with a vivid warning to officials who step out of line. In the past week, he oversaw the abrupt purge of Sun Zhengcai, a onetime contender for promotion at the congress. Sun, 53, had been the party secretary of Chongqing, a city in southwest China, until his dismissal in mid-July.
The party announced on July 24 that he was under investigation for violations of “discipline” — usually a euphemism for corruption — and Sun has since been pilloried in official media. Provincial leaders, including many with a shot at promotion, have called meetings to denounce Sun as a “tiger,” or corrupt senior official.
“At this point, we can’t say for sure he will be the last big tiger to be brought down before the opening of the party congress,” said professor Ding Xueliang, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies the Chinese Communist Party. “We don’t know, other leaders don’t know either.”
For now, Xi appears to be seeking to ensure that his second-term lineup includes younger loyalists who will defend him and his policies for years to come. Several are poised to join the Politburo, a council of 25 senior central, provincial and military leaders. Up to 11 members of the Politburo are likely to retire at the congress, including five members of the Politburo Standing Committee, a more powerful body with seven members.
The negotiations over the new lineup happen in secret. But the burst of propaganda and warnings appears designed to pressure officials and retired leaders to go along with Xi’s wishes over who goes up and who steps down.
Xi is by the estimate of many observers China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997. While the military does not have much direct say in politics, its support is essential for Xi’s long-term authority, Ding said.
“Xi Jinping has spent more time on the military than any other leader,” Ding said by telephone. “He knows clearly that eventually, if he wants to keep in power, if he wants to concentrate power even more, he must make sure the army is with him.”
Xi’s recent predecessors as national leader, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, also prepared for leadership turnovers with crescendos of propaganda. But the adulation around Xi has been strikingly worshipful. More than them, Xi has made a personal case for power.
On Friday, Study Times, a party newspaper widely read by officials, devoted its front page to an adulatory profile of Xi that said he was blessed by his “red” upbringing with special leadership mettle. It recounted his tough maturation as the son of a veteran revolutionary who was persecuted by Mao, testing the family’s loyalty to the Communist cause, and his seven years working in the dirt-poor countryside during the Cultural Revolution.
The profile has been widely promoted by party newspapers and websites, and its anonymous author was described as “special commentator,” a title usually used for articles with high-level endorsement.
“I never saw anything like this for Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao,” said Deng, the former editor, who used to work for Study Times. “They didn’t get this treatment.”
Xi “grew up with an inheritance of red genes, was tempered by harsh setbacks and suffering, and has steeled himself in complicated international struggle,” the profile said, referring to his revolutionary background and career.
“The lion of the east has woken,” it said, referring to China. “But it faces tremendous risks of being surrounded by tigers and wolves and suffering even more intense strategic encirclement, clashes and meddling.”
The profile also said Xi personally pushed through difficult and contentious policy changes in his first five years in power, including building artificial islands fitted with military installations in the disputed South China Sea.
“In the South China Sea, he personally decided on building islands and consolidating reefs,” the profile said. Xi had, it said, “built a robust strategic base for ultimately prevailing in the struggle to defend the South China Sea, and has in effect constructed a Great Wall at sea.”
Xi’s power has already unsettled critics, including some inside the party, who worry that he has destabilized norms of collective leadership that can slow decision-making but also prevent dangerous overreach.