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Download this week’s newsletter as a PDF here: CPW No. 100
Dear friends and colleagues,
On this, our hundredth issue, it seems only right to reflect over what we have seen since this newsletter began in early 2014. For most China watchers, the past three and a half years have been focused on trying to figure out who Xi Jinping is, how much power he has, and what he wants to do with it. Amazingly, answers to these questions are, even now, tentative at best.
I’m going to be in Beijing for all of August, so get in touch if you would like to meet while I am in town. Time willing, I will also try to organize some CPW dinners on politics and the economy, so also get in touch if you would have any interest in attending one of those.
A popular politician
One of the most striking things about Xi Jinping has been how much like a modern politician he seems, at least in the Chinese context. The contrast with the cardboard uber-bureaucrat Hu Jintao could not be more striking, and unlike most of his black-haired, suit-clad colleagues, Xi seems to come off as a real person.
From the moment he took the stage as leader of the Party on November 15, 2012, Xi has cultivated a persona as a man of the people. His first speech was largely devoid of the stultifying Party-speak typical of most official addresses. Instead he promised to serve the people and provide them with better education, steady work, a stronger social safety net and better healthcare, among other things.
He also promised a clean and honest Communist Party. He has since instituted the most wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign in Party history. At the same time, he has cultivated an image of a modest everyman, eating baozi and eschewing fancy clothes for an understated windbreaker. His media and PR people have done a great job of promoting this reputation, and the result is that he is arguably the most popular Chinese politician since Zhou Enlai. (For those readers interested in having long, inconclusive debates about the popularity of various Chinese leaders, get in touch!).
Popular with the people, but not the Party
Yet for all Xi’s popularity, there is a persistent sense that he has yet to consolidate power. While well regarded by man elites and hongerdai, Xi has not been particularly well-liked within the wider Party. He failed to achieve a spot on the Central Committee in 1997 because he did not receive enough votes, and was only made an alternate by special intervention of the Organization Department. Tuanpai don’t like him because of his princeling pedigree and the fact that he blocked Li Keqiang from taking over as General Secretary (this, I would guess, has a lot more to do with distance between Xi and Li than any disagreement on policy). And the way he has gone after Jiang Zemin’s people is bound to have ruffled a lot of feathers in their camp.
Perhaps because of the above, Xi’s tenure so far has been plagued by constant rumors of palace intrigue, including assassination attempts and coups. It’s hard to give much credence to the most outlandish of these rumors, but Xi’s own constant railings against “cliques” and “vested interests” certainly implies that there is still a struggle going on within the Party. The often confused policy coming out of Beijing seems to be a pretty clear indication that not everybody is on the same page.
Putting people in place
What is clear is that Xi is working hard to get his people into positions of power. In this, the first few years of Xi’s leadership have born a striking resemblance to those of Jiang Zemin. Just as Jiang worked to move his lieutenants from Shanghai into positions of power in Beijing, there has been a steady of stream of Xi associates taking up important posts within key Party and government organizations. It seems plausible that in the years to come we will talk of a “Xi Clique” in the same way that we talk of Jiang’s Shanghai Gang. Yet, on the economic front, there is no clear analogue to Zhu Rongji, and policy in this area continues to feel pulled in multiple contradictory directions.
All eyes on 2017
At this point, it seems like we will have to wait until the 19th Party Congress to get a more meaningful understanding of Xi’s power and agenda. Jockeying for positions is already intense, and rumors abound about who might take what role.
CPW will be watching and documenting it all, and we look forward to doing so with you, our wonderful readers. Thanks to all for their support over the first 100 issues. We look forward to the next hundred.
China Politics Weekly aims to keep business leaders, investors, diplomats, scholars and other China hands up to date on important trends in China. It is produced by Trey McArver, a London-based consultant providing advice and intelligence to firms and investors engaged in China and the region. You can find out more about Trey and CPW in this interview.
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