An intensifying purge of disloyal Chinese Communist party law and order officials is setting the stage for President Xi Jinping to become party chairman and hold on to power beyond his second term, experts have warned.
The anti-corruption campaign launched last month to target the party’s legal and domestic security apparatus kicked into a higher gear last week when the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection announced a probe into Gong Daoan, the Shanghai police chief and the highest-ranking official to fall since Mr Xi’s second term began in 2017.
Officials have signalled the importance of the campaign by insisting it must channel the spirit of the “Yan’an rectification movement” launched by Mao Zedong in 1941, the first big purge in the party’s history.
Mao’s push for ideological purity was a pivotal moment for the revolutionary leader. It allowed him to clear out political rivals and consolidate control, as well as to be officially appointed party chairman in 1945. The title has not been used for decades.
Mr Xi is already general secretary of the party and head of the military, as well as president. The latest stage in his multiyear, anti-graft battle could play a similar role in concentrating his considerable power in the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress in 2022, said Wu Qiang, a Beijing-based independent political commentator.
Eventually Xi will have purged everyone and put in place new people, but after a time he won’t trust them either
“It’s preparation to establish Xi’s total authority over the party,” Mr Wu said. “We cannot rule out that there will be further changes to the party charter or that Xi will get a new title to further emphasise his status above other leaders on the politburo standing committee.”
Mr Xi’s war on graft had already felled a number of top political rivals, including public security tsar Zhou Yongkang and Chongqing party secretary Sun Zhengcai.
The latest round is being led by Chen Yixin, secretary-general of the Politics and Legal Affairs Commission. Mr Chen, a Xi loyalist, was appointed party secretary of Wuhan in February as the party’s senior leadership took direct charge of efforts to curb coronavirus spreading in the city.
The 30 or so officials to fall in the new campaign are just the beginning, state-backed China News Weekly said on Saturday, adding that the campaign would run till the spring of 2022.
Mr Xi’s second term as party general secretary and head of the military will officially end in late 2022, while his second five-year stint as president of the nation is set to end in the spring of 2023.
Chinese politics experts suspect that Mr Xi will maintain a position of power beyond 2023. In 2018, term limits for the presidency were abolished, allowing him to rule for life should he choose to. But it is unclear which roles Mr Xi will retain and exactly how he will exercise power.
One way for Mr Xi to keep control of the party without necessarily holding all his current positions would be to follow Mao to become party chairman, a title last used in 1982.
“The title would provide a mechanism to extend Xi’s tenure because there [has been] no term limit set for party chairmanship in the past,” said Ling Li, a scholar of Chinese politics at the University of Vienna.
“Today, no one would dispute the fact that Xi has secured a position of [unparalleled] dominance in the party,” she said. “If it is still necessary to carry out a rectification campaign . . . it indicates that some potentially controversial changes are to be expected.”
Mr Xi has accrued a range of honorifics that reflect his far greater position of power compared with his immediate predecessors, but his personalised leadership style has remained distinct from Mao.
He has shown little interest in bottom-up movements such as Mao’s chaotic Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 when young “red guards” were tasked with ridding government and society of “bourgeois elements”.
The distinction does not mean Mr Xi is necessarily less powerful, according to Cai Xia, a retired professor from Beijing’s Central Party School. “The power of the party, the government and the military are all in his hands, so when it comes to the centralisation of power he is more formidable than Mao,” she said.
The party last week expelled Ms Cai and cancelled her pension after an audio recording was leaked of her criticising Mr Xi for turning the party into a “political zombie” during remarks at an academic conference.
Ms Cai believes that despite Mr Xi’s power, he has never felt safe and will need to continuously launch campaigns to keep power-hungry deputies in check, due to the absence of a standardised mechanism for transferring power in the party.
“Eventually he will have purged everyone and put in place new people, but after a time he won’t trust them either,” she said. “That’s the psychosis of being the highest leader in an authoritarian system.”