Study China long enough and everything looks like farce. That’s because the old dictum of history repeating itself becomes nauseating when filtered through the opaque maze of the Middle Kingdom. What’s playing out now before the world is a work of consolidation by Mr. Xi, but first a few facts.
The sentencing of Ling Jihua to life in prison for accepting more then $11 million in bribes is only significant when seen within the hierarchical cauldron of the ‘Princelings’ that dominate Red China. Ling Jihua was no ordinary “tiger hunt” caught in a dragnet hoisted by Xi. Ling Jihua was the consigliere to Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao. Hunting game this big hasn’t been seen in China since 1989. Having it spill out into public view is quite damaging, making governance and policy articulation difficult.
Mr. Xi rose to power in 2012 as a compromise candidate. He was not backed by any faction. He used that weakness as a strength by directly attacking factionalism as the source of governance problems besieging China’s Comintern. Having made the prosecution of corruption his first public target, Xi moves now to consolidate his reign by pushing for ideological unity. All of this rings of Mao, no one familiar with Chinese politics mistakes the sloganeering officiated by Xi, he means to actively promote soft terror by intimidating rival power bases within Beijing. As of this writing, its to early to see how best to anticipate its trajectory.
The pinnacle of Chinese political life is entry into the seven member Politburo Standing Committee. Xi’s only rival there is Premier Li Keqiang, a friend of Hu Jintao. Li continues to openly confront Xi’s reluctance toward market based reforms. Li is scheduled to serve a 10 year term ending in 2022, rumors are that Xi plans on forcing retirement upon Li.
Why is this important?
Attacking rival factions within Chinese politics is a violation of political tenants that emerged under Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1979. Chinese leaders always govern within a consensus among competing power bases; this was designed by Deng so as to prevent a repeat of Mao’s destruction purges that ultimately damaged China and spurred its movement toward capitalism.
Here’s what to look for: the emergence of new strongmen determined to openly confront implementing market based reforms. This will usher in new sources of volatility challenging old assumptions. The classic fix is in.
This fraught challenge is endemic to the Chinese political economy. My monies on the challenger.