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Taming the 'big tigers' won't be easy for China's president

A meeting of China's top Communist Party officials is debating the proposed regulations obliging cadres to declare their assets and those of their spouses and close kin. But acting against the "big tigers" is tough.

The Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) policy-setting Central Committee, which usually meets once a year, is convening in a military hotel in Beijing on October 24. The 370-odd members, including President Xi Jinping and other Politburo members, will also discuss rules that could force senior officials to disclose whether their spouses and children have foreign passports or permanent residence in other countries.

A party source in Beijing said previous attempts to introduce assets-disclosure regulations were voted down by Central Committee meetings held in the last years of the tenure of ex-President Hu Jintao, who ruled from 2002 to 2012. "Resistance to disclosure laws is very strong because the vested interests of big clans within the CCP might be jeopardized," the source said.

The "Panama Papers" disclosed that the children and relatives of several Politburo members, including President Xi's sister and brother-in-law, hold bank accounts in overseas tax havens. Hong Kong papers have reported that the two Xi relatives have since closed those accounts.

The party source said Xi and his close ally in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), Wang Qishan, who heads the Central Commission on Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) - China's highest-level graft-buster - are in favor of passing tougher regulations to root out graft.

According to the official Xinhua News Agency, the four-day Central Committee plenary session will deliberate over the drafting of a new document on "the norms of political life within the party," and the revision of "an intra-party supervision regulation."

Experts familiar with Xi's anti-corruption campaign noted that existing regulations on "clean governance" already made it clear that "party cadres and members must boost intra-party supervision and raise their ability to prevent corruption." The assets-disclosure law, if passed, could provide the CCDI and other anti-graft agencies with teeth to investigate the business activities of the spouses and children of top officials or recently retired cadres with ranks of ministers or above.

The 'big tigers'

It is understood, however, that a number of the "big tigers" - a reference to senior cadres who have raked in ill-gotten gains of at least several million US dollars - are in possession of properties and other assets under the names of business partners or distant relatives.

A case in point is former Politburo member and Xi opponent Bo Xilai, who owned luxurious mansions in Europe that were held by business partners and other associates. Bo is serving a life prison term for economic crimes and other offenses.

Apart from fighting corruption, the Central Committee meeting is expected to further boost President Xi's authority. After Xi came to power four years ago, he has passed internal party regulations forbidding officials from "making groundless criticism of the central party leadership." This is seen by Xi's critics as an exacerbation of the dictatorial inclinations of a typical Leninist party.

Xi has also introduced strictures obliging senior cadres to observe "political rules." "Big tigers" such as Ling Jihua, who was the right-hand man of ex-President Hu Jintao, have been kicked out of the party and incriminated for violating "political rules." This is despite the fact that outspoken legal experts in Beijing have pointed out that "political rules" are not a legal concept. Moreover, in light of the dearth of intra-party democracy, only a patriarch-like figure at the top of the party has the authority to define what constitute "political rules."

Bangladesch China Besuch Präsident Xi Jinping in Dhaka (Getty Images/AFP)

Xi has also introduced strictures obliging senior cadres to observe 'political rules'

Other regulations

Other regulations that may be discussed in the plenary session of the Central Committee may include setting liberal retirement ages for top posts such as Politburo members or members of the PBSC, China's supreme ruling council.

While the existing CCP charter has no stipulations on age limits for different posts, there is a well-known convention that cadres aged 68 or above may no longer be inducted into the PBSC.

While the 19th Party Congress, which will pick a new Central Committee and Politburo, is still one year away, Xi is anxious to ensure that if necessary, the CCDI's Wang, who will be 69 by then, could still serve one more five-year term in the PBSC. Wang, a former vice premier who has a high reputation among cadres and rank-and-file, has won the support of most factions for his iron-fisted approach to tackling "big tigers" among the CCP's corrupt members.

Infighting

The upcoming four-day plenum, most of whose deliberations will not be made public, could also throw some light on factional in-fighting within the top echelons of the party.

Xi, who is creating his own faction, has since early 2013 been pulling out all the stops to marginalize the party's two largest cliques - the Shanghai Faction led by ex-President Jiang Zemin, and the Communist Youth League Faction (CYLF) headed by ex-President Hu.

China Bo Xilai Prozess 25. Oktober 2013 (Reuters)

Bo is serving a life prison term for economic crimes and other offenses

In the past month or so, Xi has clashed with National People's Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang - a protégé of Jiang's - over policies toward the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). While Zhang heads the CCP Central Coordinating Group on Hong Kong and Macau - the nation's highest authority over the SAR - Xi is understood to be unhappy about Zhang's handling of the Hong Kong portfolio. At the September 4 Legislative Council elections, six "localists" - young politicians gravitating toward some form of "Hong Kong independence" - surprisingly won seats in the 70-member legislature. Xi has reportedly blamed Zhang for the rise of separatist sentiments in the SAR.

At the same time, rivalries between Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, who is a veteran CYLF leader, seem to have been exacerbated. While it is a party tradition that the premier has overall control over economic policy, Li has been playing second fiddle to the ultra-ambitious Xi. For example, Xi has held important meetings of top economic decision-making bodies while Li is away from the capital on short domestic inspection trips.

It is understood that supreme leader Xi wants to promote members of his own faction - particularly cadres from Zhejiang who worked under him when Xi was party secretary of the coastal province from 2002 to 2007 - to the Central Committee and even the Politburo at the 19th Party Congress scheduled for late autumn next year.

However, given that many of the 200-odd Central Committee members and the 170 or so alternative members were picked by former Presidents Jiang and Hu, strongman Xi's ability to use means such as the "anti-corruption card" to cow his opponents into submission may be severely tested.

Willy Lam is a Chinese politics expert and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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