Xi follows in Mao's footsteps on path to consolidate power

The president's push to clean up the party may employ old tactics, but there's reason to hope he wants more than just another purge

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 5:22am

"Look in the mirror, dress properly, take a bath and see a doctor."

Such advice might strike the ears of most people as plain and harmless. But that kind of order coming from the president and party chief surely sends shivers down the spines of many of the Communist Party's 80 million members.

Most of them understood that when the Politburo announced Xi Jinping's campaign rid the party of "formalism, bureaucratism and behaviour that suggests mediocrity, laziness, laxity and extravagance", what it really meant was: "Clean up your act. Or we'll clean it up for you."

The year-long campaign, unveiled on April 19, requires any officials from the county level or higher to "reflect on their own practices and correct any misbehaviour", according to Xinhua. It aims is to improve the party's bond with the people, as well as fight corruption.

The campaign represents Xi's first major anti-corruption drive since Xi he came to power in November, vowing to make the fight against graft one of his top priorities.

Many mainlanders are likely to view the move with equal measures of cynicism and scepticism. Indeed, it has become a kind of "formalism" that every now and then - particularly after new leaders come to power - the party strikes out at formalism, bureaucratism, laxity and extravagance.

During these periods, party members have come to expect endless internal meetings and "criticism and self-criticism" sessions. The results of such campaigns have been dismal judging by their required frequency. But they have usually served at least one unspoken purpose over the years: helping party leaders consolidate power by purging potential enemies and having remaining members swear loyalty.

There have been signs to suggest that Xi's campaign will be more determined and thorough than previous attempts, not the least because corruption has become so rampant that it threatens the very survival of the party. The prominence Xi has given to fighting corruption also means that he is staking a considerable portion of his leadership on achieving notable results.

Since last year, the state media has dropped hints that the party has become too big. There have been suggestions that the party would be more discriminating about recruiting new members and more resolute on expelling unqualified or corrupt ones.

Wang Qishan, China's new anti-graft tsar, has reportedly launched a campaign to target corruption at financial institutions.

The ongoing probe into the illegal trading of bonds involving billions of yuan has sent tremors through mainland financial circles. A number of high-ranking officials have been asked to assist investigations.

According to the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Commercial Daily, Wang has ordered children of senior government and party officials to quit their lucrative jobs with overseas companies and return to the mainland.

If true, this could touch a raw nerve with many high-ranking officials as their children have used their influence to land well-paid positions with various foreign funds, investment banks, and multinationals - a popular complaint among ordinary mainlanders.

More interestingly, Xi has shown willingness to take on the armed forces, just months after becoming the commander-in-chief of the People's Liberation Army.

Two days after the Politburo announcement, Xi issued an order requiring generals and other senior officers to serve as soldiers of the lowest rank for at least two weeks as part of his efforts to shake up the military and boost morale, according to Xinhua.

"Officers should prepare their own daily necessities and pay board fees as others do, and they are forbidden to sightsee, receive gifts, attend banquets or meddle in sensitive army affairs," Xinhua said.

Cynics can dismiss this as a gimmick, but it is not. This kind of order may be for unusual for a modern military, but it does send a strong message about who is in charge.

It also says something of Xi's courage to force the big-belly generals, who are accustomed to luxury, to eat, sleep, undertake morning drills and stand sentry, along with other ordinary soldiers.

On this front, Xi appears to have taken a page from Mao Zedong , who launched a similar shake-up in the 1950s. Mao used the opportunity to strengthen his control of the military and forced many powerful generals into retirement.

As Xi works to consolidate his own power, he has repeatedly reached into history, borrowing many tactics from the late party patriarch.

Indeed, his campaign against party extravagance bares more than a passing resemblance to Mao's own political campaigns.

Will this raise concern among mainland liberals? There has been little murmuring on that front so far.