Beijing Observation: Xi Jinping Unsheathes the Shangfang Sword

And points it in two directions.

By Gao Yu, published: September 6, 2013



Gao Yu (高瑜)

Gao Yu (高瑜)

According to Xinhua reports last year and this year, it looks like the CCP’s Beidaihe enclave now has a fixed calendar. Last year, the start of the enclave was marked by the leader-to-be Xi Jinping meeting with experts and grassroots talent vacationing at the seaside retreat on August 4. It ended with then Premier Wen Jiabao leaving for Zhejiang to inspect the province’s economy on August 14. This year’s Beidahe getaway was bracketed by the same dates except that on both ends, it was the party’s propaganda tsar Liu Yunshan (刘云山) who stepped out in the spotlight. On August 4, he met with 60 experts there on behalf of Xi Jinping, and, on the 14th, he presided over the third meeting of the leadership team of the CCP Central Committee’s Mass Line Education and Practice Activities as the team leader.    

Let’s call the eight days, from August 5 to August 13, the Beidaihe Days. Will these eight days decide the fate of China?

Xi Jinping Gears up for the Anti-corruption Campaign with Unanimous Support from the PSC

Sources said that, in Beidaihe this year, Xi Jinping focused on anti-corruption and on specific cases that the Central Committee was preparing. He said that he was determined to stem the malignant spread of corruption and he was severe. Agitated, he stood up from his chair; he flung his physical mass in such a forceful manner that buttons flew off his shirt, leaving his collar wide open with only one button remaining.

Back in Beijing, Xi Jinping continued to give instructions about anti-corruption during the Politburo Standing Committee meeting over which he presided. He said, due to the unique circumstances, Comrade Wang Qishan (王岐山) needs the Shangfang sword (尚方剑)¹ and we should give it to him. We must have guts when it comes to anti-corruption, and we must get to the bottom of it regardless of whom we are investigating. Sources said that Xi Jinping’s proposal has already been adopted in a PSC resolution. On August 27, the Politburo reviewed and approved the “Work Plan to Establish a Comprehensive System of Combating and Preventing Corruption, 2013-2017,” stating once again its determination to root out both “tigers” and “flies.”

Bo Xilai Was Not One of the Big Tigers

From Beidaihe to the routine meeting of the PSC in August, the topic of anti-corruption had been deliberated again and again, but it was not about Bo Xilai, who should have been tried by the previous administration. The Bo Xilai case caused serious internal disagreement and, unable to balance the dueling factions, it had to be solved through the judiciary. Sources said it was the idea of Wang Qishan.

Two weeks before trial, Bo Xilai was allowed to see his case file — “The lawyer read, I hand copied.” This is unprecedented and external to the current laws. According to sources, Bo Xilai, in court, “carried a stack of transparent single-sheet holders and transparent file pouches. Each folder was marked for him to locate the issue at hand as needed during the trial. In China, no suspect has ever been given such privileges and on such a scale to prepare for his or her defense, not even Jiang Qing (江青), who had rejected defense lawyers, nor Chen Xitong (陈希同), nor Chen Liangyu (陈良宇), both members of the Politburo. On August 14, during the meeting before the trial, Bo Xilai insisted, adamantly, that the court exclude, as illegal evidence, the testimony in his own handwriting which he had produced for the previous CCP Disciplinary Committee last July. He made clear then that he was going to retract his testimony and reject certain charges, but no one suppressed or stopped him.

One may say that the five-day trial of Bo Xilai was a showcase of the Chinese judiciary observing procedural justice, but will this become a precedent for every court and every trial across China? The answer is no. Look into the behind-the-scenes bargaining, one can only conclude that Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan, both of the “Red Second Generation,” did not see Bo Xilai as a corrupt official as Chen Liangyu or Liu Zhijun (刘志军). Instead, they saw the Bo Xilai trial as a precious opportunity not to be missed, an opportunity for both Bo and for the RSGs in power. If they treated Bo as another corrupt official, they would have wasted this hard-to-come-by opportunity. The five-day trial of Bo Xilai in Jinan Intermediate Court was meant to show it was a civilized, just, open and transparent trial. A person in the know said it was an advertisement to the world. I shall write separately about this advertisement later.

Combating “Tigers” and “Flies” Thwarted at the Beginning

On January 22 this year, Xi Jinping said, during the second meeting of the CCP Central Disciplinary Committee, that “to govern the Party, we cannot dither when it comes to discipline and correction. We must insist on combating both ‘tigers’ and ‘flies.’ We must punish officials who violate discipline and the law; at the same time, we must correct the unhealthy tendencies and solve the corruption problems that affect the masses.” Next, Wang Qishan presented the Central Committee with four large cases. These cases involve one member of the last Standing Committee, two members of the last Politburo, and a former secretary of the Secretariat.

As the new year kicked off, it looked like Xi Jinping wanted to follow Mao Zedong’s footsteps as the state media outlets all of a sudden mentioned Mao’s big gestures when he executed Liu Qingshan (刘青山) and Zhang Zishan (张子善), two CCP officials in Tianjin, for embezzlement and corruption in the early 1950s.

Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan should be given credit for their intentions. If those four cases were approved, the new administration would not have been in as difficult a situation as it is now, earning a reputation of “failing at whatever it endeavors” and “big thunder and small raindrops,” and the anti-corruption campaign would have been off to a good start and Xi’s authority asserted.

Instead the four cases were met with fierce opposition. Hu Jintao was the first one to be agitated. He found Zeng Qinghong (曾庆红), and the two went to Jiang Zemin who at the time was staying in the island residence in the Xishan (西山) retreat for the PSC, formerly occupied by Deng Xiaoping, busy in personnel deployment prior to the Two Sessions, to be held in about a month. Jiang was upset too upon hearing the four names. He summoned Wang Qishan and Xi Jinping to the Western Mountains. Saving face for the president-in-waiting, Jiang Zemin gave Wang Qishan an unsparing upbraiding. He said: What are you doing? Have you considered the Party’s image at all? Do you intend to broadcast to the whole world the conflicts among all the current and former leaders?

So he resorted to the Party’s hidden rule: Protect the Party’s image. In the past, Mao Zedong was never bothered by the image of the Party. He commanded, and the rest of the Party followed him. He persecuted one after another with no regard for such a thing as the Party’s image. Deng Xiaoping wasn’t bothered by it either, removing two party secretaries in a row. Nowadays, there is a baseline of PSC member impunity, but such a baseline was due to the fact that no faction has enough power to single-handedly do in another, and there has to be a power balance among the factions.

Wang and Xi returned, and what came out of their deliberations was, surprisingly, the decision to shelve the “fighting tigers” plan. Of the four persons, one retired and the other three continued to be seated prominently during the Two Sessions in March and continue to be among the top leaders of the country. Xi Jinping will have enough to deal with these three if he wants to. To use an expression of Deng Xiaoping, they have so many braids, like those of a Uighur girl, held in the hands of the CCP Disciplinary Committee and Xi. But will Xi let go of the former PSC member?

The Competition between the “Red Second Generation” and the “Bureaucrat Second Generation” Intensifies

During much of 2012 when preparations for the 18th CCP Congress were made, scandals erupted one after another. Three days after Bo Xilai was sacked, the son of Ling Jihua (令计划, “the butler” of the Party) was killed on March 18 in a car accident on the relief road on the east side of Bao Fu Si Bridge of Beijing’s fourth ring road (四环保福寺桥东辅道) when he was having sex with two Tibetan girls in his Ferrari. Rumors had it that, to help Ling cover the scandal, the then Secretary of the Politics and Law Committee, Zhou Yongkang, reached a political deal with Ling, and the two designed an internal vote to get an idea of who would be the likely members of the next PSC. Of the five candidates, Ling Jihua got himself selected as the third in the vote count.

Everybody says Bo Xilai harbored political ambitions, but what he had done was nothing more than building his achievements in the so-called “Chongqing Model” in order to fight his way back to Beijing. But Ling Jihua, on the other hand, was trying to squeeze into the PSC through political conspiracy and to have a shot at succeeding Xi Jinping down the road. Sources said that a deputy chief of Beijing Public Security reported the minute details of the March 18 scandal to Wang Qishan, former mayor of Beijing, and Wang Qishan then reported it to Jiang Zemin. Jiang summoned Hu Jintao, and the latter knew nothing about it. Ashamed, he removed Ling Jihua.

In November, before the 18th CCP Congress, the Party secretary and chairman of the China National Petroleum Corporation Jiang Jiemin (蒋洁敏), a close associate of Zhou Yongkang, was investigated by the CCP Disciplinary Committee for making large payments to the two injured Tibetan girls, a hot story for overseas media. But during the 18th Party Congress, Jiang Jiemin was still elected as a member of the CCP Central Committee; during the Two Sessions, he was removed from the CNPC and became the director of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC). One gets a sense of how twisted each turn of events has been.

In the eyes of the Red Second Generation whose parents fought and won China, technocrats who have climbed to the top, such as Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, are not orthodox, and their descendants can only be called the “Bureaucrat Second Generation.” However, over the last two decades, the BSGs have been appropriating state assets, private assets and land with a vengeance, an important phenomenon in the rapid deterioration of state power. Things happening in a county are connected with people on higher levels in all sorts of ways. Tracing the vines of any major case, you would end up at a PSC member. All of their children are heads of major corporations and billionaires. But the RSGs also want to have a share in the plunder, and some are asking outright for the BSGs to make way for them.

Xi Jinping is determined to stem such rapid weakening of state power, he is determined to change the situation, or else bitterness on the part of the people will shake the regime. Though the four major cases were thwarted before the Two Sessions, the investigations in Sichuan and of the Oil Gang have been moving on. On provincial and ministerial levels, officials have been continuously removed and disciplined in a strategy to besiege as well as strike against the relief force. The Beidaihe enclave re-launched the battle of “fighting tigers,” and the investigation against Jiang Jiemin indeed marked the final phase of the battle.

While the Liu Zhijun trial lasted a mere three and half hours, the Bo Xilai trial went on for five days. Such is the difference. Dramas of fighting tigers will come on stage one after another, but don’t hold your expectations high for the juiciness of the Bo trial, because, for Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan, Bo Xilai is not a tiger.

What Did Xi Jinping Say in the Recent National Propaganda Work Meeting?

The national propaganda meeting was held on August 19 and 20. According to a Xinhua report, “Xi Jinping emphasized in a speech that economic construction is a central task of the Party, while ideological work is an extremely important job for the Party.” It is a new posture of Xi Jinping to elevate the place of ideology as a central task of the Party, second only to the economy, a major step that bridges Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping deliberately played down ideology, and his age of “stopping argument” comes to an end. Mao Zedong’s method of ruling the country through ideology and class struggle theory is reintroduced to the political life of the CCP and the country.

As of September 1, the People’s Daily has published no fewer than eight commentaries to trumpet this speech of Xi Jinping, and more probably will come. I heard that an internal document about the meeting has been handed down. People who have seen it said that the People’s Daily commentaries were “much harsher” than the Xinhua report.

“From one spot we discern a whole leopard.” An anecdote leaked from the meeting helps us gain a sense of Xi Jinping’s speech. Sources said that, during the propaganda tsar Liu Yunshan’s report on the 19th, Xi Jinping interjected: There is a small number of reactionary intellectuals who, using the Internet, tell rumors, assault, or denigrate the Party’s leadership, the socialist system, and state power, and they must be seriously clamped down upon.

On the same day, “Qin Huohuo” (秦火火) and “Li Er Chai Si” (立二拆四) were criminally detained. The “Rule of Law Evening Paper” (法制晚报) reported that “the detention of these online agitators, who for a long time have been stirring up waves, manufacturing false information, intentionally distorting facts, and creating disturbances, was the first action of public security across the country to crack down on organized online rumormongering and other criminal offenses.” CCTV reported on these arrests on August 21, showing in the background the screenshots of these accounts: “Qin Huohuo defamed patriotic scholars such as Kong Qingdong (孔庆东) and Sima Nan (司马南). Qin Huohuo spread malicious rumors about Mao Zedong and the CCP and at the same time sang the praise of Chiang Kai-shek, Hu Yaobang and the United States.” Despite questions from the Chinese TV audience about such associations, CCTV aired it for two days in a row anyway.

On August 23, Xue Manzi (薛蛮子), a Big V, or celebrity account with a large following, was arrested for soliciting prostitution in Anhui Bei Li, Chaoyang District, Beijing, and Xinhua, the People’s Daily and CCTV were all on board broadcasting the incident repeatedly. CCTV Evening News unprecedentedly showed the prostitute telling details of the solicitation.

Right now police are arresting online “rumormongers” everywhere across the country not without absurdities. A Weibo posting entitled “While Rumors Must Be Quenched, Law Must Be Upheld” by the official Weibo account of the Guangdong Public Security Department was deleted. Compared to the state media’s bombast against constitutionalism and civil society, the clampdown on rumormongering really is not about ideology anymore. It felt like the campaign to “cleanse capitalist spiritual pollution” [in the 1980s]. Luckily, the Chinese will withstand this one as well, having weathered all manners of political campaigns, violent or otherwise.

Shangfang sword (尚方剑)¹: Imperial sword. To give a minister the sword was to authorize him to act on behalf of the emperor without having to obtain prior approval.


Gao Yu (高瑜) is a Beijing-based independent Chinese journalist and columnist. She used to work for China News (中新社), and later she was the deputy editor-in-chief of the Economics Weekly (《经济学周报》). She was twice imprisoned for her participation in the Tian’anmen democratic movement in 1989. Her work has wide influence.

(Translation by, based on a version slightly revised by the author.)

Chinese original

One response to “Beijing Observation: Xi Jinping Unsheathes the Shangfang Sword”

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