Not long ago, Guo Wengui (郭文贵), a Chinese tycoon now living in exile overseas, dropped a bombshell allegation that directly targeted Wang Qishan (王岐山), Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), who spearheads the Chinese government’s anti-corruption campaign. The revelation sent shockwaves through the inner circles of Chinese politics and ripped through their torpor. It was tantamount to a political earthquake and much more. Consequently, the Chinese authorities deployed various resources to prevent the news from spreading, culminating in a live Voice of America program being cut off abruptly, which in turn multiplied the dramatic effects of Guo’s revelation. Given that the revelation came at a sensitive time, exposed sensational scoops, and involved the second most powerful man in the officialdom of the Communist Party of China (CPC), it will undoubtedly strike a blow to the political world in China in anticipation of the 19th CPC National Congress and bring more uncertainty to the mix.
Guo claims that the clan of Wang Qishan’s father-in-law Yao Yilin (姚依林) has amassed enormous assets through secret connections with the Hainan Airlines Group and leads a lavish lifestyle with prodigious spending, and also states that he was ordered by Xi Jinping (习近平) to investigate the matter. Leaving aside the veracity of the claims and Guo’s subjective motive for the probe, the revelation has in effect inflicted great harm on the authorities and significantly undermined the moral legitimacy of their anti-corruption drive by smearing Wang Qishan, the self-claimed “impartial and incorruptible administrator of justice” who “defies the disbelievers and naysayers.” More seriously, the allegation drove a wedge between the political alliance of Xi and Wang, creating an opportunity for anti-Xi forces within the Party to reorganize for a comeback. How to quell this political earthquake for a smooth convening of the 19th Party Congress poses a severe challenge to Xi Jinping’s ability to stay in control.
Five years in office, Xi Jinping has given a lackluster performance—his administration has coincided with an economic slowdown and intensified social conflicts, with an anti-graft campaign executed by Wang Qishan its sole bright spot. Xi has been able to purge dissenting officials, install his own trusted aides, and amass power as the head of the Party, the state, and the military, thanks to the anti-graft drive, which has frightened various factions within the Party into their best behaviors. That Wang Qishan played an indispensable role in securing for Xi the title of “core leader” of the Party is undeniable. It can be said that the Xi-Wang political alliance is the cornerstone of Xi’s rule. The two are political partners who also share the same hapless fate, as the selective anti-graft effort has made them too many enemies over the last five years. Having passed the point of no return, Xi and Wang have no choice but stick together and help each other out in order to protect themselves from the divide and conquer tactics of the opposition factions.
While Xi and Wang share common interests, they each have their own agendas and approach each other with great caution. Xi is well aware that Wang is superior to him in terms of knowledge, experience, and capability. Moreover, leading the anti-graft campaign has given Wang the discretionary authority to determine the political future, and even the life and death, of officials, making him ever more intimidating to the Chinese officialdom. So much so that a popular saying goes: “Even Yan Wang [Yama, the God of Death in Hindu tradition] is less fearsome than Old Wang.” To Xi’s greater concern, having gained tremendous power and status, Wang exploited the anti-corruption campaign to expand his own turf, making the CCDI the “center of all powers” comparable to the notorious imperial secret police, the Embroidered Uniform Guard of the Eastern Depot of the Ming dynasty. The move not only alerted Xi of his potential loss of power, but also broke the great taboo of overshadowing one’s superior with achievements. If Wang indeed had the ambition, it would be a nightmare for Xi. With a background in history studies, Wang is well familiar with historical precedents of strife between an emperor and his minister ending up disastrously. On the one hand, Wang clearly understands that heading the anti-corruption campaign has made him Xi’s tool and scapegoat, as well as the target of widespread resentment; on the other hand, considering that Xi is petty in nature and is intolerant and unforgiving, Wang fears that he would be jettisoned by Xi when he outlives his usefulness and would end up a disgraced and ruined man. That is Wang’s top concern.
Furthermore, the iron law of authoritarian despotism is that one mountain cannot accommodate two tigers: incidents abound in CPC history where the top cat had a falling out with his right-hand man; similarly, the relationship between Xi and Wang can’t escape this law. It can be said that their relationship embodies Mao Zedong’s (毛泽东) relationships with Zhou Enlai (周恩来) and Lin Biao (林彪). Guo claimed that Xi “uses but distrusts” Wang, which is exactly what Mao had felt about Zhou—neither could he distance himself from Zhou nor trust him. Mao in his final years fired multiple attacks on Zhou, who only survived thanks to his well-practiced deft moves and clever strategizing. The root cause of Mao and Lin’s conflict was that Mao believed Lin had the ambition to take his place as the supreme leader. Presently, amongst all the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Wang is the only one who has what it takes to replace Xi—another political no-no. If Wang fails to humble himself to reverse the precarious situation and do everything possible to make amends with Xi, like Zhou did with Mao, and, instead, repeats Lin’s practice by taking a tough stance, then a conflict between Xi and Wang would be inevitable.
In fact, signs of hostility between the two emerged a long time ago. Not a “second-generation red” by birth, Wang made his way into the core of the CPC leadership through marriage. Instinctually, he doesn’t buy the notion of the “red genes” or approve of Xi’s practice of a personality cult, and makes a point of keeping a certain distance from Xi. The rift between the two was laid bare in the Ren Zhiqiang (任志强) incident. Ren, the real estate tycoon, criticized Xi’s directive that “the media run by the Party must bear the surname of the Party.” Instead of taking Xi’s side, Wang shielded Ren from trouble, to Xi’s great dismay. The subsequent publication of an open letter calling for Xi’s resignation further raised Xi’s suspicion, prompting him to order an investigation into Wang and his aides as the main suspects. Early this year, Wang actively pushed for the establishment of a national supervision commission in another move that put Xi on guard, who gave the proposal a lukewarm reaction and left Wang dancing by himself.
Moreover, Xi also made innuendos calling for vigilance against “careerists and conspirators,” which on the surface seemed to be pointing to the likes of Zhou Yongkang (周永康), in effect alluded to Wang Qishan: Zhou is already a defeated “tiger,” and the only person tantamount to a “careerist and conspirator” within the Party would be Wang, who stands only one step away from the paramount power. Xi even copied Mao’s old tricks of “undermining the foundation of the rivals” [挖墙角, literally means digging away the corner wall], and “bringing in new people to disrupt the established order” [掺沙子, literally means throwing sand to the mix]. Specifically, Xi named his own trusted aides as CCDI deputies, appointed a new secretary to the Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Central Military Commission (CMCCDI), kept Wang from intervening in the anti-graft effort inside the military, weakened the power of the CCDI, and ferreted out CCDI moles working for opposition factions. And Wang Qishan also kept himself busy by capitalizing on the authority of the CCDI inspection team, extending his long arms into places such as Fujian and Zhejiang, where Xi began his rise in politics, to collect evidence of corruption among Xi loyalists. As payback, Xi recently launched attacks on the financial system. The financial system is Wang’s bailiwick: while infested with corruption, the sector had remained intact under Wang’s protection. The recent feud between the Hainan Airlines Group and Anbang Insurance Group further exposed the power struggle within China’s top leadership. Various indications show that the political honeymoon of Xi and Wang is long over.
The most devastating impact of Guo Wengui’s allegation is that it is driving a wedge in the political alliance between Xi and Wang. Though it has not led to an immediate falling out between the two, the revelation of such a sensitive matter would only deepen their strife and make it more difficult for them to patch things up. For Xi Jinping, the 19th Party Congress is a make-or-break battle: his original plan was to “preserve stability at home while resisting challenges abroad,” namely, to maintain the political status quo on all fronts domestically while he makes concessions on the North Korea nuclear issue to calm the Trump administration, so that the 19th Party Congress would progress smoothly without any hiccups. To his utter surprise, Guo Wengui came out of nowhere to set in motion a black-swan incident, throwing Xi’s entire scheme into disarray and Xi himself into a dilemma. For Xi, an immediate break with Wang is a “lose-lose” proposition: it would imperil the big picture, providing an opening for opposition factions within the Party to force a leadership reshuffle at the 19th Party Congress that could undermine his “core” status—the consequences would be unbearable. However, if he continued to cooperate with Wang, who is now proven to be untrustworthy, he would risk seriously endangering the reputation of the five-year-long anti-graft campaign, for it would amount to an admission of the bankruptcy of the anti-corruption effort within the system. Consequently, he would have to share infamy with Wang, and any future anti-corruption initiatives would have no credibility in the public eye. The dissipation of the anti-corruption fervor would instantaneously sound the death knell for Xi’s reform and strike a lethal blow to Xi himself.
While China observers have long regarded Xi Jinping a strongman in politics, the Guo Wengui incident has exposed his weakness as never before. Behind the façade of power consolidation, the lack of popular support and his battles with almost all elements of society have reduced Xi to a political loner: the anti-graft campaign made him the enemy of the entire Chinese officialdom; the economic stagnation and heightened government control have intensified social contradictions; and now, the whole world knows that he and his political ally Wang Qishan are in reality at odds and their unity is but a false appearance. The Jiang Zemin faction and Communist Youth League faction that had fallen to pieces in the anti-corruption movement are waiting eagerly to alter Xi’s personnel arrangements for the 19th Party Congress. In his dilemma, Xi Jinping has few options. It appears that, having weighed the pros and cons, Xi has decided that he has no choice but to bury the hatchet and placate Wang Qishan, leaving him safely ensconced in power—they will work together to take care of the Guo incident, and everything else can wait until after the 19th Party Congress. In the meantime, Xi has spared no effort in suppressing public discussion of the matter so as to prevent a chain reaction and trying to steer the crisis toward his opponents. Will his tactics work? How much longer will the Xi-Wang alliance survive? Will the 19th Party Congress fall victim to power struggle at the last minute or will it make it through all the crises and challenges? We shall wait and see what happens.