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Can Xi Jinping control China's wave of change?

Von David Ignatius


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Hong Kong - Some of the luxury boutiques along Des Voeux Road here seemed nearly empty of Chinese customers at times last weekend. With an anti-corruption campaign raging on the mainland, this evidently isn't the moment for Chinese to engage in conspicuous consumption.

"Party tightens grip on dissenting voices," headlined the South China Morning Post last Friday. The story reported that the Communist Party's latest rules had banned golf, gluttony, intra-party cliques and "inappropriate sexual relations." That's in addition to a general edict against "inappropriate assessment of major party policy that harms party unity."

This is an anxious moment for China. President Xi Jinping appeared to be riding high during his lavish state visits to Washington and London, but he has returned to a nation with a slowing economy and a swirling political climate. Some China-watchers say the situation reflects more political uncertainty than the country has seen in decades.

The political ferment is a product of Xi's aggressive push to crack the culture of bribery and graft that he fears could undermine the Communist Party's hold on power. Xi is attempting what may seem an impossibly contradictory policy - loosening the government's control of the market economy at the same time he tightens party discipline. Party officials are said to be nervous, unsure which way to jump.  

"Xi Jinping has consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping," says a U.S. intelligence official. "Externally, he is driving decision-making on foreign policy. Internally, he is conducting a strong anti-corruption campaign."

But this is reform with a vengeance. Xi has sacked scores of senior party and military chiefs, making powerful enemies in the process. Prominent victims of the purge include Zhou Yongkang, the former security chief, and Gen. Guo Boxiong, who was vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. People's Daily reported Monday that since 2012, more than half of the 205 members of the party's central committee had been moved to different positions or fired.

With so much political jostling, gossip has been flying, including unsubstantiated rumors about coup and assassination attempts. The rumor mill began back in 2012, when Xi didn't show up for a scheduled meeting with then- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, prompting what The Independent of London called "wild speculation" about his safety. Taiwan's Want China Times claimed this year that he had been a target of two assassination attempts in 2013. A Japanese newspaper wrote last May that Xi was "leery" of threats, including the possibility of poisoning.  

The Sunday Times of London reported last weekend, citing "insiders connected to the party elite," that there had been rumors of "an abortive conspiracy last March to stage a coup d'etat." Officials in Singapore say that they, too, have heard reports of a recent plot.

Xi has tightened his personal control over the military and security forces. The South China Morning Post reported last March that Xi had replaced the longtime head of his bodyguard unit, known as the Central Security Bureau. China-watchers clucked over the loyalty pledges he received last year from dozens of generals. Why ask for such a pledge unless you're worried? But both moves could also be seen as signs of Xi's power.

"We haven't seen this level of uncertainty generated by the system for the last 40 years," argues David Lampton, director of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  

Kurt Campbell, who was the Obama administration's top Asia expert during its first term, notes the irony that gossip about internal plots is now almost as common in China as in the closed society of North Korea. "Every week I hear another rumor," he says. These stories say more about the sociology of Xi's China - the uncertainty that develops in a system where information is so tightly controlled - than anything else, he argues.

"Many of these stories are the result of a highly anxious political environment in Beijing," says Campbell. As for Xi, "He's exposed. He's out there. He has nowhere to go but continue. There is no sign that this is a man fearing for his life."

As the party's Central Committee holds its annual plenum meeting this week, Xi will have new chances to impose his stamp, by appointing allies to key party jobs in Shanghai and Tianjin and to the Central Military Commission. Already, he holds the levers of power more tightly than any recent predecessor. It's a delicate maneuver he's attempting - unleashing a wave of change and trying to control it, too.

(c) 2015, Washington Post Writers Group

David Ignatius was the executive editor of the "International Herald Tribune". His column also appears in the "Washington Post".