Xi: Tiger slayer or paper tiger?

Chinese President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption drive seems to have entered a make-or-break phase as he fights several big "tigers" at the same time. If he wins this war, he would be a modern-day Wu Song - the legendary tiger slayer of Chinese folklore. But if he loses, he will expose himself as a "paper tiger", weak and ineffective.

It is therefore no surprise that he is resorting to military support to ensure his victory.

In an unusual move recently, a total of 53 senior military leaders collectively pledged their obedience to Mr Xi, who is chairman of the all-powerful Central Military Commission (CMC).

These included commanders, political commissars and their deputies from the seven Greater Military Regions; the air, naval and missile services; four departments (staff, political, logistics and armament) and military academies.

The military's mouthpiece, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Daily, carried their written statements on March 7, April 2 and April 18.

Retired major-general Xu Guangyu, now senior adviser to the non-governmental China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said this way of pledging support to the supreme leader is extremely rare. He wrote in a commentary that this had occurred only three times in the last four decades.

Rare occurrences

The first was in 1976, when then-Chairman Mao Zedong of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided to strip Deng Xiaoping of all his posts in the aftermath of the first Tiananmen Incident that year.

It occurred again in 1977, when Deng was restored to power after Mao's death. To clear the way for Deng's reform and open-door policy, then-CCP chief Hu Yaobang launched a debate on the criteria of truth, meant to shed the ideological shackle of Maoism on the Chinese people. Military chiefs were asked to show support on this debate.

The third time was in 2012, when military heads pledged obedience to then-CCP chief Hu Jintao after former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai was arrested.

Precedents show that military heads swear loyalty collectively only at times of emergency. It is thus natural for observers to see this latest pledging of allegiance as a sign that Mr Xi might be running into difficulties in his anti- corruption drive that targets very senior, albeit retired, officials.

Soon after taking office in November 2012, Mr Xi said he would go after both "tigers" and "flies" - senior and low-ranking officials - in his fight against graft.

He has been fighting two big "tigers" in recent months at the same time: former security czar Zhou Yongkang and retired general Xu Caihou.

More than 300 of Mr Zhou's relatives, political allies, proteges and former staff have been detained or questioned, while the man himself is said to be under house arrest. Gen Xu has reportedly been detained on suspicion of corruption.

Mr Zhou was a member of the CCP's elite Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) and the ninth most powerful man in China before he stepped down in 2012. He also controlled the country's military police, all the security-related ministries as well as the prosecutorial and judicial systems.

Mr Xu is former vice-chairman of the CMC, the third most powerful man in the military leadership and the person who decided the appointment of senior officers.

Since both of them held very senior positions before their retirement and are considered proteges of ex-president Jiang Zemin, they are hard nuts for Mr Xi to crack. This may be the reason why he has had to turn to the military.

Moreover, Mr Xi's anti-graft drive appears to have encouraged whistle-blowers to expose alleged corruption by senior cadres.

This has opened up new battlefronts for Mr Xi, leading to the risk of the anti-graft drive getting out of control and putting him in a vulnerable position.

There are now three other major "tigers" to contend with.

The first is ex-premier Li Peng; A cover story in the Hong Kong- based Asiaweek magazine alleges that Mr Li's daughter Xiaolin, chief executive of China Power International Development, a state firm, got rich by improper means.

The second is another military man - Mr Guo Boxiong, the vice- chairman of the CMC until his retirement in 2012. Some rank and file members of the PLA have written an open letter, published on the US-based Chinese-language news portal Boxun.com and addressed to the CCP's Central Disciplinary Commission, the party's watchdog, alleging corrupt activities by their former commander.

The third senior cadre implicated is Mr He Guoqiang, the former No. 5 man in the CCP hierarchy and ex-chief of the party watchdog.

The recent removal of Mr Song Lin, head of the Hong Kong- based state-owned enterprise China Resources and a close associate of Mr He's son, suggests Mr He might have used his position earlier to cover up Mr Song's alleged misdeeds.

Party image tarnished

Another source of difficulties Mr Xi has to overcome is the party elders. According to dissident journalist Gao Yu, a number of them, including ex-president Jiang Zemin, have told Mr Xi to scale down his anti-graft efforts.

To the party elders, the CCP's image and legitimacy are at stake. The probe into the five "tigers" suggests to the public that senior party members are amassing huge personal wealth through their family members and other means. For example, Mr Zhou, together with his family members and associates, is alleged to have accumulated 90 billion yuan (S$18 billion) in wealth, while Gen Xu is said to have sold major-general titles for 30 million yuan each.

These cases depict top CCP officials as but thieves of the country, undermining the party's image, legitimacy and ruling status.

According to Ms Gao, the party elders also want Mr Xi to uphold the tacit rule that PSC members would not be indicted by not taking Mr Zhou, a former PSC member, to court. This unspoken norm is the last line of defence for any senior member involved in any misdeeds, including graft.

The party elders also felt Mr Xi should not have launched his anti-graft war on so many fronts at once, according to Ms Gao.

Besides going after all the tigers at the same time, he is also putting pressure on tens of thousands of medium-ranking government officials through his anti- graft drive.

Some think this has led to two waves of suicide within one year. According to a China Youth Daily report, between Jan 1 last year and this April 10, 54 medium-ranking officials died of unnatural causes, 23 of them proven suicide cases. While depression was given as reason for many of the suicide cases, observers believe some may have chosen death to cover up misdeeds. The fear among the party elders is that the anti-graft drive will undermine stability in the administration as government officials are seen to be adopting a passive, non-cooperative attitude towards the party central.

But for Mr Xi, there is no option but to forge ahead if he is to avoid becoming a paper tiger.

This article was published on May 2 in The Straits Times.

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