Francis Moriarty: Kim gives a tweak to tiger's mustache

PITTSFIELD — More than 2,000 senior members of the Communist Party of China (CPC) gather this month for a national congress that will rubberstamp another five-year term for President Xi Jinping. The machinations are opaque, but the results important — especially coming as North Korea gleefully stirs the nuclear cauldron.

This meeting, the 19th since the party's birth in 1921, involves brutal internecine struggle. It takes place on Oct. 18. Expect a major reshuffle of China's leadership, coming just when North Korea has been test-firing long-range missiles and triggering a possible hydrogen bomb blast.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has just visited Beijing, meeting senior officials ahead of the party congress. He reportedly had direct contact with Kim Jong-un's regime, carefully sounding out what might induce Kim to negotiate. But President Trump appeared to pull the rug from beneath Tillerson, tweeting that the secretary was just "wasting his time."

At the same time, the Trump administration is putting pressure on China, North Korea's major trading partner, to turn up the pressure on Pyongyang — especially since the U.N. vote to impose the toughest-ever trade restrictions in response to the missile and warhead tests. China backed those sanctions.

How far can Xi Jinping go toward fulfilling those sanctions without weakening his own position at such a delicate juncture? Kim might soon find out. There are reports out of China that Beijing may have reevaluated its support and decided that Kim's regime has become more of a liability than an asset.

Xi is main focus

Kim chose the run-up to the CPC congress as the moment to test both North Korea's armaments and the patience of China, his nation's ideological big brother and major source of cash. His timing demonstrates what Westerners might call chutzpah. The Chinese have a description of such bravado: Tweaking the tiger's mustache.

In fact, two tigers are being tweaked — Trump and Xi — but Xi is the proximate target.

Xi wants at least another five-year term — and possibly more — and he's busy crushing anyone who poses an obstacle ahead of the party gathering.

In the past, domestic opponents were banished or conveniently disappeared. Today, the method to neutralize critics is to charge them with "violation of party discipline," that is, corruption. This works because it's widely known that no one, including Xi and his family, could obtain power and rise up the ladder socially, economically and politically without engaging in various forms of grease. There is something on everyone.

Xi represents princelings — scions of revolutionary heroes — who enjoy unmatched education, advancement and patronage. This privileged caste wants to keep its position over rivals whose path to power is through the CPC's structure. Xi is the key to Princeling Power.

Along the way, Xi has purged a growing list of opponents using a war on corruption. He started early and hasn't stopped.

Two days after taking power in November 2012, Xi pledged to go after both "tigers and flies" (powerful crooks and small potatoes), launching an anti-corruption crackdown that is really an ongoing purge.

For example, a final list of 2,287 delegates was revealed late last week. Just before its release, at least five senior party delegates elected from Chongqing were reported by Caixin magazine to have been struck from the list of attendees. Caixin is a business journal known for publishing informed articles that carefully test the boundaries of China's censors

Chongqing is no backwater. It has nearly 28 million people, and a provincial status that covers a total of 64 million permanent residents. All five persons who were blocked from attending the congress are standing members of Chongqing's provincial party committee.

These persona non grata include two vice-mayors, one of whom heads the police and judicial departments; another heads the party's personnel committee; yet another leads its secretariat. Their banishment came quickly after Beijing's decision to strip a former Chongqing party chief of his CPC membership and ban him from public office. The charge: violating party discipline, a euphemism for corruption.

High ambitions

Xi`s ambition is to have his ruling philosophy elevated to the same level as that of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. Mao founded the People's Republic. Deng ended China's isolation and unleashed its transformation into a global economic power.

But that's not enough for Xi, almost certainly the strongest leader since Mao. He's already eliminated one potential rival, Bo Xilai, a former Chongqing party secretary and one-time rising star. Bo was jailed for life in September 2013 on corruption-related charges. His wife, Gu Kailai, was found guilty in 2012 for the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood. Her death sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

Xi has put Kim Jong-un on the backburner for now. But now is not forever. Regime change is in the air.

Once the CPC congress is over, his leadership secured and his new team in place, Xi will deal with North Korea. If Kim has any inclination to negotiate, the window of opportunity is closing.

Francis Moriarty is an independent journalist and broadcaster covering Hong Kong, mainland China and Asia.


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