‘Tiger’ word plays and the alleged power struggle between China’s Xi and VP Li Yuanchao

HONG KONG–In ancient China, the tiger was admired for its prowess. The pattern on the forehead of a tiger is akin to the Chinese character “king”(王), reinforcing the myth that a tiger is synonymous with being a natural-born emperor.

However, in contemporary Chinese politics, the word tiger carries another connotation. Upon assuming office, Xi Jinping pledged in early 2013 to “stamp out both “tigers” and “flies.” In this case, the word “tiger” is being used as a metaphor to symbolize high-ranking and corrupt officials.

It’s because of such intriguing word plays that some Chinese netizens are fusing the ancient and contemporary meanings of the word tiger to derive a mutated farrago. They assert in various online comments that such multiple connotations indicate that Xi’s “anti-corruption” initiative is actually “a power struggle in disguise.”

Xi Jinping and Li Yuanchao

Xi Jinping and Li Yuanchao

The latest round of Xi’s so-called “tiger-hunt” seems to jibe with the above sentiment. On May 30, China’s most powerful anti-graft organ announced an investigation into a senior official who is viewed as an ally of Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao. The prominence of the targeted official has inevitably spurred some to tie this action to an alleged scuffle taking place within China’s elite ruling circle.

The official under scrutiny is Li Yunfeng, the vice-governor of China’s eastern Jiangsu province. He is being investigated by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s top corruption watchdog unit. He’s been accused of  “seriously violating Communist Party discipline,” a euphemistic reference for corruption in Chinese politics.

The two Lis

Li was a long-time colleague of Vice President Li Yuanchao. The later served in Jiangsu as deputy party secretary from 2000 to 2002, and then as top boss from 2002 to 2007.

Li Yunfeng became an alternate member of the party’s Central Committee during the 18th party congress in late 2012 — when Li Yuanchao was the top human resources official. Given the fact that only Central Committee members or alternate members are eligible for promotion to influential positions, and only Central Committee members below the age of 68 are entitled to be elevated as state-leader ranking officials, 59-year-old Li Yunfeng was widely viewed as a political rising star. He was seen as a possible candidate for the post of Jiangsu governor in the party’s next major personnel reshuffle in 2018.

The ongoing crackdown is connected to a cohort of co-workers who served together with Vice President Li Yuanchao. In October 2013, former Nanjing mayor Ji Jianye was sacked. Nanjing is the provincial capital of Jiangsu, and Ji is the first provincial-level official to fall from grace in the wake of the 18th Party Congress in 2012. One year later, Zhao Shaolin, who had retired eight years earlier as secretary general of the provincial party committee, was detained for an investigation. The graft busters then targeted Nanjing party chief Yang Weize in early 2015. This makes Li Yunfeng the fourth “tiger” to be officially probed in Jiangsu in the past two and a half years.

Such coincidences lend weight to theory that the latest “tiger hunt” is aimed at Vice President Li.

tiger

There are other indications that a power play is in the works. Theoretically, Vice President Li, who will turn 66 next year, is eligible to serve in the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Since 2002, 67 has become the party’s agreed-to oldest age to begin a new term in the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee. What’s more, he served as the party’s personnel chief from 2007 to 2012 and has fostered amiable relations with many powerful officials during this posting. It would not surprise China observers if Xi regarded Li as “jockeying for a top position.”

Ling Jihua tie?

Gossip also is rife that a family member of Vice President Li was involved in a property deal in Japan. The transaction is said to be related to the disgraced Ling Jihua, who was alleged to be one of the initiators in a purported coup plot against President Xi. In December 2014, Ling, a major political advisor to former President Hu Jintao (Xi’s predecessor), was placed under investigation by the party’s anti-graft agency. Ling was expelled from the ruling party in July 2015 and is reportedly undergoing a “criminal trial” in Tianjin as of May 2016.

Back in the 1980s, Li Yuanchao was a colleague of Hu at the Central Secretariat, Communist Youth League, where Hu was the top boss. Such personal ties have fueled speculation that he is an ally of current PM Li Keqiang, who also served at the same youth organ but at a different time.

All this seems to dovetail with larger speculation that Premier Li is at odds with President Xi on a multiple issues regarding China’s economy. This, despite the fact that the alleged struggle between President Xi and PM Li cannot be independently confirmed.

tigerhuntFurthermore, the downfalls of “tigers” ahead major party personnel reshuffles have not been rare in China over the last decade. In September 2006, roughly one year before a successor to Hu Jintao was chosen (which, turned out to be Xi of course), Shanghai party boss Chen Liangyu was sacked and was later sentenced an 18-year jail term for corruption. Political scuttlebutt depicted Chen as a defiant challenger of Hu’s policies. Similarly, in March 2012, eight months before Xi Jinping became party chief, then Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai (also viewed as a threat to Xi) was stripped of all power on the same grounds.

Jury still out

Nonetheless, most savvy China watchers have refrained from jumping to premature conclusions that an all-out political showdown between Xi Jinping, who supposedly represents the party’s “princelings,” and Premier Li, of the so-called “Communist Youth League faction” (or “tuanpai” in Mandarin) is in fact taking place.

As many political scholars have noted, signs indicate that PM Li is backing down in his pro-market approach. This is highlighted by recent events.

On May 9, the same day that the flagship People’s Daily published an article citing an anonymous “authoritative person” questioning Premier Li’s economic policies, Li told fellow cadres in a national conference call to “tolerate each other for the sake of the state.” Li’s gesture is widely viewed as an olive branch to Xi, who is believed by some to be unhappy about some of Li’s market initiatives. The remark, “tolerate each other for the sake of the state,” is a parable from Zuo Zhuan, an ancient Chinese narrative history published in the late 4th century BC. It refers to a situation in which politicians with different opinions cast aside their differences and come to a consensus “by making necessary concessions.”

In addition, a top aide to PM Li also endorsed Xi Jinping as the “core” leader in March. This indicates the Li camp is rallying around Xi as the dominant dictator who wields veto power over all issues. At the sideline of the annual legislature session, Chen Quanguo, the Tibet party chief, swore that he would “staunchly safeguard, support and be faithful to General Secretary Xi Jinping, the core.”

Such high-profile allegiances are interpreted as an attempt to defuse tensions between the two camps. Besides, Xi’s campaign to purge his archrival Bo Xilai, actually began when Hu Jintao was still in power. The selection of Xi as the heir apparent was also endorsed and agreed upon by Hu. There is always the possibility that Xi-Li relations may sour going forward. But there needs to be concrete evidence that this is actually taking place.

Fong Tak Ho is a longtime Hong Kong journalist who has worked for the Hong Kong Standard, the South China Morning Post, Ming Pao, Asia Times Online and other publications.

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