Xi Jinping’s Southern Tour Signals Self-Confidence and Rift with Jiang

HeadshotSigns of ongoing factional realignment continue to surface after the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress. As China’s new leader Xi Jinping rises to the top of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) hierarchy, his realignment away from former President Jiang Zemin’s factional orbit seems increasingly more certain.

In early December, for his first domestic travel since swearing in as General Secretary, Xi decided to embark on his own “Southern Tour” to Shenzhen to pay homage to Deng Xiaoping’s same trip in 1992. During his tour, Xi laid flowers and planted a tree next to a statue of Deng in a village that Deng visited twenty years ago.

Some observers might interpret Xi’s trip as merely a crowd-pleasing declaration of his commitment to pursue reforms.

But we’ll do well to remember the main purpose of Deng’s Southern Tour back then was to protect his “reform and opening” agenda – by threatening to remove his increasingly leftist successor Jiang Zemin. At the time, the serving CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin was pursuing a left-of-center “anti-liberalization” and “anti-peaceful evolution” political campaign; while on matters of economic reform, Jiang even tacitly challenged Deng’s legacy by arguing that “there can be different approaches even within the reform and opening paradigm.” This revived the debate from the early 1980s on whether capitalistic enterprise was primarily a productive force to be unleashed or a potential threat to be managed.

In response, during his Southern Tour Deng was credited with saying “whoever does not support reforms should step down.” Deng’s ally, the military-owned PLA Daily, echoed Deng’s call by running an editorial titled “Protect Reform and Opening.” Indeed, there were even reports that Deng was entertaining the idea of replacing Jiang with the more liberal leader Qiao Shi in the upcoming 14th Party Congress later that year, as well as giving the Premiership to either Li Ruihuan or then Vice Premier Zhu Rongji, two other liberals.

With his job security under grave threat, Jiang backed down. In order to appease Deng Xiaoping, in the months after the Southern Tour Jiang and the conservative Premier Li Peng issued more than twenty documents promoting Deng’s speeches. In the end, at the 14th Party Congress Jiang was able to keep his job by pushing through an amendment to the CCP’s constitution that incorporates Deng’s doctrine of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as a guiding philosophy for the party.

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In reminding Jiang of this moment of great embarrassment, Xi’s choice to repeat the Southern Tour and make Shenzhen his first destination since coming to power signals a challenge to Jiang. In response, in spite of Xi’s public announcement of his “eight regulations” forbidding government officials from pursuing personal publicity, including writing inscriptions and issuing congratulatory messages in public, Jiang reciprocated by making four such high-profile public appearances within a three-day span. These developments further substantiates the conjecture that the Xi-Jiang relationship is far from seamless and that Xi may have courted Jiang’s political adversary, the outgoing President Hu Jintao.

Furthermore, this bold move is a testament to Xi’s self-confidence in his own rapid consolidation of political power. This message is even clearer when one contrasts it with Hu’s record. As the Chinese saying goes, when it comes to political matters, “always err on the side of the left” (ninzuowuyou). When Hu first came to power, he had to demonstrate his loyalty to the party elders by declaring his intent to stay true to Mao-era party orthodoxy.

His first venture outside Beijing, therefore, took him to such symbolic Communist sanctuaries as Xibaipo (where the CCP Headquarter was based before its victory in the Chinese Civil War), Jinggangshan (the birthplace of the Chinese Red Army), and Ruijin (where the CCP once founded a short-lived Chinese Soviet Republic). In contrast, Xi Jinping clearly does not feel the need to go through the same ritual to cover his political flank – a tell-tale sign of his political self-confidence.

Wen-Ti Sung is a PhD candidate in the School of International, Political, and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. He can be reached at Wen-Ti.Sung@anu.edu.au