Power plays; Chinese navy's video takes off; new broom sweeps away Snowden leaks; DFAT goes back to the ’80s on Burma. By Hamish McDonald.

Xi Jinping ups power grab with anti-corruption drive

A screen grab from the video that literally sings the praises of the Chinese navy’s first aircraft carrier.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese communist supremo, is rewriting the book about politics in the People’s Republic at a great rate. 

Barely a year after moving into all the top slots – Communist Party general secretary, chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, and last and least, state president – Xi is concentrating power even further by making himself chairman of “leading groups” on various sectors that bypass established chains of command. 

Meanwhile, cadres and officials are earnestly studying and elaborating on Xi’s speeches, which are being given the same prominence in the party’s ideological canons as the thinking of Karl Marx, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

It’s not all love that’s bringing this about, but also the tried and true Leninist technique of terror. Most incoming party leaderships launch an anti-corruption campaign every year or two, then pull back before it damages the party itself or touches the inner circle in the Politburo Standing Committee. 

Xi is doing more than the usual “kill a chicken to frighten the monkeys” act: he’s gone after a big “tiger” in the shape of Zhou Yongkang, until recently the party figure in charge of the Chinese security, police, judicial and intelligence apparatus, and before that the oil industry. Though not charged and still formally held out of sight for internal party discipline, Zhou seems set up for a major show trial, while some 300 of his family and associates have been arrested and assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars frozen. 

Zhou had been the only Politburo Standing Committee member to stand up for Bo Xilai, the ambitious Chongqing party chief currently serving a life sentence for corruption after the scandal that started with his wife’s murder of the British business figure Neil Heywood. 

Though Zhou is formally in retirement, his power lingers. Like the FBI’s “untouchable” J. Edgar Hoover, Zhou would know everyone’s dirty secrets. If he can be touched, no one else is safe, and former leaders such as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao have reportedly urged Xi to ease off. No doubt this is the intended effect, but it’s a high-risk strategy and Xi must worry about an inside-job assassination. 

The Chinese public seems happy to see moneymaking big shots taken down. But few are under any illusion that this is more than a selective anti-corruption campaign aimed at concentrating power. No move has been made against unthreatening figures such as former premier Wen Jiabao, whose relatives were reported by The New York Times in 2012 as having assets worth $US2.7 billion, let alone Xi’s own sister, Qi Qiaoqiao, who heads a family empire with $US376 million in investments, according to Bloomberg. 

Four activists of the New Citizens Movement who responded to Xi’s anti-corruption campaign by calling for a public register of top officials’ assets have just been given jail terms of two to three-and-a-half years for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order”. 

The bigger question is whether Xi will use all this power to carry out the reforms he says are necessary to stop China falling into a domestic debt trap.

1 . Video takes off

Chuck Hagel, the American defence secretary, was given an unusual tour of the Chinese navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, earlier this month. He was barred from taking any technical specialists along, and accompanying reporters were sent on a tour of the nearby Tsingtao Brewery.

But thanks to an excellent little propaganda video we can all get a nice visual tour of the ship and watch it in operation. Interspliced with renditions of a stirring patriotic song by a male singer wandering the flight deck in a spotless cream Mao suit, we see young pilots running along a predawn beach, climbing into their jets and blasting into the skies – sort of Chariots of Fire morphing into Top Gun. Have a look at 

Keen naval analysts will note the lack of a catapult-launching system aboard the Liaoning, meaning its aircraft can carry only limited fuel and weaponry.

2 . New broom sweeps away Snowden leaks

The spook world will be watching the new chiefs of the West’s biggest electronic spy agencies as they clear the wreckage caused by whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass collection of personal communications, as well as the phone-tapping of friendly leaders.

Britain’s Conservative-led government has brought in an outsider, diplomatic trouble-shooter Robert Hannigan, 49, to head its Government Communications HQ, digital-age successor to the wartime Enigma operation at Bletchley Park. 

Officials have been quoted as saying it was “pure coincidence” that predecessor Sir Iain Lobban, 53, a career GCHQ officer, had decided to “move on” at this particular time. In Washington, Barack Obama is installing a navy cryptologist, Admiral Michael Rogers, as head of the National Security Agency as well as a new Cyber Command. Rogers replaces General Keith Alexander, who leaves under a cloud following the Snowden leaks. 

On one hand, Hannigan and Rogers have to regroup their organisations after the leaks that tipped off targets about interception capabilities. On the other, they must assure their own citizens and governments that the agencies are operating under legal and political controls. 

Their counterpart in Australia, the then Defence (now Australian) Signals Directorate, was also damaged by the Snowden leaks. It was shown to be blasé about collecting metadata on Australian citizens and sharing it with intelligence partners in the “Five Eyes” pact (the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand).

“DSD can share bulk, unselected, unminimised metadata as long as there is no intent to target an Australian national,” leaked notes said. “Unintentional collection is not viewed as a significant issue.” No worries then. The directorate had its own change of leadership last October when a Defence Department intelligence specialist, Dr Paul Taloni, took over from the retiring Ian McKenzie. 

No suggestion here of an outsider being brought in, or the renamed ASD being prised away from defence and put under the foreign minister’s portfolio, as the GCHQ is in Britain.

3 . DFAT goes back to the ’80s on Burma

Knighthoods are not the only touch of imperial red being swabbed around Canberra, however, under the Abbott government. 

Visitors to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website who want to look up facts and addresses for Myanmar are now being told to look under “Burma” – the anglicised name under which this late addition to the empire was known through much of its post-1946 independence, until a military junta reverted to an old form in 1989. 

After some resistance at this change without popular consultation, the United Nations and most countries including Australia came to accept the name Myanmar. The recent DFAT reversion was not announced, and remains unexplained.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 26, 2014 as "Xi ups power grab with anti-corruption drive".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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