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BEIJING – Having punished more than a million Communist Party members for corruption, Chinese President Xi Jinping will use a key meeting that started Monday to drive home the message that his signature anti-graft campaign is far from over and that his authority remains undiminished.
The Central Committee plenary gathering also sets in motion preparations for next year's 19th national party congress that will kickoff Xi's second five-year term as head of the ruling party.
At next year's gathering, Xi is expected to place trusted lieutenants into the party's top bodies, including the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, five of whose seven current members are, by custom, due to step down. Only Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, with whom he doesn't always see eye-to-eye, are expected to remain.
This week's meeting comes as Xi is riding high as China's most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping led the country in the 1980s and gaining kudos at home for his assertive foreign policy, including the leveraging of China's political and economic heft to open up a rift between the Philippines and its longstanding treaty ally, the United States.
Yet Xi's domestic challenges are legion, ranging from slowing economic growth to massive layoffs resulting from the closure of steel and coal mines and other heavy industries in an effort to reduce industrial overcapacity. The state sector still plays an outsize role in the economy, debt is soaring and the potentially volatile wealth gap continues to broaden.
Xi, the son of a former vice premier, has sought to exercise near total control by heading-up a collection of party "leading groups" including a newly created National Security Council that are seen as further eroding the legitimacy of established government institutions. Few political reforms have been mooted and Xi has drawn fire overseas for waging a sweeping campaign against activist lawyers and government critics resulting in a series of televised confessions reminiscent of Josef Stalin's show trials.
Official sources have offered little insight into this week's discussions bringing together the more than 350 Central Committee members and their alternates at a military guesthouse in western Beijing. The official Xinhua News Agency reported their theme would be "strengthening and standardizing intra-party political life," while seeking to "primarily resolve problems of Party leadership fatigue and slackness in party governance and discipline observation."
That indicates Xi is experiencing difficulty keeping the rank and file on-program and establishing himself as the party's "core," said Zhang Lifan, an independent political commentator in Beijing.
"The (meeting's) agenda ... indicates that resistance within the system is persistent and the leader needs to crack the whip," Zhang said. "If he fails to get it done now, it will be even harder to achieve in future."
Xi's main goal at the gathering is to get rid of "governance by personality and hidden rules," said Beijing Institute of Technology political scientist Hu Xingdou.
"For a long time now, problems have existed such as party above state, individual above party or party above law," Hu said.
Other state media reports say new declarations on the anti-corruption front will be issued and the most recent defaulters arrayed before the public.
The past year has seen a number of retired and serving party big-wigs fall, including former top general Guo Boxiong. That followed the downfall earlier in Xi's term of powerful officials including former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang. More than 1 million of the party's 88 million members have been handed punishments since 2013, according to party corruption watchdog, the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection.
State media say a pair of documents toughening discipline will be put forward at this week's meeting, reflecting Xi's preference for pursuing anti-corruption through party channels rather than the legal system.
What's not clear is how Xi plans to tackle the unintended results of the anti-graft drive. Those include the reluctance of low-level bureaucrats to do their jobs for fear of being accused of taking bribes and a malaise among the higher-ups unwilling to act until they can once again earn kickbacks, according to recent editorials in the China Daily and other state newspapers.
Shortly after the meeting, the process of selecting the roughly 2,300 delegates for next year's five-yearly national congress will begin. Past plenums have seen participants vote in a straw poll as a first step toward selection of candidates for the next Politburo.
Despite informal rules on retirement, Xi may push to have ally Wang Qishan, who has been spearheading the anti-corruption drive, remain on the Politburo Standing Committee, said Steve Tsang, a Chinese politics expert at the University of Nottingham. Xi might then use his personal authority to angle for a third five-year term, breaking the precedent limiting him to two terms and obviating the need to anoint a successor at next year's congress, Tsang said.
"I don't think this is a foregone conclusion, as there is strong resistance within the establishment against Xi breaking rules to do so and asserting himself so powerfully. We will see from how the plenum goes the real extent of Xi's power," Tsang said.
Xi has offered no public insights or opinions on the meeting's nitty-gritty, but in a speech at a patriotic gathering on Friday, called for total adherence to party edicts, devotion to the people and full support for the armed forces that remain ultimately loyal to the party rather than the Chinese nation.
He offered a hopeful message as well, saying the struggles of the past showed that no challenge was too great and that China was closing in on its goal of becoming a modern nation with a comfortably well-off society.
"We are closer now than at any period in history to realizing the great goal of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," Xi said, shortly before the meeting closed with the singing of communist anthem "The International."
"We have more confidence and ability than at any period in history to realize this goal."