Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrived in Washington on Monday as his future as China’s next supreme leader is the subject of a fierce debate within the U.S. government over whether he is under attack by a hardline nationalist faction within the ruling Communist Party.
According to U.S. national security officials, new indications of potentially destabilizing factionalism surfaced last week during the attempted defection to the United States of a senior Chinese police official.
Wang Lijun, a deputy mayor in Chongqing, provided explosive details about senior Chinese leaders during an overnight stay and debriefing at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, in southern China.
Wang’s intelligence supports the claims of U.S. officials who believe a faction of hardline nationalists within the party are seeking power. They oppose the more moderate, but still communist, faction headed by Hu Jintao that currently holds power in the Politburo, which runs China’s government.
The power struggle is playing out against China’s plans for a smooth leadership transition during an upcoming major Party conference this fall, when Hu is expected to relinquish power—in part or in whole—to Xi.
The information provided by Wang Lijun is said to include details on Bo Xilai, the regional Party official in Chongqing and one of the leading nationalist hardliners, and Zhou Yongkang, China’s highest ranking security official and member of the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo.
Within U.S. intelligence agencies the debate over the leadership split has pitted Asian affairs intelligence analysts against operations officers engaged in running agents in China and gathering communications intelligence.
The analysts, led by National Intelligence Officer for East Asia Paul Heer, insist there are no significant antagonistic leadership factions in the upper reaches of the Party and that the transition to Xi will be uneventful.
Other intelligence officials insist the split is real, arguing that the numerous signs of fighting could result in a putsch by nationalists in the next several months, bringing more anti-U.S. and doctrinaire communists to power.
According to the officials, the key threat to Xi is Zhou Yongkang, who is considered the most powerful hardliner. Described as the most powerful policeman in the nation, Zhou could arrange the usurpation of Xi and upset the smooth transition from current President Hu Jintao to Xi.
"Zhou is China’s top policeman and is waiting in the wings and has supporters," said one well-placed administration official. "The message the Chinese are sending is that if Xi is too soft on the Americans and bows to the Americans [during the visit], this opens up an opportunity for Zhou to seize the succession."
The dangers of a destabilizing leadership struggle have been advanced in the past by former Pentagon policymaker and China specialist Michael Pillsbury.
In his landmark 2000 book, China Debates the Future Security Environment, Pillsbury wrote that Chinese factions rarely disagree in public but that the factions generally break down between "orthodox" communists and "reformers." For example, the hardliners are convinced that the Untied States is in an irreversible decline, while reformers argue that the United States is likely to remain the sole superpower for the foreseeable future.
Heer, by contrast, stated in a 2000 Foreign Affairs article headlined "A House United" that viewing Beijing's behavior toward Washington as driven by factional leadership politics was "misguided and even dangerous."
One official said the leadership struggle in China carries the danger of a rapid worsening in relations between the U.S. and China—or even conflict.
"The potential for miscalculation is enormous," the official said. "If the No. 2 economy in the world is taken over by an anti-American Chinese policeman, we are in trouble."
This official criticized the blind spot in U.S. intelligence. He said it is a result of pro-China policies in the Bush and Obama administrations, both of which curtailed spying on China to avoid upsetting diplomatic and economic relations.
Said a second U.S. official: "Right now, Xi Jinping is pretty well-positioned politically. He has the support of key Communist Party elites, and the PLA."
Former State Department China analyst John Tkacik identified two opposing factions within the Chinese leadership: the "princelings," or sons and daughters of Party and military revolutionaries, and the "China Youth League faction" that has been successful in controlling domestic policy.
"Zhou Yongkang has been China’s top cop for the past ten years, and he knows where the bodies are buried," Tkacik said. "If he were to move against anyone, it would be against someone in the Youth League Faction. And it is plausible that this faction would try to undermine some maverick self-promoter in the Party like Chongqing’s ‘princeling’ Party Secretary Bo Xilai who’s a bit too much of a Maoist, leftist populist, and whom very few in any faction like anyway."
Bo has sought to portray himself as a populist-nationalist and is seeking a seat on the nine-member Standing Committee during the upcoming Party conference set for the fall. In an open letter published on the Internet, Wang Lijun criticized Bo as a major organized crime figure in Chongqing.
According to a U.S. official, reports from China on Monday said Zhou has taken control of Chongqing and appears to be preventing Hu Jintao's Beijing "center" forces from fully investigating or arresting Bo.
The administration is portraying the Xi visit as an opportunity to gauge U.S.-China relations in the future. Washington has major concerns about China’s military buildup, secretive nuclear arms modernization, aggressive cyber espionage, and preparation for future cyber warfare, along with other issues such as currency valuation and other financial and trade issues.
Other topics expected to be discussed when Xi meets President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are China’s refusal to support a U.N. resolution condemning Syria’s government for its crackdown on civilians, Beijing’s missile and nuclear proliferation, and China’s siding with fraternal communist ally North Korea on Pyongyang’s recent sinking of a South Korean warship and shelling of a South Korean border island.
China’s human rights abuses are not expected to be a major topic of discussion during Xi’s visit.
Xi will not hold any public appearances or take part in any press conferences during the visit, which is expected to generate some street protests from human rights advocates. He is scheduled to meet the president and vice president during the visit. Other meetings are expected to include sessions with the secretaries of State and Defense and senior House and Senate leaders.
He is also scheduled to travel to Iowa and Los Angeles during the trip.