June 11, 2017 11:00 pm JST
China up close

The kingmaker clan behind Xi Jinping

Some 2,000km south of Beijing, the Ye family pulls the levers of power

YU NAKAMURA, Nikkei staff writer

Xi Zhongxun, the late father of President Xi Jinping, maintained close ties to the Ye family throughout his life.

GUANGZHOU -- Beijing, naturally, is where the action happens in China's political theater. But to really understand the country's complex power structure -- and the intense, ongoing struggle for supremacy -- it is also important to look backstage. 

That would be Guangdong Province, nearly 2,000km to the south.

Influential figures have, at times, left the capital to build up their clout in Guangdong -- the country's largest economic zone, adjacent to Hong Kong. Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has strong ties to the province.

Those ties include a connection with a legendary Guangdong family, and this link could have major implications for the president's effort to reshape China's leadership this autumn.  

Ye territory

On April 4, as many as 100 members of one family gathered at Guangzhou Martyrs' Memorial Garden, a park dedicated to war dead in the capital city of Guangdong.

They stood before a stone monument inscribed with the name of Ye Jianying, paid tribute to him and laid flowers to mark the 120th year after his birth.

Ye, who was born on April 28, 1897, and died in 1986, remains the pillar of his family. A contemporary of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and other revolutionaries, Ye served as a Chinese Communist Party marshal and was one of the founders of the People's Liberation Army. He was known as a hotshot military officer and deft politician who orchestrated the downfall of the Cultural Revolution's powerful "Gang of Four," putting an end to the disastrous political campaign launched by Mao.

In 1978, Ye became chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's parliament. In 1983, he became vice chairman of the military commissions of both the Communist Party and the state under then-paramount leader Deng.

Ye wielded strong influence in the military. At one point, he monopolized the military materials business. Riding the wave of "reform and opening-up" initiated by Deng, the Ye family amassed tremendous wealth through the property, securities and trading businesses in Hong Kong, Macau and, of course, their stronghold of Guangdong.

Put it this way: The Ye family has long influenced the economy, politics and military of the province that, in 2016, was China's top gross domestic product contributor for the 28th straight year. 

Under some leaders, such as former President Jiang Zemin, Beijing attempted to weaken the family's power. "The central government has tried many times in the past to interfere in Guangdong's personnel affairs and win over the province to its side," a Communist Party source said. "But it has met resistance from the Ye family."

Xi, in contrast, has the family in his corner.

Strong bonds

Xi Zhongxun, the president's late father and a former Chinese vice premier, was a darling of the Ye family.

Ye Jianying and Xi Zhongxun were longtime allies. Based in Yan'an, known as the birthplace of the communist revolution, they built trust while fighting for the cause. But years after the People's Republic was founded in 1949, the elder Xi faced persecution during the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966-1976.

Xi was detained for some 16 years altogether, and following his release in 1978, Ye was the first to extend a helping hand.

Ye became chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in March 1978. He immediately decided to entrust the stewardship of Guangdong to Xi, and proposed the assignment to Hu Yaobang, a former general secretary of the Communist Party who was then heading the party's personnel department. Hu, a close ally, readily agreed.

Immediately before leaving for Guangdong, Xi met with Ye, who was 16 years his senior. A biography of Xi, published in 2013, contains his expressions of gratitude to Ye during the encounter. Ye's warmth brought him to tears, according to the account.

Xi became the first provincial secretary in Guangdong -- the top local post. He went on to double as provincial governor. His stints in Guangdong coincided with Deng's reform drive.

"Xi Zhongxun produced results [in line with Deng's policy] in Guangdong earlier than leaders elsewhere in the country, thanks to the backing of the Ye family," a Communist Party source said.

Xi's performance in Guangdong propelled him back to the national political scene in 1980, when he became vice chairman of the Standing Committee under Chairman Ye.

Ye, however, died in 1986, at age 89. In his absence, the political winds turned against allies like Xi and Hu Yaobang.

In 1987, Hu was dismissed as the party's general secretary by Deng, after he expressed understanding for the student-led democracy movement. Hu's sudden death in 1989 was a trigger of the Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing on June 4 of that year, in which the military cracked down on student demonstrators.

Xi Zhongxun, for his part, revolted against Deng over Hu's dismissal and was eventually forced to retire in 1993. Brokenhearted, he moved to Guangdong, where he lived until April 2002 -- shortly before his death. 

To this day, photos that show the close relationship between Ye and Xi are kept at the house where Ye was born.

The Hakka connection

To fully grasp the Ye mystique, one must also consider his origins and Hakka identity. 

The man is still widely revered by locals in his native Meizhou, a mountainous city in northeastern Guangdong that has long been a key center for the Hakka people -- Han Chinese who speak the Hakka language.

"Ye Jianying is a hero for the Hakkas," said one 43-year-old resident of the city.

The Hakka tend to be a close-knit group -- a group that spans the world, with several million living abroad. It has produced numerous high-profile figures, including Sun Yat-sen, the leader of China's 1911 Revolution, and Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father and former prime minister.

Personal connections with other prominent Hakkas have helped the Ye family wield influence in southern China, especially Guangdong.

The connection between the Ye and Xi families lives on as well. Members of the Xi family, including Xi Zhongxun's wife, Qi Xin, still live in Guangdong. President Xi's two older sisters have made a fortune in the property, infrastructure and communications businesses, primarily in Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

As for Ye's descendants -- he had six wives and seven children -- they inherited his power and influence.

His eldest son, Ye Xuanping, served as Guangdong governor and first vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, the top political advisory body.

His second son, Ye Xuanning, was head of the military's intelligence agency, the Liaison Department of the People's Liberation Army's General Political Department. He also found success in business. He died in 2016.

Chinese media outlets called Ye Xuanning "a power broker" and "a spiritual leader of the princelings," referring to the children of prominent and influential senior party officials. He had a knack for coordinating interests with rival forces while making full use of personal connections spanning national politics, the military, the corporate sector and the Hakka community.

Ye Xuanning is said to have played a key behind-the-scenes role in helping Xi Jinping become China's top leader. 

Xi became the Communist Party's general secretary in late 2012, at the last National Congress, and assumed the presidency in spring 2013. 

After his inauguration, he launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign, partly as a tool to bring down political foes and consolidate his power. Politics watchers say Ye Xuanning used his influence -- not to mention the experience and information he gained as the military's spy chief -- to accelerate the anti-corruption drive.

When Ye Xuanning died at 77, several members of the Xi family attended the funeral in Guangzhou, including the president's younger brother, Xi Yuanping. All seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including Xi Jinping, sent flowers, as did former general secretaries of the party, ex-premiers and other dignitaries.

"Highly unusual"

The Politburo Standing Committee is the party's top decision-making body, led by the president. A significant reshuffle of the committee is expected this autumn, when the party convenes for its next National Congress, and the Xi-Ye relationship could have bearing on this.

One of the most prominent contenders for a committee post is Hu Chunhua, the party secretary in Guangdong. He has long been tipped as a candidate to one day succeed Xi. But after assuming the top post in Guangdong in 2012, Hu has limited his media exposure. "He has always kept a low profile," a party source said.

That changed recently. In a surprise to many, he showed up at the April 4 event marking the 120th anniversary of Ye Jianying's birth. He stood in the center of the front row and also left flowers on the stone monument.

Even more surprising headlines emerged out of Guangdong a week later: President Xi lauded Hu's appearance at the April 4 event. "It is highly unusual for Xi to praise Hu like this," a party source said.

Hu belongs to the Communist Youth League faction of the party -- not Xi's faction. The group comprises former officials of the party's massive youth organization. 

Later, at Guangdong's provincial party congress at the end of May, Hu pledged loyalty to Xi 26 times in a speech.

Pledging allegiance to Xi is also a vow of loyalty to the Ye family.

Hu took over from Wang Yang as Guangdong's top official five years ago. At the time, Wang, now vice premier, was expected to be promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee.

He was passed over. And the rumor in Guangdong is that the reformist Wang did not make the cut because of a falling out with the Ye family. As the top Guangdong leader, Wang failed to attend a 115th-anniversary commemoration of Ye Jianying.

The big seven

Of the current seven Politburo Standing Committee members, President Xi and three others -- Wang Qishan, Zhang Dejiang and Zhang Gaoli -- have links to Guangdong.

Wang Qishan is Xi's right-hand man, as well as a princeling. He currently heads the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party's top anti-graft body. He once served as Guangdong's vice governor.

Zhang Dejiang serves as chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. He once served as Guangdong's party secretary.

And Zhang Gaoli is a vice premier. He spent much of his career in Guangdong before becoming the province's deputy party secretary.

These and other major political players left Beijing for Guangdong and, under the protection of the Ye family, used the province as a springboard to power back in the capital.

This fall's party congress is expected to bring some clarity as to who will lead China in the future. As the countdown continues, the big question is, what levers will the Ye family pull this time? 

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