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.
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."
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.