While President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have yet to make their mark in political reform, the Fourth Generation leaders, particularly Hu, have excelled in consolidating their power base in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and government hierarchies. It is true that, with respect to factional dynamics, Hu, Wen and their allies still have to at least temporarily share power with the so-called Shanghai Faction, which is led by ex-president Jiang Zemin and Vice-President Zeng Qinghong. There is little doubt, however, that both central and regional cadres who are loyal to the Hu-Wen team are in the ascendancy. As the annual plenary session of the National People’s Congress opens in Beijing on March 5, it is instructive to take note of the personnel gains that the Hu-Wen leadership has notched in the past year.
The aggrandizement of Hu’s so-called Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction is most evident in the thirty-one provinces and directly administered cities. Three Hu cronies and CYL alumnae–Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao, and Zhang Xuezhong–occupy the number one post of party secretary in the important provinces of, respectively, Henan, Jiangsu and Sichuan. And the party bosses of the strategic autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, Wang Lequan and Guo Jinlong, are considered associates of Hu, himself a former party secretary of Tibet. Moreover, Hu allies and CYL affiliates Xu Rongkai, Zhang Baoshun and Yang Chuantang have taken over the governorships of, respectively, Sichuan, Shanxi and Qinghai provinces.
In accordance with tradition, provincial party secretaries have a better chance of making it to the Politburo than do officials such as government ministers. Hu, therefore, has a good chance of inducting such key protŽgŽs as Li Keqiang and Li Yuanchao to the ruling council in the runup to the Seventeenth CCP Congress in 2007. Indeed, Li Keqiang and Li Yuanchao, who head, respectively, Henan, China’s most populous province, and Jiangsu, one of the country’s richest regions, are sometimes considered potential heavyweights of the inchoate Fifth Generation leadership.
President Hu, however, has also had his share of disappointment on the organizational front. Song Defu, who succeeded Hu as CYL Party Secretary in 1985, is considered one of the president’s closest advisers. Early this year, however, Song was forced to vacate his post as party secretary of coastal Fujian Province because of cancer. Luckily for the CYL Faction, Song’s just-named successor as Fujian party chief, Lu Zhangong, is deemed a protŽgŽ of Politburo Standing Committee member Wu Guangzheng. And Wu, who runs the country’s highest anti-graft watchdog, the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, is an ally of Hu’s.
Another CYL League alumna who has run into trouble is former Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong, who was fired in April last year because of his apparent failure to contain the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in the capital. It is a testimony to Hu’s expanding clout, however, that Meng was partially rehabilitated last October, when he was appointed vice head of the cabinet level Office for South-North Water Diversion.
Chinese analysts say there is a good chance that Meng, who had been Beijing mayor for barely a few months when SARS struck, could be given a more substantial post in a year or so.
In contrast to his comrade-in-arms Hu, Premier Wen does not have a clear cut personal faction, particularly insofar as regional chieftains are concerned. The 61-year-old head of government’s forte has been his ability to retain the loyalty of a large team of technocrats that former premier Zhu Rongji had put together. These senior cadres have included Vice Premier Wu Yi, Finance Minister Jin Renqing, Governor of the People’s Bank of China Zhou Xiaochuan, Minister at the National Development and Reform Commission Ma Kai, and Minister at the State owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission Li Rongrong.
Two newly promoted regional level cadres, however, have close affiliations to Wen. One is the photogenic Wang Qishan, who was confirmed as Beijing mayor late last month. Wang, rated “most popular mayor” in opinion polls conducted by the official media, is a protŽgŽ of ex-premier Zhu. During his five-year tenure as premier, Zhu had installed Wang in a series of senior banking slots in addition to the posts of vice governor of Guangdong Province and party secretary of Hainan Province. There is speculation that both Wen and President Hu hope that Wang, a son-in-law of the late Vice Premier Yao Yilin, will one day displace Liu Qi as party secretary of Beijing. Liu, who many thought should have taken the rap for the SARS crisis last year, enjoys intimate ties with the Shanghai Faction led by ex-president Jiang.
Also of significance is the fact that Wen has started to extend his power tentacles to the regions. The new governor of the industrialized northeastern province of Liaoning, Zhang Wenyue, is one of the relatively small number of regional supremos with close links to Wen. Like the premier, Zhang is a graduate of the Beijing University of Geology, as well as having been a career geologist the first part of his career. With experience in provinces as diverse as Xinjiang and Liaoning, Zhang may have a bright future despite having reached 60 years of age.
At the same time, it is important to note that what some Western diplomats have called the “opposition,” or the rival Shanghai Faction, has also scored a few triumphs on the personnel front. Of particular significance is the promotion last month of former Liaoning Governor Bo Xilai to the high profile post of minister of commerce. Bo succeeded the capable Lu Fuyuan, who is believed to be suffering from terminal cancer. Most analysts consider Bo to be close to ex-president Jiang on account of the friendship between the minister’s father, the famous party elder Bo Yibo, and the ex-president. At the fifteenth Party Congress in 1997, the elder Bo was instrumental in ensuring the retirement of Politburo stalwart Qiao Shi, deemed Jiang’s implacable political foe. And the promotion of Bo Xilai can be viewed as Jiang repaying Bo Yibo’s favor. Moreover, Bo Xilai is known to be on good terms with Vice President Zeng, Jiang’s confidante. The younger Bo is popular with foreign businessmen and the important slot of commerce minister may become a good platform for the 54-year-old’s further elevation.
In assessing the Byzantine factional dynamics in China, it is also useful to bear in mind that despite his fading star, ex-president Jiang is still chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Personnel movements in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) the past few months have demonstrated that the 77-year-old Jiang has retained solid control over military appointments.
At the end of 2003, Jiang masterminded a major series of organizational changes in the PLA, which resulted in the promotion of a number of loyalists. For example, Major General Jia Ting’an, once Jiang’s personal secretary and military aide-de-champ, was given the crucial slot of director of the CMC General Office. This was despite the fact that General Jia was widely reported to have been put under surveillance early last year for corruption-related activities such as “selling” senior military appointments to associates who could come up with the appropriate amounts of money.
Two other newly named members of the top brass are known to be close to Jiang. They are the commissar of the PLA Strategic Missile Forces (also known as the Second Artillery Corps), Major General Pang Xiaofeng; and the deputy commissar of the Air Force, Major General Liu Yazhou. Moreover, like Jiang and Vice President Zeng, Generals Pang and Liu are the sons or relatives of first generation revolutionaries.
And while Jiang has studiously tried to keep President Hu, a CMC vice chairman since 1999, out of high level military decision making, the wily former president has insinuated his two sons into powerful PLA positions. Last year, Dr. Jiang Mianheng and Jiang Miankang were appointed to senior political commissar posts in the PLA General Equipment Department and the General Political Department. Dr. Jiang, who has a Ph.D. in physics from an American university, has retained his other position of vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. However, his main focus the past couple of years has been on the “IT transformation” of the PLA. Since both Jiangs lack formal military training and experience, their assumption of senior PLA posts has aroused the ill feelings of the top brass as well as rank and file.
These recent personnel moves have buttressed speculation that Jiang is not yet ready to quit the post of CMC chairmanship. It has been reported that as a condition for retirement, Jiang has insisted that Vice President Zeng be made a CMC vice chairman. However, President Hu and quite a few other Politburo Standing Committee members have expressed serious reservations about this. Under these circumstances, it is possible that Jiang may hang on to the commander in chief’s position until the Seventeenth Party Congress in 2007.