Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 13

By Willy Lam

Ex-president Jiang Zemin and his still powerful Shanghai Faction are returning fire after a political season that has witnessed the relentless expansion of the clout of President Hu Jintao and such key associates as Premier Wen Jiabao. However, Hu has stitched together a slim majority in the nine member CCP Politburo Standing Committee (PSC)–and time seems to be on the side of the 60-year-old Fourth Generation supremo.

The series of salvoes launched by Hu, who has been aggressively amassing power at the expense of the Shanghai Faction since the 16th CCP Congress last November, has been relatively effective. Consider just a few examples. The new party general secretary has started a political campaign to honor the constitution and the spirit of the law. The corollary raises questions as to the legality of the 76-year-old Jiang’s retention of the position of chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Hu has also sought to marginalize Jiang’s pet “Theory of the Three Represents” (that the party represents the foremost development of productive forces, the most advanced culture and the interests of the masses) by putting emphasis instead on Mao’s much more popular “serve the people” credo.

Hu and Wen have consolidated their image as “cadres of the masses” by waging a generally successful battle against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Jiang’s crony, former health minister Dr. Zhang Wenkang, was fired in late April in a move meant to symbolize the fumbling, lying and corruption of the ancien regime. Hu has also taken advantage of SARS to open up a new era of Chinese-style glasnost by insisting that the media must honor the people’s zhiqing quan, or “right to know.”

Even more devastating was the detention last May of “premier Shanghai tycoon” Zhou Zhengyi and his Bank of China financier, Liu Jinbao. Zhou and Liu are considered cronies of at least two former Shanghai officials who are now PSC members. Zhou is also a business partner of a couple of Shanghai Faction “princelings.” And since the Zhou and Liu cases are handled by the CCP Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI)–which is headed by Hu ally Wu Guanzheng–these scandals are being used by the president and his advisers to undermine the Shanghai Faction.

And then there is the address that Hu is to deliver on July 1, the 82nd birthday of the CCP. The address has been billed as a major message on political liberalization, or at least “democracy within the party.” A key recommendation made by Hu and his associates is that regional cadres, particularly provincial and municipal party secretaries, should be picked by the full members of the local party committees. This will be a departure from the current system in which the CCP Organization Department–still under the thumb of Zeng Qinghong, Jiang’s alter ego and PSC stalwart–has a dominant say in regional appointments. In any case, “intra-party democracy” will serve to undercut the predominance enjoyed by the Shanghai Faction over a number of CCP offices and committees.

Jiang and his Shanghai Faction have mounted a ferocious counterattack over the past fortnight. Through their control of the party Propaganda Department as well as the General Political Department of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Jiang’s men have launched yet another ideological campaign to play up the Three Represents Theory. In the words of State Council Secretary General Hua Jianmin, a Jiang protege, cadres nationwide must “bring about a new climax in learning how to implement the important Three Represents Theory.” Hua last week urged officials to study in depth the “scientific content, spiritual essence and historical status” of the theory.

The latest reports from Beijing say that Hu has been obliged to backpedal on his initiatives regarding “intra-party democracy.” At the very least, details about new ways to elect provincial and municipal party secretaries will not be released until next year. More significantly, a sizeable portion of the July 1 speech will be devoted to yet another eulogy of the Three Represents Theory.

Even more striking have been efforts by Jiang & Co. to prevent investigations into the Zhou Zhengyi scandal from ballooning into a full-fledged Waterloo for the Shanghai Faction. Contrary to Hu’s pledges about media reform, Head of Propaganda Department Liu Yunshan, a Jiang protege, ordered a news blackout on the Zhou case in mid-June. Even the respected financial biweekly magazine Caijing was censored for running an expose into Zhou’s shenanigans.

And now that the SARS crisis is over and leaders from foreign states have started returning to the capital, Jiang is trying to reclaim the limelight by seeing as many of his “old friends” as possible. This is despite long-standing protocol that, as military chief, it is more appropriate for Jiang to confine himself to meeting visiting defense officials.

While Chinese politics will, at least in the near term, be dominated by the struggle between Hu and Jiang, there seems little doubt that the momentum is with Hu. Perhaps the most significant development to have taken place with regard to factional politics is that Hu has been able to win the support of four other members of the supreme PSC: Premier Wen, the CCDI’s Wu, law and order czar Luo Gan, and head of ideology and propaganda Li Changchun. This means that the “Hu clique” now enjoys a slight majority in the PSC, with four other members–Zeng, National People’s Congress (NPC) Chairman Wu Bangguo, Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Jia Qinglin and Executive Vice Premier Huang Ju–still professing allegiance to ex-president Jiang.

While the friendship–and political pact–between Hu and Wen is well-known, little has been written about the president’s relationships with Wu, Luo and Li. Apart from being alumnae of the elite Tsinghua University, Hu and Wu developed a close working relationship when they served as regional leaders in central and western China during the mid-1980s. Moreover, both benefited from the patronage of former party chief Hu Yaobang. And Hu was instrumental in Wu’s gaining a PSC slot last November.

Both Luo and Li crossed over to the Hu camp soon after the 16th CCP Congress. A crony and hatchet man of Li Peng, Luo needed a new patron after the former NPC chairman’s retirement. Moreover, the veteran law and order specialist was miffed by Zeng’s relentless promotion of his brother-in-law, Zhou Yongkang, who is both a Politburo member and Minister of Public Security. “Luo fears that the Shanghai Faction is grooming Zhou to take his place,” said a Western diplomat. “No wonder Luo has now linked his fate with President Hu.”

PSC member Li Changchun has raised eyebrows by siding with Hu rather than his old patron Jiang. This is despite the fact that, as party boss of Henan and then Guangdong province in the 1990s, Li bent over backwards to curry favor with the head of the Shanghai Faction. In recent months, Li and Propaganda Department Director Liu have been at loggerheads. While Liu is enforcing Jiang’s instructions about strict control of the press, Li is generally upholding Hu’s now famous “three close to” principle–that the media must be “close to reality, close to life and close to the masses.”

Of equal importance are the gains that Hu has made in the armed forces. Although Hu first became CMC vice chairman in 1999, Jiang has jealously guarded his turf and refused to let Hu take part in decision making related to the PLA. Never having been a career soldier, Hu’s contacts with the generals were until recently limited largely to senior officers who had served in or near Guizhou Province and Tibet Autonomous Region, areas that Hu headed during the mid-to-late 1980s. Thus, of the new CMC members endorsed last November, Hu was on good terms only with Chief of the General Logistics Department General Liao Xilong, a veteran of the southwest Chengdu Military Region.

However, the president is gradually gaining acceptance among more members of the top brass. This is less because of Hu’s charisma than the fact that Jiang has obviously overstayed his welcome. A growing number of senior officers is convinced that Jiang’s hanging on to the CMC chair will hamper PLA modernization as well as jeopardize the time honored principle of “the party commanding the gun.” It is important to note that, unlike Deng Xiaoping, who commanded the respect of the senior generals, Jiang was merely able to buy their support through promotion and perks.

Given that Jiang’s time in the CMC is limited, it is not surprising that a number of the former president’s proteges are beginning to switch sides. The first senior general to move over to the Hu camp was former CMC vice chairman Zhang Wannian; he was once a staunch Jiang supporter. Zhang, for example, was most vociferous in vowing allegiance to Jiang’s Three Represents Theory. But now Zhang, who still wields clout, particularly among the many PLA officers who hail from his native Shandong Province, has emerged as one of Hu’s military advisers.

Two senior officers also deemed to have joined the Hu camp are Chief of Staff General Liang Guanglie and Vice Chief of Staff in charge of intelligence General Xiong Guangkai. General Liang, a much decorated career commander, has quietly but firmly urged Jiang to retire early. And General Xiong, who is well known in the West, is said to have been unhappy with Jiang because he has for several years been passed over for promotion.

It is, of course, too early to say that Hu and his fast growing Communist Youth League Faction have edged out the Shanghai Clique, which still controls strategic offices and posts in the party, government and army. And Hu could still make mistakes that might be exploited by Jiang and his henchmen. For example, if Hu is seen as pushing too hard to dismantle the seven PLA military regions, the CMC vice chairman will alienate those officers whose jobs and promotion prospects are likely to be jeopardized by the streamlining measure. Most importantly, Hu must work harder to implement solid political reforms so as to win over the vast majority of officials and citizens who think Jiang has held back changes in order to preserve the Shanghai Faction’s stranglehold on power.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.