Hu Boosts Power as He Scrambles to Maintain Social Stability

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 19

Even assuming that recent reports about President Hu Jintao’s intention to “rehabilitate the reputation” of the late Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Hu Yaobang are true, this seems yet another instance of the Chinese supremo’s well-disguised Machiavellianism. Evidence abounds that the 62 year-old CCP General Secretary and commander-in-chief is continuing to harass cadres and scholars close to another deceased CCP chieftain, Zhao Ziyang, who, like Hu Yaobang, lost power because of his ultra-liberal ideology. President Hu’s apparent plans to burnish the memory of Hu Yaobang, a former mentor of his, are geared toward consolidating his already-substantial hold over the reins of power.

Beijing this past month has been rife with speculation that Hu has approved a public ceremony next month to mark the 90th anniversary of the birth of Hu Yaobang, who played a key role in rectifying many of the ‘leftist’ or Maoist aberrations of the 1960’s and 1970’s. President Hu, who headed the Communist Youth League (CYL) in the mid-1980s, partly owed his rise to the late Hu, an early leader of the League. Given that the latter was fired by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping in January 1987 for displaying excessively “bourgeois-liberal” tendencies, there are also rumors in Beijing that President Hu’s apparent decision to honor his mentor represents a desire to conciliate the CCP’s marginalized ‘rightist’ or liberal faction.

Political sources in the capital said, however, that President Hu might want to heap posthumous praise on Hu Yaobang merely to garner additional support from the vast CYL network. After all, since becoming party boss at the 16th Party Congress of 2002, Hu has promoted tens of ex-CYL officials to senior party and government posts. The sources added there was no reason to believe that Hu, who has repeatedly eulogized Chairman Mao, wanted to be associated with the liberal and pro-West ideas of either Hu Yaobang or Zhao. They added that the Hu-led Politburo was still adamant about containing the possible impact of the death of Zhao in January this year. Zhao, who took over the party leadership from comrade-in-arms Hu Yaobang in early 1987, was deposed after the Tiannamen Square massacre for showing sympathy to the student demonstrators.

According to a Beijing source close to Zhao’s relatives, state-security and police officers last month delivered tough messages to ten-odd retired cadres and scholars who had worked under Zhao. The Zhao supporters were warned that they must not take part in public events about sensitive issues such as political reform and “Zhao Ziyang’s political legacy,” including holding conferences, publishing books, or giving interviews to the Hong Kong and foreign media. The source said Hu aides such as Politburo member in charge of security, Luo Gan, are keen to stop the publication of a manuscript reportedly written by Zhao’s old friend and qigong doctor, Zong Fengming. This compilation of a dozen or so conversations between Zhao and Zong on topics including ideological liberalization is deemed by Zhao supporters as the late liberal leader’s “last political legacy.” “Luo suspects that one or more copies of the Zong manuscript may have been smuggled to Hong Kong and abroad,” the source said. “Luo’s state-security personnel are pulling out the stops to prevent the book’s publication.” It is significant that Zhao’s former associates were warned specifically not to write forewords or other essays to accompany the Zong book.

At the same time, security units under Luo and Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang have stepped up surveillance over elements of civil society, including NGOs, the mass media, professional groupings, and semi-private research institutes—especially those that support political reform or have received funding from American and European foundations. Since the spring, state-security and police units have detained or harassed perhaps a dozen lawyers who were active in helping workers, farmers, or small businessmen fight for their labor or property rights. For example, famous lawyer Zhu Jiuhu, counsel for private investors who owned numerous small oil and natural-gas fields in northern Shaanxi Province, was locked up in early summer. These Shaaxi investors have lost a few billion yuan worth of funds because their oilfields—which had received authorization from the provincial and national authorities in the mid-1990s—were suddenly declared to be state-owned by central government departments last year. As of early this month, more than 100 lawyers and law professors had written a petition to CCP headquarters asking that Zhu be released.

Irrespective of whether Hu is successful in maintaining socio-political stability and in suppressing calls for political liberalization, the wily politician has been largely able to buttress his position as the new core of the 4th Generation Leadership. In just one year after ex-president Jiang Zemin left his last position of power—the chairmanship of the Party Central Military Commission—Hu has been able to exert control over remaining members of the so-called Jiang or Shanghai Faction. Although there are still four Politburo Standing Committee members who used to be loyal to Jiang, they have either crossed over to the Hu camp, or been rendered unable to stage any challenge against the new supremo.

The most clear-cut example is Vice President Zeng Qinghong, a former Shanghai party vice secretary who used to be the right-hand man and top strategist for Jiang. Zeng is supposed to be the head of the Shanghai Faction after Jiang’s retirement in September 2004. Yet it is clear that the vice president no longer holds any important portfolio. He now merely performs routine state functions, such as attending ceremonies or anniversaries. Last month, for example, he was in Xinjiang to observe the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Government. He was also due to be in Hong Kong this month to be guest of honor at the opening of the Hong Kong Disneyland. Moreover, while Zeng was also an important adviser to Jiang on military affairs—particularly in regard to the appointment of PLA officers—Hu as new CMC chief has totally cut Zeng out of defense-related matters. Even foreign-affairs powers of Zeng, who used to be active in diplomacy relating to Japan and Korea, have been curtailed.

Other close followers of Jiang in the Politburo Standing Committee, such as NPC chairman Wu Bangguo and Executive Vice-Premier Huang Ju, have also crossed over to the dominant camp led by Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao. It is fair to say that Hu only faces discontents—and some opposition—from PLA officers. Since the spring, there have been several cases of disgruntled PLA officers and soldiers holding demonstrations, mainly to demand better living conditions and better retirement benefits. And the CMC Office last month took the unusual step of issuing a circular forbidding PLA personnel to take part in demonstrations, petitions, or other forms of protest. It is thus clear that as the new commander-in-chief, Hu has to do more to win over the support of both the top brass and the rank and file. The president and commander-in-chief is expected to award the PLA a bigger budget increase in 2006 to pay for development of weapons, purchase of Russian hardware, and improve the livelihood and retirement benefits of PLA personnel.

While it seems certain that Hu’s predominant position will remain unchallenged for a long time, the president has been accused by his opponents of spending too much time on grooming and promoting members of his own CYL faction to the top. A number of his recent appointments have drawn criticism, including the transfer of former Henan party secretary Li Keqiang to the major northeastern province of Liaoning, and promotion of former Shandong vice-party secretary Wu Aiying, 54, as Minister of Justice. A fast-rising star, 49 year-old Li, who had worked under Hu in the CYL, was transferred from agricultural Henan to industrial Liaoning as part of a process to groom him for a Politburo position. Yet Li’s performance in Henan was considered lackluster: there were major industrial accidents in the relatively backward province. And even worse, Henan was hit by an alarming spread of AIDS among villagers who had to sell blood to make ends meet. Wu, like Li, is a long-time affiliate of the CYL faction. Yet the female cadre has had no training in the law whatsoever. Her filling such an important post as justice minister has cast doubt on Hu’s commitment of “running the administration according to law.”

Perhaps taking a leaf from Mao’s book, Hu seems intent to play traditional factional politics to his best advantage. Not unlike the Great Helmsman, the relatively young president is adept at using the official media to foster a larger-than-life persona. Thus, a well-spun public event marking Hu Yaobang’s 90th birthday could help endear Hu to China’s disgruntled intelligentsia. And the president’s public relations specialists have also been asked to use TV footage about his on-going trip to North America to enhance his status as international statesman.