Hu: Consolidating Power through Compromise

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 18

An elaborate and intriguing ideological campaign is being waged in connection with the recently published Selected Works of Jiang Zemin—a collection of speeches and writings by the former president (China Brief, August 16). Jiang’s successor, current President Hu Jintao, has given instructions to all Communist Party and government units to organize seminars and study sessions to learn from what the state media has termed as the octogenarian’s “profound, scientific and far-reaching thoughts.” In a speech made soon after the book’s launch, Hu eulogized upon the “new ideas, new viewpoints and new conclusions” of his predecessor, who ruled China from 1989 to 2002 (Xinhua, August 21; People’s Daily, August 16).

Regaining Influence?

Seasoned political observers in Beijing have raised quite a few questions, as it is not customary for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to issue the works of a leader who has merely stepped down for a few years. Moreover, it is well known that Hu and his Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction have been engaged in a ferocious power struggle with Jiang’s Shanghai Faction since the late 1990s. It was only through skillful maneuvering that the 63-year-old Hu was able to force Jiang to retire from his post of chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in late 2004. The deference that Hu is suddenly giving Jiang has aroused suspicions that Jiang, who turned 80 in mid-August, has regained significant political clout. Moreover, given that Hu has already started preparations for next year’s 17th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress, which will pick a new party Central Committee and Politburo, there is speculation that Jiang’s newfound prominence could mean that his Shanghai Faction affiliates, led by Vice President Zeng Qinghong, may somehow retain a sizable share of the Politburo seats at the congress.

There is convincing evidence, however, that Hu has been successful in consolidating his hold on the polity for the past two years. Most significantly, since early this year, anti-corruption units including the party’s Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI)—led by Hu ally Wu Guanzheng—have been stepping up investigations of graft and other alleged wrongdoings associated with several Shanghai Faction stalwarts as well as their relatives and associates. For instance, the wife of Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Huang Ju, a former party boss of Shanghai, is said to be linked to financial irregularities in the metropolis (Taipei Times, August 2). This is seen as a sign that the influence of Jiang, Huang’s mentor, is fading. In contrast to the current investigations, in mid-2003 when Hu and the CCDI’s Wu began large-scale investigations into the wrongdoings of well-connected Shanghai speculator Zhou Zhengyi, Jiang reportedly intervened to “protect Shanghai.” Zhou was given a surprisingly lenient three-year jail term later that year, while none of Zhou’s high-ranking affiliates were penalized.

In light of Hu’s unmistakable ascendancy, there is more plausibility to the theory that the recent praise bestowed on Jiang and his book represent a compromise struck between the two leaders of the Third and the Fourth Generation of CCP cadres, respectively. A Beijing source close to a top-level think-tank said that Hu was sending this not-so-subtle message to Jiang: “I have given you a grandiose farewell; after this, please enjoy your retirement—quietly—in your newly built mansion in Shanghai.” The source said that Hu had likely made indirect promises to Jiang that in return for his retirement from politics, Hu would ensure that relatives and protégés of Jiang would not be implicated by investigations into graft-related and other economic crimes. It is an open secret in Beijing that when late-patriarch Deng Xiaoping passed the baton to Jiang in the mid-1990s, the latter likewise gave his mentor the reassurance that anti-corruption and other law-enforcement units would not target Deng’s children and other kin.

Reviving Old Practices

While Hu’s tactics may be working, he has caused dismay among China’s intellectuals by his predilection for using traditional if not dynastic ploys to achieve his political goals. After all, the kind of near-personality cult that Hu is building around Jiang—if only for a month or so—smacks of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. During the so-called Ten Years of Chaos (1966-76), Mao Zedong’s first designated successor, Defense Minister Lin Biao, kicked off a series of horrendous ideological campaigns to glorify the “Thoughts of Chairman Mao.” General Lin’s sole objective, however, was to ensure that once the Great Helmsman was gone, he would effortlessly inherit the larger-than-life attributes that had been attached to Mao.

Moreover, given that Hu and his allies such as Premier Wen Jiabao have since late 2002 either abandoned or revised the policies and dictums of Jiang, the current learn-from-Jiang movement seems both phony and Machiavellian. For example, the centerpiece of Jiang Thought, the so-called “Theory of the Three Represents” (that the party represents the most advanced production forces, the foremost culture and the overall interests of the masses) is considered too elitist by the Hu-Wen team. After all, the “Three Represents Theory” was used to justify the opening of the CCP’s doors to private businessmen and professionals, deemed by Jiang and his colleagues as spearheading China’s modernization efforts. The priority for the Hu administration, however, is to pacify disadvantaged sectors such as unemployed workers and peasants. Hu, and in particular Wen, had largely stopped paying homage to the “Three Represents”—until the ongoing exercise focused on Jiang’s teachings. Furthermore, it is assumed among officials of all levels that once the campaign is over, state propaganda will once again be giving priority to slogans identified with Hu and Wen, such as “putting people first” and “creating a harmonious society.”

Indeed, the 1,859-page Jiang tome, which is priced at an expensive 95 yuan (for ordinary Chinese), hardly yields any earth-shattering viewpoints or insights that have not already been expounded by China’s vast propaganda network. The book does contain first-time revelations of decision-making processes relating to important issues such as Beijing’s negotiations with the United States on its accession to the World Trade Organization and the handling of Hong Kong’s change of sovereignty in July 1997. Yet, media articles celebrating Jiang’s achievements on both domestic and foreign fronts invariably point out that they were the result of the work of the entire leadership team. In addition, since Hu has been a PBSC member since 1992, the younger leader also stands to benefit from the praises heaped on his predecessor.

An Underlying Objective

There is, in effect, a parallel propaganda exercise that is aimed at consolidating Hu’s preeminent position. Even cadres that had formerly identified with the Shanghai Faction are now pulling out all the stops to highlight Hu’s de facto status as the “core” of the Fourth-Generation leader. Liu Ji, a former Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) administrator who had advised ex-president Jiang, raised eyebrows in mid-August by underscoring the imperative of “rallying behind comrade Jintao.” Liu, now President of the prestigious China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, was referring to recent criticisms leveled at the Hu leadership by both conservatives and radical, “pro-West” reformers. “The entire party, the entire country must unify their understanding [of the future direction of China] based on comrade Hu Jintao’s talks,” he said. “Anything that runs counter to comrade Hu Jintao’s talks is wrong and should be discarded” ( website, August 18). Analysts said Liu’s statement was reminiscent of the “whateverism” associated with Chairman Mao’s second designated successor, CCP Chairman Hua Guofeng. Hua had shocked cadres and intellectuals by saying soon after the Helmsman’s death in 1976 that “whatever Chairman Mao said is correct and should be followed.”

In his speech on the significance of Jiang Thought, Hu pointed out that CCP members and cadres must further “liberate their thought, seek truth from facts and make progress with the times” (Xinhua, August 15). His assessments of major CCP leaders ranging from Mao and Deng to Jiang, however, have betrayed a singular lack of objectivity and fairness. For the age-old goal of ensuring the “infallibility” of the party and its leaders, Hu has refused to even acknowledge the many major mistakes made by Mao, Deng and his predecessor and political opponent Jiang, fearing that open denigration of Jiang’s ideas and policies would raise questions about Hu’s own involvement in their formulation. Moreover, if only to ensure that Jiang would not dump him, through the 1990s, Hu had passed himself off as the Shanghai Faction chief’s loyal lieutenant. Hu’s tendency to put political expediency before ideological and political liberalization, however, may mean that even after consolidating power at the 17th Congress, he will be very reluctant to implement genuine reforms.