Hu Jintao Draws Blood with the Wang Lijun Scandal

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 5

Wang Lijun in Better Times

After apparently engineering the contretemps that have hit Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, President Hu Jintao is putting additional pressure on other members of the Gang of Princelings—the political faction composed of senior cadres’ offspring. The political fortunes of Bo, the high-profile son of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elder Bo Yibo, have nosedived following the recent detention of his key protégé, Wang Lijun, on alleged “economic crimes.” Regardless of the veracity about the speculation that the 62-year-old princeling offered to resign from the Politburo, Bo’s chances for making the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) at the 18th Party Congress later this year seem over. Last week, Bo reportedly wrote a “letter of self-criticism” to the PBSC in which he blamed himself for failing to detect the alleged corruption and other misdemeanors of former Chongqing Vice-Mayor Wang, who reportedly tried to seek political asymlum in the United States Consulate in Chengdu earlier this month (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], February 22; China Digital Times, February 21; Reuters, February 15).

Political observers in Beijing are closely watching two related developments. The first is which senior cadre will likely acquire the PBSC seat which Bo seemed to have a high chance of filling. The second and perhaps more significant issue is the fate of the so-called “Chongqing Model” associated with Bo, particularly the large-scale resuscitation of Maoist values and culture that is symbolized by the popular “singing red songs” (changhong) campaign. Since the Wang Lijun saga, however, the mainstream media has been replete with commentaries advocating ideological and political liberalization. Particularly given that other pedigreed cadres such as Vice President Xi Jinping also have taken part in the changhong movement, are these pro-reformist articles yet another weapon used by President Hu and his associates to lay into the Gang of Princelings (Apple Daily [Hong Kong] February 27; Associated Press, February 15)? Are there also possibilities that the recent outburst of reformist sentiments will persist beyond the 18th CCP Congress?

Bad blood between the Hu-led Communist Youth League (CYL) faction and the so-called Gang of Princelings goes back a long way. At the 17th Party Congress in 2007, Hu’s original plan of anointing Vice Premier Li Keqiang—a former CYL Party Secretary—as his own successor was foiled by an apparent collusion between the Gang of Princelings and the Shanghai Faction, many of whom are also high-born officials. As a result of this unexpected development, the 58-year-old Xi, son of the late Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun, was confirmed “crown prince” at the conclave. (See “Xi Jinping: China’s Conservative Strongman-in-Waiting,” China Brief, September 2, 2011). It is also well-known that Hu does not approve of the changhong shenanigans in Chongqing. The general secretary has not visited Chongqing since Bo’s appointment as the party secretary of the western metropolis in late 2007. That Hu had a hand in bringing down Wang—and in the process crippling Bo’s promotion prospects—was attested to by reports in Beijing that last year the party General Secretary asked the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) to investigate corruption-related offences allegedly committed by Wang and his colleagues when the latter served as a top police official in Tieling municipality from 1995 to 2003. In January, Gu Fengjie, Wang’s successor as Tieling police chief, was sentenced to 12 years in jail on graft-related charges. CCDI agents began questioning Wang himself early this year (Radio Free Asia, February 14; Ming Pao, February 11). Moreover, Wang’s replacement as Chongqing Police Chief is 42-year-old Guan Haixiang. While Guan spent 15 years in the CYL’s regional and central offices, he has no experience in police or political-legal system (zhengfa xitong) work whatsoever (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], February 24; China News Service, February 18; Financial Times, February 8).

That Bo is now out of the running for the PBSC has afforded Hu an opportunity to revise the “tripartite division of the spoils” formula that the CCP’s disparate factions had been arrived at late last year. Under this scheme, the CYL Faction and the Gang of Princelings would each get three PBSC seats, with the remaining three positions to be allotted to representatives from other cliques. It is understood that Hu wants the slot for which Bo was once deemed a shoo-in to go either to a CYL Faction member or a cadre with no obvious political affiliations. Before the Wang Lijun scandal, heavyweight CYL Faction candidates for the PBSC included Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang, Director of the CCP Organization Department Li Yuanchao and Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang, while the three front-running princelings were Xi Jinping, Vice Premier Wang Qishan and Bo Xilai. One possibility is that Hu may insinuate Inner Mongolia Party Secretary Hu Chunhua, age 48, into the PBSC. A top member of the Six-Generation leadership—a reference to cadres born in the 1960s—Hu, who is not related to the president, is also a former party secretary of the CYL (Bloomberg, February 14; Deutsche Welle [Berlin] February 8; Apple Daily, October 15, 2011). However, it also is possible that the position may be awarded to Minister of Public Security Meng Jianzhu. While Meng lacks Politburo status, he has won the top leadership’s praise for cracking down hard on dissidents as well as “splittists” in the Tibet and Xinjiang regions (See, “Security Chief’s Efforts to Seal Up the Political-Legal Chairmanship,” China Brief, February 21).

Of perhaps larger significance is the blow that the Wang scandal has dealt the so-called Chongqing Model, which became famous due to the city’s efficacy in nabbing hardcore criminals and in revitalizing Maoist norms. It is instructive that in a mid-February meeting of the Chongqing municipal party committee, Bo heaped high praise on the “contributions that the scientific outlook on development has made to Chongqing’s developmemt.” The “scientific outlook on development” is considered to be President Hu and Premier Wen’s most important contribution to Communist-Chinese statecraft since they came to power in late 2002. It was the first time that Bo, who usually preferred to dwell on his own political and economic programs, had so lavishly eulogized the pet slogan of the Hu-Wen leadership (South China Morning Post [Hong Kong], February 15; Chongqing Daily, February 13).

That Wang Lijun, the “anti-triad national hero” is himself under investigation for graft-related charges has undermined the entire law-enforcement mechanism in Chongqing. Li Zhuang, a highly respected lawyer who was briefly imprisoned in Chongqing for allegedly using illegal means to defend one of the traid bosses arrested by Wang, told the Hong Kong media that “the Chongqing model is problematic because the city’s leaders do not follow the rule of law.” Yang Fan, a renowned “New Left” scholar who is co-author of the book The Chongqing Model, indicated in his blog last week that he might have to reappraise the “Chongqing way of doing things.” Referring to the Wang case, Yang wrote “since a big scandal has hit Chongqing, it is imperative that we take a second look at the Chongqing Model” (Cable TV News, Hong Kong, February 23; Yang Fan’s Blog, February 22; Sidney Morning Herald, February 11).

Bo’s even more controversial crypto-Maoist campaign, which is symbolized by the thousands of changhong concerts that have been held across China in the past couple of years, probably is also against the ropes. The keen advocate for political reform, Premier Wen, has criticized certain cadres’ nostalgia for the Maoist era, stating, for example, last year “A major obstacle to reform is the remnant poison of the Cultural Revolution” (Southern Metropolitan News, May 4, 2011; Ming Pao, April 28, 2011). It is therefore probably not accidental that in the fortnight or so after Wang Lijun sought refuge in the American Consulate in Chengdu, a rash of reformist-oriented pieces has appeared in the official Beijing media. Last Tuesday, the People’s Daily ran a commentary entitled “While reform carries risk, abandoning reform will bring jeopardy to the party.” Wu Jinglian, one of China’s most famous liberal economists, wrote “China is at a new crossroads” and “Above all, we must be careful not to go back to the old road.” It is significant that a number of these articles cited “vested interest blocs” as the most daunting impediment to reform. For example, Sun Jian, a researcher at the party journal Seeking Truth, wrote “we must not allow interest groups to block reform.” Finally, He Chuiyun, a commentator for the China Business Times, pointed out that “unless we have the determination and courage to reform ourselves, it will be difficult for us to break up the configuration of interest [groups] in the country” (Chinese Economy Net [Beijing], February 26; People’s Daily, February 23; Global Times, February 17, February 13).

Given that the Gang of Princelings is perhaps the most well-known “interest bloc” in China, there is a possibility that Hu and Wen are using these liberalization-minded articles to cast indirect aspersions at the sons and daughters of privilege for political advantage. At the very least, Vice President Xi, who enthusiastically endorsed Bo’s changhong movement during a visit to Chongqing in early 2010, may be in the line of fire. Almost as much as Bo, Xi has the past few years underscored the imperative of heeding the Great Helmsman’s instructions. For example, at the opening of a Central Party School (CPS) semester last year, Xi, who is also CPS President, urged his students to “pay attention to the Marxist canon,” especially Mao’s classic writings. “Cadres must seriously study Marxist theory to ensure that they can maintain political resoluteness,” he said. Xi added that since Marxist classics were voluminous, “we should focus on the salient points, and concentrate on studying the quintessence—particularly the important works of Mao Zedong” (China News Service, May 15, 2011; People’s Daily, May 14, 2011).

Before the Wang Lijun episode erupted, a number of illustrious party liberals such as Hu Deping, the son of the liberal party chief Hu Yaobang, had tried to resuscitate ideological and political reform through holding a series of salons and seminars (See, “China’s Remnant Liberals Keep Flame of Liberalization Alive,” China Brief, February 3). The theoretical possibility exists that the dominant CYL Faction might seek the help of these remnant liberals in consolidating their grip on post-18th Congress elite politics. It is, however, instructive to note that the powers that be in Zhongnanhai have a long tradition of using radical reformists and genuine liberals as pawns in political intrigues – and then abandoning them once the power struggle is over. A classic example is what took place in 1979 and 1980, when Deng Xiaoping encouraged dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng to attack the party’s unrepentant followers of Chairman Mao. Once he has been ensconced in power, however, Deng closed down the Democracy Wall and threw Wei and a number of his close comrades into jail. Irrespective of the outcome of the on-going contention between the CYL Faction and the Gang of Princelings, the chances that the tattered threads of political liberalization may be picked up again seem abysmally low.