Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 1

New Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Hu Jintao is relying on two primary weapons in waging what could be a protracted struggle against the Jiang Zemin or Shanghai Faction: legalism and populism. By stressing the imperative of obeying laws and regulations, he is reminding President Jiang and his protégés that they must play by the rules of the power game. And Hu, who spent twenty-one years in three poor, western provinces, is trying to enhance his national stature by positioning himself as a spokesman for the downtrodden masses.

Hu was elected party general secretary last November, and one of his first major moves was to initiate the equivalent of an ideological campaign to safeguard the sanctity of the constitution and the laws. This was the theme of the first so-called Politburo learning session, called late in December, when all twenty-five members of the supreme ruling council listened to the lectures of two famous professors of law, Xu Chongde and Zhou Yezhong.

“We must uphold the basic strategy of ruling the country according to law,” Hu said in a speech on the occasion. “We must further consolidate in the entire society consciousness about the constitution as well as the authority of the constitution.” Significantly, Hu linked the ideal of “administration according to law” to the oft-stated goal of “strengthening and improving party leadership.”

That Hu intends to wield the weapon of legalism was first evident in an address he made soon after the 16th Party Congress to mark the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the 1982 constitution. The 60-year-old party chief pointed out that “no organization or individual has special privileges to override the constitution and the law.” “The constitution has promoted the construction of our country’s socialist democracy,” he said. “We must uphold the basic principle of running the country according to law.”

As a retired party cadre in Beijing saw it, the message behind Hu’s legalistic offensive was that Jiang and his cronies had violated the spirit if not the letter of the law by their blatant power grab in the past year or so. The outgoing president’s overweening ways were evident when he filled a majority of the Politburo seats with Shanghai Faction affiliates at the 16th Congress.

Moreover, the 76-year-old patriarch no longer bothers to hide his determination to hang on to the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) for two years or more. This is despite the fact that since retiring from the Central Committee and the Politburo at the Congress, Jiang is no more than an ordinary party member. “A large number of non-Shanghai Faction cadres want Jiang to give up his CMC position at the National People’s Congress next March, when he is due to hand over the state presidency to Hu,” the party cadre said. “While the CCP charter has no explicit rules on retirement ages for party positions, the retire-at-70 convention is now well established. And Jiang will be seen as violating the spirit if not the letter of party regulations if he is to hang on to power.”

Meanwhile, Hu has sought to establish his credentials as a spokesman for the large number of Chinese who lost out in the course of Deng Xiaoping’s twenty-odd years of reform and open door policy. These include laid-off industrial workers and especially farmers, up to 200 million of whom are either jobless or severely underemployed.

This was the apparent reason behind the general secretary’s decision to convene a Politburo meeting late last month to underscore the leadership’s commitment to raising the standard of living of farmers. A statement at the end of the Politburo session said the Communist Party would give its “topmost priority” to “showing more concern for farmers and to supporting agriculture.” It added that party and government policies must “tally with the realities of the village, the interests of farmers and the requirements of rural productivity.”

At the same time, Hu is building bridges to the conservative faction of the CCP, which has faulted Jiang for giving too many favors to the nouveau riche “new classes.” While the party chief is generally deemed a “moderate liberal,” it is no secret that he has enjoyed the backing of leftists, or quasi-Maoist conservatives, including influential party elder Song Ping. Hu tried to address the conservatives’ concerns during a well-publicized trip early last month to Xibobo, Hebei Province, a well-known mecca of the communist revolution.

At Xibobo, Hu revived Chairman Mao’s credo about “plain living and hard struggle,” as well as “serving the people with all one’s heart and mind.” While citing Jiang’s pet “Theory of the Three Represents,” Hu only mentioned the one component of the dictum that conservatives could identify with, namely that the party must represent “the fundamental interests of the broad masses.” No reference was made to the fact that the CCP must represent the “foremost productivity and the most advanced culture,” which was Jiang’s justification for allowing private entrepreneurs and professionals to be enrolled in the party. Instead, the general secretary pledged to “safeguard and materialize the interests of the masses.”

Likewise, Hu spent much of the first week of the new year among the poor peasants in Inner Mongolia. The official Xinhua news agency quoted the party chief as saying that the best way to implement the “Theory of the Three Represents” was to “safeguard and develop well the interests of the masses.” Xinhua reported that Hu had braved minus-35 degree Celsius temperatures to bring warmth to peasants and herdsmen, workers in difficulty, as well as urban residents hovering on the brink of poverty. The general secretary gave instructions to Inner Mongolian officials that funds earmarked for impoverished workers and peasants must be delivered promptly and without fail.

Sources close to the Hu camp said the new party boss was anxious to establish his credentials as a man of the masses, a lobbyist for “Third World” Chinese living far away from the prosperous coastal rim. Many of his colleagues in the two-months-old Politburo, particularly Shanghai Faction affiliates and other followers of Jiang, are seen as representatives of the super-rich east-China cities.

While Hu lacks national stature, particularly a track record in reform, he has won sympathy from a broad spectrum of party cadres for being the victim of Jiang’s Machiavellian statecraft. And while outwardly self-effacing, even self-abnegating, the head of the Communist Youth League Faction knows fully well that if he fails to quickly consolidate his authority and build a national following, he could be kicked upstairs and even elbowed aside before the 17th Party Congress slated for 2007.

Indeed, Hu’s immediate concern is to prevent Jiang’s alter ego, Politburo Standing Committee member Zeng Qinghong, from becoming state vice president at the National People’s Congress. It is Zeng, a former head of the CCP’s Organization Department, who has spearheaded the campaign to give Jiang virtual life tenure as China’s paramount leader. Moreover, Zeng, a former vice party secretary of Shanghai, is expected to one day take over Jiang’s mantle as godfather of the Shanghai Faction.

According to diplomatic analysts in Beijing, Zeng’s securing the job of state vice president at the NPC would be a sign that Jiang has given subtle backing to his protégé to replace Hu as party chief before 2007. The analysts say, however, General Secretary Hu’s emphasis on doing things according to laws and regulations–and on giving a fair shake to the millions of Chinese who think coastal cities like Shanghai have prospered at the expense of the hinterland–will have the effect of undercutting support for the unpopular Zeng.

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.