Hu’s Impasse at the 17th Party Congress

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 19

The selection of the new Beijing leadership, which will be endorsed by the ongoing 17th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress, has revealed disturbing schisms among the major factions and, in particular, President Hu Jintao’s failure to establish overriding authority five years after acceding to the country’s top job. The Hu Faction’s apparent inability to dominate the new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) could engender either policy paralysis or an aversion toward taking risks regarding potentially destabilizing issues such as political reform. Equally possible is Hu’s support of hawkish foreign policies, including ones toward Taiwan, so as to consolidate the loyalty of the generals, which could become a useful tool in his battles against rival party cliques.

Barring last-minute developments, the nine-member PBSC to be announced the day after the Congress closes on Sunday, October 21, is: President Hu; National People’s Congress Standing Committee Chairman Wu Bangguo; Premier Wen Jiabao; Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Chairman Jia Qinglin; Shanghai Party Secretary Xi Jinping; Liaoning Party Secretary Li Keqiang; CCP Organization Department director He Guoqiang; ideology and propaganda czar Li Changchun; and Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang. Of these nine potentates, only Xi, 54, and Li, 52, are members of the so-called fifth generation of leaders—officials in their late 40s to mid-50s. The rankings indicate that Xi, a princeling and the son of liberal party elder Xi Zhongxun, will take over from Zeng Qinghong, 68, the post of first-ranked secretary of the CCP Secretariat and state vice-president. According to time-honored tradition, Xi is well-positioned to succeed Hu as the general secretary of the CCP and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) at the 18th Party Congress in 2012. And Li, a former head of the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL)—President Hu’s primary power base—is scheduled to become executive vice-premier and then premier five years down the road (New York Times, October 5; Reuters October 12, Apple Daily [Hong Kong], October 8).

Xi, whose father was a comrade of Hu’s mentor, former General Secretary Hu Yaobang, has received the approval of the president. The Shaanxi Province native’s low-key, consensus-building style has also made him acceptable to most CCP factions. Yet, it seems clear that Hu would prefer his long-time protégé Li Keqiang to succeed himself, rather than Premier Wen, in 2012. Most significantly, Hu and the members of his faction are miffed that the sudden ascendancy of Xi, who only became Shanghai party boss in March this year, was engineered by outgoing Vice President Zeng and former president Jiang Zemin, deemed the two heads of the still-powerful Shanghai Faction. While Xi, a former party secretary of the coastal Zhejiang Province, has never been a Shanghai Faction affiliate, Zeng and Jiang desired a cadre with ample experience in governing China’s eastern coast to be the Communist Party’s next leader. More importantly, Shanghai Faction stalwarts sought to check the fast-expanding clout of President Hu, who in the past few years has raised eyebrows by promoting more than two dozen CCYL alumni to senior positions at both the central and regional levels.

Particularly since President Jiang’s retirement from his last post of chairman of the CMC in late 2004, Hu has had a satisfactory working relationship with Zeng, who is widely regarded as the former president’s hatchet man. A Beijing source close to Hu’s inner circle, however, has said that the president has had reservations about Zeng’s two affiliates handling the critical portfolios of fighting corruption and controlling the police and judicial apparatus. He, a colorless but efficient apparatchik, will head the Central Commission on Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), a slot that until recently was occupied by Hu loyalist Wu Guanzheng. And Zhou, who is related to Zeng by marriage, will become Secretary of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which has jurisdiction over the police, the procuratorate and the courts. “Hu and his advisers were able to remove [former Shanghai party boss] Chen Liangyu last year owing to their control over corruption-related dossiers,” said the Beijing source. “Hu will lose a valuable political weapon if the CCDI comes under the sway of Zeng’s people.”

Even more problematic is the staying power of CPPCC Chairman Jia Qinglin, who barely missed the informal retirement age for PBSC members, 68, by one year. Jia, a former party secretary of Fujian Province and Beijing, has long been dogged by innuendo about corruption, particularly in regards to smuggling in Fujian and real estate speculation in the Chinese capital. While Jia has little connection with the Shanghai Faction, he has been close to Jiang since the 1970s, when both worked in the Ministry of Machine-Building Industry. A number of delegates to the Party Congress have reportedly voiced dissatisfaction about giving Jia another five-year term (Reuters October 16).

Hu’s apparent inability to dominate the current and upcoming PBSC has considerably weakened his message at the 17th Congress, which was contained in his speech, entitled “Political Report to the Congress,” that was delivered on Monday. The gist of the two-and-half-hour address was the CCP’s determination to construct a “harmonious society” by adhering to the theory of “scientific development”: the latter concept includes “putting people first,” shrinking the wealth gap, extending the social security net to the countryside, boosting social justice, and curbing corruption and other abuses. In the section on “party construction,” Hu underscored the importance of fostering clean government, stating that curtailing corruption was “a matter of life and death for the party” (People’s Daily, October 16). While the outgoing CCP Central Committee had confirmed last week the expulsion of Shanghai’s Chen Liangyu from all party posts, Hu’s inability to deny the tainted Jia a second term of office has cast doubt on the party’s sincerity about eradicating graft.

Also disappointing to the nation’s intellectuals is the party chief’s failure to address political reform, seen as the only solution to the scourge of privileged sectors preying on the weak. This is despite a last-minute petition written by respected party elder Li Rui—who played a key role in Hu’s promotion to a ministerial-level post in the early 1980s—to the leadership asking for a resumption of liberalization (Economist, October 11). To be sure, Hu devoted a whole section of his speech to “unswervingly developing socialist democracy.” The president also pledged to “implement democratic elections [and] democratic decision-making according to law” and to “ensure that the people enjoy democratic rights in a more extensive and practical way.” Hot-button issues, however, such as implementing direct elections—currently present at the village level—to higher administrative units such as the town and township were not touched. Hu merely promised to give peasants the same level of representation as urban residents in lower-level people’s congresses.

Indeed, the president noted in no uncertain terms that the purpose of the reforms of the political structure was to “provide the political and legal guarantees for the long reign and perennial stability of the party and state.” A good number of Congress delegates were also surprised that the president saluted the ultra-conservative “Four Cardinal Principles”—a reference to Marxist-Leninist precepts, strict party leadership, the socialist road and “proletariat dictatorship”—four times during his speech. Since coming to power in 2002, Hu has seldom cited such concepts from the Maoist era.

The party chief had precious little to offer even concerning the circumscribed goal of “democracy within the party.” He pledged to “gradually extend the parameters for the direct election of members of the leading corps of grassroots party organizations.” Experiments would continue to be made to enable county-level party congresses to exercise supervision over ruling party committees of the same level. Yet Hu did not even hold out the possibility for more thorough liberalization measures, such as competitive elections for picking cadres at the Politburo level.

On the foreign policy front, Hu has sought to combat the “China threat” theory by hoisting the banner of “the harmonious world.” “China will adopt a defensive policy of national defense,” said Hu. “It will not engage in arms races; nor will it constitute a military threat to any country.” Indeed, the Congress is set to approve a revision of the CCP charter that will enshrine the principles of “scientific development,” as well as the construction of a harmonious society and a harmonious world (Wen Wei Po, October 14).

Hu sounded an apparently conciliatory note even regarding Taiwan, which has repeatedly incurred Beijing’s ire by going ahead with plans to hold a referendum on joining the United Nations. The president noted that Beijing was willing to conclude a “peace accord” with the island provided that Taiwanese authorities recognized the “one China principle.” In the section on military modernization, however, Hu sounded a much more strident note when he played up the People’s Liberation Army’s ability to “acquit itself well in preparations for military struggles.” More significantly, Hu redoubled his administration’s commitment to “the unity between [the principles of] enriching the country and strengthening the army.” Hu called upon “party and government organizations of all levels as well as the masses to support national defense and military construction.” With five years left as China’s leader, Hu must have felt it safer—and more worthwhile—to devote himself to causes and actions that tend to unite all party factions, such as fanning the sentiments of nationalism and patriotism. Moreover, as the only PBSC member with authority over the military, the president who is deprived of the right to name his own successor can yet augment his stature and clout by garnering the unquestioned loyalty of the top brass.