Interpreting the Significance of CCP Personnel Changes

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 11

Large-scale personnel changes are taking place in provinces, cities, counties and townships all over China. Top cadres of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as well as its Organization Department, have in the past month issued repeated warnings against factionalism, corruption and “the wanton buying and selling of positions” (Xinhua, April 27). President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and their allies, however, should know that their appeals will fall on deaf ears as long as the party’s highest organ of power—the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC)—remains above the law as far as retirement age and maximum terms of office are concerned.

The spotlight is on the careers of two senior PSC members—Vice President Zeng Qinghong and First Vice Premier Huang Ju—who are members of the once-dominant “Shanghai Faction” led by former party general secretary and state president Jiang Zemin. The ongoing personnel changes at regional and local levels are being made in preparation for the 17th CCP Congress slated for October 2007 when a new Politburo, PSC, as well as the policy-setting Central Military Commission (CMC), will be formed. Hu, who has pledged to “administer according to the law,” must ensure that personnel changes in these top organs are not adversely affected by “rule of personality.” Despite efforts first begun by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping to introduce Western-style civil service norms to modernize China’s Leninist party and government structure, there are no hard and fast rules on the key issue of retirement from the PSC and the CMC.

Questions surrounding Zeng, 67, are centered on whether the Shanghai Faction stalwart will retire from the PSC at the 17th Congress. Zeng, perhaps ex-President Jiang’s closest aide and ablest troubleshooter, was instrumental in helping his patron keep his PSC post at the 15th CCP Congress in 1997 and his CMC slot at the 16th Congress in 2002. This was despite the existence of an unspoken “retire-at-70” rule for PSC members that was first introduced by Deng in the 1980s. Jiang, however, managed to hang onto his PSC membership as well as his position as party chief despite having turned 71 in 1997. The dictatorial Jiang raised more eyebrows in 2002 when, at age 76 and having served as CMC chairman for 12 years, he refused to give up his job as commander-in-chief.

Zeng made more enemies outside of the Shanghai Faction when he pulled strings from behind the scenes to force two Jiang foes—former chairmen of the National People’s Congress (NPC, or China’s parliament) Qiao Shi and Li Ruihuan—to retire from the PSC in 1997 and 2002, respectively. This was despite the fact that both Qiao and Li were only 68 when pushed out. According to a veteran party cadre, Zeng persuaded several “Long March” generation party elders to lean on Qiao and Li to call it quits in the interest of leadership rejuvenation. “Qiao and especially Li were reluctant to go particularly given the fact that Jiang had violated the retire-at-70 rule,” the veteran party cadre said. “But they had no choice because of the predominance of the Shanghai Faction” [1].

In light of this background, much attention is being focused on whether Zeng will follow tradition and leave the PSC—and, by extension, all his other positions—when he himself reaches 68 next year. Given that the so-called Hu Jintao faction has become the party’s dominant clique, and that Zeng’s patron, Jiang, has already been forced by Hu to quit the CMC in 2004, it would seem that the wily vice president has little choice but to drift into the sunset. The latest reports out of Beijing, however, have indicated that instead of winding down in preparation for his imminent exit, Zeng has become more active than before. For example, Zeng, also the principal of the Central Party School, has become the point man for a series of ideological crusades started by Hu. The latest campaign was to boost the “advanced nature” of CCP cadres and members, which was conceived by the conservative president as an antidote against the “sugar-coated bullets” of the capitalist West. Moreover, Zeng has been seeing more visiting foreign dignitaries, a sign that his political fortunes are rising instead of falling.

A senior Western diplomat pointed out that Zeng had improved relations with Hu by crossing over to the president’s camp at the critical moment just when the latter was working to force Jiang to vacate his last post of CMC chief in the summer of 2004. Moreover, apart from his excellent Shanghai connections, Zeng wields substantial clout among the “Gang of Princelings,” a reference to those offspring of senior cadres who are active in politics. Zeng’s own father was a former head of party and state intelligence, and his mother was one of only several women to have taken part in the Long March. “There are more signs that Hu is building bridges to the Gang of Princelings,” the senior diplomat said. “Most of the president’s protégés come from the Communist Youth League, and these Young Turks are not seen as heavyweights enough to run the party-and-state apparatus.” While in the past few years Hu has elevated 20-odd Youth League veterans to high-level central and regional posts, he has of late also promoted several princelings, particularly to senior slots in the People’s Liberation Army.

Another litmus test of whether President Hu is honoring his “administration according to law” dictum is what will become of Executive Vice Premier Huang Ju, a former party secretary of Shanghai and yet another right-hand man of ex-President Jiang’s. Huang’s portfolios included finance and telecommunications and his sudden disappearance from the media limelight from late January onwards has set off disquieting speculation within the foreign business community. While a month later senior cadres in Beijing began admitting privately that Huang, 68, was suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer, there has not been any public announcement of the precise state of his health. On the contrary, the state media has continued to let on that Huang is still performing his duties. For example, the official Xinhua news agency reported last month that Huang had sent a congratulatory message to a function organized by a group of private enterprises; in addition, earlier this month, the agency said the vice premier had dispatched a note of congratulation to the 50th anniversary of the founding of the China Finance Publishing House (Xinhua, May 2006). This is despite the fact that officials close to Huang’s family members, who are keeping watch in a military hospital where the senior minister is undergoing intensive treatment, say it is unlikely he will ever return to active duty.

Traditionally, this means that Huang will keep his PSC status until the 17th Congress next year and that his replacement as executive vice premier cannot report to duty until his nomination has been confirmed by the plenary session of the NPC in March 2008. A Beijing source knowledgeable about CCP organizational matters said Hu and Wen had no intention of naming Huang’s replacement until the 17th Congress. “Hu and Wen do not want to upset the delicate balance of powers among the different factions,” the source said. “If the Youth League faction continues to grow in power, Hu will next year be well-placed to fill Huang’s slot with his own protégé. Alternatively, the post may go to either a princeling, or one of several State Council technocrats currently working under Wen.”

In a circular earlier this month, the CCP Organization Department as well as the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection, the country’s top anti-graft watchdog, urged cadres to follow a “Marxist worldview, philosophy of life and value systems” in planning and implementing the ongoing personnel changes. Officials who are likely to be disappointed were told to “abide by the arrangements of the organization and to seriously stick to discipline” (Xinhua, May 19). It is open to question, however, whether Hu himself is following well-known practices laid down by previous leaders from Mao Zedong to Deng. For example, both Great Helmsman Mao and Deng cited the dictum that leaders must come from “the five lakes and four seas,” a reference to the danger of favoring a particular faction when top party, government and military posts were being allocated. Unlike Mao or Deng, Hu lacks national stature, giving him no choice but to pack the top echelons with loyalists—or at least with cadres that he can live with. The result is that Youth League affiliates seem destined for the majority of the plum jobs, while the two other cliques—the Gang of Princelings, as well as Premier Wen’s State Council technocrats—are in a position to reap the rest of the spoils.


1. Author’s telephone interviews with Chinese officials and sources in Beijing and Shanghai, May 2006.