Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 18

The damage has already been done. Whether Jiang Zemin will give up all his positions at the 16th Communist Party Congress aside, his efforts at recycling dynastic politics over the past several months have turned the clock back on reform.

Many of the questions surrounding the succession issue–the supposed leitmotif of the congress that is set to open November 8–have remained unresolved. What is certain is that Jiang, who is concurrently party general secretary and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), will for the foreseeable future remain the party’s–and the country’s–de facto No. 1. Chinese sources said by early September that the Politburo had come to a basic understanding concerning the future role of Jiang, the long-standing “core” of the Third Generation leadership.

This agreement has been dubbed “the Three No Changes.” This means no change to the military leadership, no change to the “core” of the party and no change to the reign of the Third Generation. And while, as originally envisaged, Vice President Hu Jintao will become party general secretary at the congress and state president next March, the 59-year-old head of the so-called Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction will continue to play second fiddle to Jiang.

Most important, the Three No Changes consensus means that Jiang, 76, will remain the ultimate arbiter of Chinese politics. First, Jiang will stay on as chairman of the CMC, which he has headed since 1990, for at least a couple of years. After all, Jiang has been tightening his grip on military officers–and demanding that they swear allegiance to him–the past year. In early summer, the commander in chief quite surprisingly promoted more than 100 officers as major generals and lieutenant generals. This was seen as a cynical move to buy favor from the top brass.

Second, Jiang remains the “core” of the party–and national–leadership. This means that, as was the case of the semi-retired Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jiang will be consulted before decisions are made on major issues.

Third, there will, in effect, be a delay in the transition of power to the so-called Fourth Generation. A source close to preparations for the 16th Congress said the idea of a transition from the Third to the Fourth Generation leadership had been temporarily shelved. Indeed, the words “fourth generation,” while well-known in the West as a shorthand for cadres in their 50s and early 60s, have rarely been used by the official media. The latest development means the term will drop out of circulation for the foreseeable future.

“Jiang’s supporters want the very concept of a fourth generation mothballed,” the source said. “Thus, heavyweights such as Hu Jintao and [Vice Premier] Wen Jiabao will, at least for the time being, be deemed younger Third Generation cadres–and Jiang remains the core of the Third Generation leadership.”

While this arrangement seems to enjoy the support or acquiescence of a majority of cadres, backroom maneuvers among the factions are set to continue. And changes to the personnel lineup are still possible right up to the eve of the 16th Party Congress–or at least shortly before Jiang goes to the United States for his summit with President George W. Bush in Texas on October 25.

Diplomatic analysts said supporters of Jiang, including Shanghai Faction affiliates and the generals, were still lobbying for the president to remain party general secretary for at least half a term. However, liberal cadres and intellectuals, particularly those associated with ousted party chiefs Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang, want Jiang to vacate all his positions and give up his “leadership core” status. A host of heavyweight liberal leaders including Zhao’s aide Bao Tong, have circulated articles decrying the feudalistic turn that Chinese politics has taken under Jiang.

Yet even if Jiang were to give up all his posts, there is little doubt that he will retain substantial clout at least before the 17th Party Congress in 2007. More significant, Jiang’s evident reluctance in obeying party rules on rejuvenation–and in facilitating a clear-cut and orderly succession–has dealt a body blow to the prospects of political liberalization.

First, Jiang’s refusal to give his blessings to the formation of a Fourth Generation leadership could, at least in the short term, deny younger members of the new Politburo such as Hu and Wen a clear mandate for liberalization. Hu’s credentials as a reformer have been cast into doubt by his readiness to curry favor with Jiang in order to preserve his own position. Indeed, along with Jiang’s trusted generals, the vice president has been most vociferous in his protestations that the president should retire only at the 17th Party Congress. Moreover, Jiang’s Machiavellian gambit could set the stage for a protracted power struggle between the Jiang or Shanghai Faction on the one hand, and Hu’s CYL Faction on the other.

A party source said Jiang would, in his Political Report to the Congress, map out a few areas of limited political reform such as promoting “inner party democracy.” This means that there would be a higher degree of transparency–and a semblance of checks and balances–within the 66-million-member party. For example, county party bosses in many provinces will be chosen by all the members of the provincial party committee–and not just by the provincial party secretary as is the present case. And up to the level of counties and cities, there will be a more clear-cut division of power–and “mutual supervision”–among the party congresses, the party committees and the committees for disciplinary inspection. However, the ugly factional intrigue of the past few months has called the party leadership’s commitment to genuine reform into question.

Then there is the dangerous politicization of the People’s Liberation Army. To demonstrate his prowess–and to strike fear into the heart of his enemies–Jiang and his aides have since late last year encouraged hundreds of generals to write petitions asking that Jiang should remain in office after the 16th Congress. And it is also within the barracks that propaganda campaigns on Jiang’s pet “Theory of the Three Represents” have hit new heights of frenzy.

Key Jiang protege General Zhang Wannian set the benchmark for post-Cultural Revolution servility in July when he urged fellow officers to “swear allegiance to party central authorities–and to Chairman Jiang.” Until recently, the standard formula used by bootlicking generals was merely to “obey the instructions of central party authorities with comrade Jiang Zemin as their core.”

Efforts by General Zhang and allied sycophants to build a personality cult around Jiang have raised eyebrows within the PLA. And the CMC General Office had to issue an internal memo explaining why the top brass had switched from swearing allegiance to a leadership collective to expressing loyalty to an individual. The price to pay for getting the officers involved in Beijing’s Byzantine maneuvers, however, is obvious. The generals will be getting bigger budget boosts as well as a sizeable say in foreign and domestic policy–possibly including who will become the next CMC chief.

Jiang’s machinations have also put at risk the tentative steps Beijing has taken in judicial reform. China analysts were flabbergasted when a Politburo member in charge of judicial and antigraft affairs, Wei Jianxing, recently urged disciplinary and law enforcement cadres to “seriously put [upholding] political discipline as their priority task.”

Wei then equated “political discipline” with implementing such Jiang-inspired shibboleths as the “Theory of the Three Represents.” A number of high-profile corruption cases publicized last month, including that of former Zhu Rongji protege and financier Zhu Xiaohua, are believed to be linked to ongoing factional strife in the party. After all, Premier Zhu has been one of the most vociferous opponents to Jiang flouting the retire-at-70 rule.

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.