Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 12

By Wen Yu

In China, the center of the Communist Party uses broad policy pronouncements to set the priorities it asks officials at lower levels to support and follow, priorities usually summarized in drab and banal political slogans. A new slogan signals a change in the party’s priorities–toward either a more conservative stance or a relatively liberal stance–and is often a result of inner party struggles.

A month ago, from November 2 to November 6, Jiang Zemin, communist party general secretary and president of China, was on an inspection tour of Hebei, a northern province in which the capital city of Beijing lies. During the tour, Jiang coined the concept “unifying thinking in the course of emancipating the mind” and admonished leading provincial officials to conform in word and deed. A commentary published on November 22 in the People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, strongly echoed Jiang’s remarks, further indicating that the slogan had become the party’s new priority.

“Unifying thinking” and “emancipating the mind” are themselves old slogans long used by China’s top leaders to advance their personal political goals. What Jiang did was to combine the two into one and put the emphasis on “unifying thinking” rather than “emancipating the mind.”

During his 1948-1976 rule, Mao Zedong used “unifying thinking” as a key tool to ensure that officials at all levels toed the party line. As the Maoist personality cult of those years had established him as the only person in China having the right thinking, the slogan thus required strict compliance with his beliefs.

Shortly after Deng Xiaoping was reinstated as one of China’s top leaders following Mao’s death in 1976, he realized that Mao’s ideological straitjacket had to be shed before China could move toward reform and opening itself to the outside world. During his 1978 power struggle to remove Mao’s designated successor Hua Guofeng, who was then advocating “two whatevers” (whatever decision Chairman Mao made, we will resolutely support; whatever instructions Chairman Mao made, we will steadfastly abide by”), Deng announced the slogan “emancipating the mind.” With it he called the nation to break with what had been proven wrong with Mao’s policies and to explore new ways and means to promote China’s modernization.

At the 15th Party Congress in September 1997, Jiang Zemin, as Deng Xiaoping’s annointed successor, touted Deng’s 1978 battle with Hua and his 1992 south China trip to reinvigorate the reform as two periods of “emancipating the mind.” Indicating that he would continue the process, Jiang even called for an “emancipation of the mind in the new period.” Recent political developments, however, have prompted Jiang to take a conservative stance by emphasizing “unifying thinking.”

From September 24 to September 26 of this year, the 6th plenum of the Communist Party was held in Beijing. One item on the agenda was to reach consensus on the candidates to be elected to form the Politburo, the party’s command headquarters, at the 16th Party Congress next fall. Jiang, who is expected to retire as party general secretary at the coming congress, had hoped that his proteges would be nominated with majority support.

On September 25, the Central Committee members attending the plenum were divided into eight groups to discuss and nominate the candidates. Six groups consisted of regional officials, one of officials of the departments directly under the Center and one of senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army. The Center had expected a total of twenty-five nominees. It got fifty-two. Clearly, it has become increasingly difficult to reach consensus at a Central Committee meeting. More frustrating to Jiang was that all his proteges finished poorly. Zeng Qinghong (director of the Center’s Organization Department), Wu Bangguo (a vice premier), Wu Guanzhen (party secretary of Shandong province), Huang Ju (party secretary of Shanghai), Jia Qinglin (party secretary of Beijing) and Li Changchun (party secretary of Guangdong province), all of them Jiang’s men, had support from no more than two to three of the eight groups. Worse still, each of the six had the endorsement of only one regional group.

What happened illustrates the ramifications of decentralization. In the last two decades, one of the most important aspects of political change in China has been the decentralization of decisionmaking. As the market-oriented reform requires shifting economic decisionmaking to the lower levels, governing bodies at the provincial level have gained the power to initiate policies and adopt strategies that are significantly different from those announced by the Center. The Center’s power to command or to punish the regions has been considerably weakened, as has been its ability to use ideology as a tool to improve policy coordination. Regional officials no longer have to exhibit conformity to central directives on all issues, nor are they required to demonstrate uniformity with the Center in outlook and behavior.

Shortly after the conclusion of the plenum, the all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo held an enlarged session and decided to dispatch special work teams to “conduct investigations” in different provinces. In fact, this is a rectification effort targeting the disobedient provincial leaders. By mid-October, the first batch of teams had already gone to the more unruly Jilin, Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Guizhou, Shangdong and Anhui provinces.

Because the Center still controls the appointment and removal of key provincial officials, Jiang could purge those considered troublemakers and replace them with more obedient officials before the 16th Party Congress convenes next fall. However, given that he lacks the absolute authority that Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping enjoyed, he might pay the price. In his attempt to bring the provinces in line, Jiang, in a Chinese phrase, has “mounted a tiger” and will find it hard to get off. The great uncertainty is whether he will tame the “tiger” or the “tiger” will hurt him.

Wen Yu is the pen name for a former Chinese government official.