Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 12

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Beijing cadres call it “settling one’s score with history.” This high-sounding term, however, refers to something much more mundane: ways by which a senior official ensures that his own interests–and those of his proteges–are best taken care of after his retirement.

Since mid-year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has started reshuffling most of the party secretaries, governors and mayors of China’s thirty-one provinces and directly administered cities. The process will be completed by early next year, well before the pivotal 16th Party Congress scheduled for October. The rationale behind the changing of the guard is rejuvenation and promotion of better, cleaner governance. For almost two years, Beijing has, in the name of administrative reform, experimented with the so-called open recruitment of officials–that is, that they will be selected through public examinations and “objective assessment.” This reform is restricted to mid-ranking cadres, but there is expectation that the appointment of senior regional officials will gradually be based on Western-style civil-service standards rather than factional intrigue. The recently announced personnel changes in Shanghai, the Shenzhen special economic zone (SEZ) and the central province of Hebei, however, show that the most important criteria are still the division of the spoils and jockeying for position among rival party cliques.

For President Jiang Zemin, the ultimate arbiter of Chinese politics since the mid-1990s, there is the additional urgency that his legacy will be protected only if his underlings are named to senior posts before he retires in the coming year or two. Moreover, given that his heir-apparent, Vice President Hu Jintao, comes from a different faction, veteran members of his (the Shanghai) faction are putting additional pressure on him to place them in top slots sooner rather than later.

The dramatic developments in Shanghai perhaps best testify to the skullduggery and back-stabbing that still characterize factional dynamics. The popular mayor of Shanghai, Xu Kuangdi, was replaced by his deputy, Executive Vice-Mayor Chen Liangyu, early this month. Xu was transferred to a “pre-retirement job” as party chief of the Academy of Engineering in Beijing. No reason was given for the apparent demotion of the cadre so widely praised for the earth-shattering transformation of Shanghai since the mid-1990s. In a terse dispatch, the official Xinhua news agency merely said the Shanghai People’s Congress had accepted Xu’s resignation. Shanghai officials have told foreign investors that it is normal that Xu, having reached 64, should be “retreating from the front line.” It is true, of course, that Beijing has in recent years been stricter with retirement ages. Heads of ministries, provinces and major cities, for example, must step down by 65. Until this sudden denouement, the expectation in Chinese political circles had been that Xu would be promoted in a year or so to Beijing as state councilor or even vice premier and Politburo member. Because the retirement age for these senior positions is 70, Xu could well hang on to his position until the 16th party congress next October or the plenary session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March 2003.

Analysts in Beijing and Shanghai suspect that the real reason is rivalry between President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji–and between Xu and Shanghai Party Secretary Huang Ju. It was Zhu who brought Xu, a former professor with good links with foreign businessmen, into the Shanghai government in 1989. “Top leaders such as Jiang and Zhu are engaged in an elaborate horse-trading in connection with the changing of the guard at the 16th party congress,” said a Chinese source in Beijing. “Zhu is pushing for the promotion of several proteges such as People’s Bank of China Governor Dai Xianglong, State Councillors Wu Yi and Wang Zhongyu, as well as Deputy Finance Minister Lou Jiwei. Xu’s ‘early retirement’ may be Jiang’s way of telling Zhu that he can’t win them all.”

Xu’s replacement, Chen, 55, is close to party chief Huang Ju, who is in turn a crony of President Jiang’s. Chen, who had studied in England for one year, is also a good friend of the president’s son, Jiang Mianheng, a prominent Shanghai-based IT entrepreneur. Analysts said Huang, 63, a humdrum bureaucrat much less well regarded than Xu, would likely be made a vice chairman of the NPC soon after the 16th party congress. And Huang will most likely retain his Politburo status.

Jiang has already maneuvered to appoint another trusted associate to the Number 1 slot in the East China metropolis. Frontrunners for the position of Shanghai party boss include Education Minister Chen Zhili and the Party Secretary of Jiangxi, Meng Jianzhu. Both Chen and Meng are former vice party secretaries of Shanghai who owe their good political fortunes to Jiang.

The elevation of Huang Liman–who, like Chen, is one of the most powerful women in China–to the position of Shenzhen party chief also represents a big victory for Jiang. The friendship of Jiang and Huang dates from the early 1980s, when they both worked in the Ministry of Electronic Industry (MEI). Largely due to Jiang’s influence, Huang was “parachuted” into the prosperous SEZ in the early 1990s as secretary-general of the municipal government. According to a Shenzhen cadre, Jiang has made no secret of his patronage of Huang. “On a visit to Shenzhen, Jiang surprised local officials by telling them he would have some homemade dumplings in Huang’s house,” the cadre said. “While Huang is considered a mediocre apparatchik, she was promoted to vice party secretary of Guangdong Province in 1998.” He added that given Shenzhen’s position as the pacesetter of reform–and that there is a good possibility of its being upgraded to a directly administered city in 2003–the zone needed a stronger and more competent leader than Huang. During her tenure in Guangdong, Huang, in her mid-1950s, was most famous for the zeal with which she pushed ideological campaigns surrounding Jiang Zemin Theory.

By contrast, the appointment of Yu, 56, as Hubei party chief is less controversial. And despite the fact that, like Jiang and Huang Liman, Yu also served in the MEI, his promotion is not seen as a result of cronyism. Yu, who first made his mark in major cities in Shandong province such as Yintai and Qingdao, has been regarded as an innovative administrator by leaders ranging from the ousted party chief Zhao Ziyang to Jiang. Since moving to the Ministry of Construction in 1997, Yu has been credited with reform in housing as well as the building industry. The elevation of Yu, however, has confirmed the rise of the so-called Gang of Princelings–a reference to cadres who are descendants of party elders. Huang’s father, Huang Qiwei, is a first-generation cadre who also happened to be a lover of Madame Jiang Qing, wife of Chairman Mao Zedong.

Apart from Huang, a host of high-born officials is expected to climb up the bureaucratic ladder at the 16th congress. They include the Governor of Liaoning Province Bo Xilai, Governor of Fujian Province Xi Jinping, Chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission Zhou Xiaochuan and the Director of the Office for Restructuring the Economy Wang Qishan. Diplomatic analysts said that, apart from his own Shanghai Faction, Jiang wanted the Gang of Princelings to act as a counterweight to the rapidly expanding Communist Youth League (CYL) clique headed by Vice President Hu. In the past two years, Hu, set to succeed Jiang as party general secretary at the 16th congress, has placed more than a dozen CYL alumni in important central and regional posts.

Dispensing goodies to the princelings, moreover, is another way that Jiang is “settling his score with history.” A number of party elders, including Bo Yibo, father of Bo Xilai, were instrumental in helping Jiang consolidate his power through the 1990s. And the party veterans have been aggressively lobbying the president to promote their sons when he is still in power.

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.