Political Factions and Spicy Ginger: Elder Networks in PRC Politics (Part 1)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 19

Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin (right) played an influential role in the behind-the-scene politics leading up to the 18th Party Congress. (Credit: Xinhua)

Part 1: The Patronage Network of Jiang Zemin

Jiang shì lao de la: “Aged ginger is spicier”

Chinese proverb meaning that older people possess more experience and wisdom.

When the new senior leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was revealed to the world following the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, most outside observers were stunned by the extent to which officials linked to former CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin dominated the leadership transition. Although formally retired from all offices for eight years prior to the Congress, Jiang was evidently able to muster enough clout to place protégés in six of the seven seats of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the Party’s top policy-making body. By contrast, outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao—by formal position, the top official in the Party—secured a PBSC seat for only one of his followers, PRC Premier-designate Li Keqiang (South China Morning Post, November 16, 2012).

The outcomes of the Party Congress raised questions anew regarding the interaction of formal and informal authority at elite levels of the CCP—and particularly, the continuing influence of “Party elders” on matters of leadership succession. “Party elders”—senior CCP officials who are officially retired, but remain politically active––have wielded a powerful voice in Chinese politics over the past three decades. [1] This was particularly true of a core group of senior officials sometimes referred to as the “Eight Immortals”—centered on Deng Xiaoping, and also including powerful figures such as Chen Yun, Li Xiannian, Yang Shangkun, and Bo Yibo—whose revolutionary-era credentials and high-level Party relationships allowed them to exert a strong influence on major policy decisions throughout the 1980s and 1990s. [2]

The influence of these figures was given semi-official status by the creation of a “Central Advisory Commission” (Zhongyang Guwen Weiyuanhui) of Party elders in existence from 1982 to 1992, with Bo Yibo—father of jailed former Politburo member Bo Xilai—assigned an early leading role (People’s Daily, September 13, 1982). However, the true power of these men lay in their personal authority and connections within the Party and the military, as displayed during leadership deliberations in the  lead-up to the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre. The crucial debates leading to the final decision for the crackdown were dominated by Party elders who made decisions outside of formal channels of authority, resulting in the sacking of CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and the employment of the PLA against pro-democracy protestors. [3] Deng himself attributed the Party’s survival amidst the Tiananmen crisis to resolute actions taken by his fellow elders, stating that the timing of the “counter-revolutionary rebellion” was fortunate, as “we [still] have a large number of veteran comrades…[who] have experienced many disturbances and understand [how to] deal with them” (Deng Xiaoping’s Works, June 9, 1989).

Party elders today may not act as the de facto shadow government once represented by Deng Xiaoping and his fellow “Immortals,” but they remain influential figures. Retired senior-ranking CCP cadres—particularly, former members of the Politburo—retain a number of privileges, to include bodyguard protection, special housing, and staff support (Andrew Nathan and Bruce Gilley, China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files, 156, 184). They also maintain access to, and the right to comment on, major policy documents and deliberations (Wall Street Journal, September 6, 2012). More importantly, within the highly personalized realm of CCP politics, patrons retain significant influence over younger protégés and are in a position to shape the membership of the CCP’s top policy-making institutions. [4] Elders of lesser rank, while not enjoying the perquisites or the clout of more senior figures, may still seek to leverage their moral authority on policy debates: One such example was seen in 2010, when a group of 23 retired officials (including Li Rui, former personal secretary to Mao Zedong) issued an open letter criticizing the CCP Central Propaganda Department and calling for greater freedom of expression (Bloomberg, October 13, 2010).

Too often, discussion of CCP Party elders treats them as a monolithic and faceless group. However, the CCP’s most influential elders are colorful individuals, with sometimes sharply contrasting views on policy and the future course of Chinese society. An examination of the CCP’s Party elders, their patronage linkages to younger officials and the extent of their behind-the-scenes influence is long overdue.

The Patronage Network of Jiang Zemin

The elder with the greatest clout in PRC politics is former CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin (age 88). Jiang was himself appointed to the Party’s highest offices amid the 1989 Tiananmen crisis on the personal authority of Deng Xiaoping and fellow elders, bypassing formal party institutions(Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, The Tiananmen Papers, pp. 308–312). Jiang remained in the shadow of the elders early in his tenure, and for a period in the early 1990s Deng considered replacing Jiang as General Secretary—just as Deng had sacked Jiang’s two predecessors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang . Jiang survived in part due to his solicitous attitude toward the elders, with Li Xiannian and Bo Yibo acting as particularly important patrons (China Since Tiananmen, p. 67). At one point, PBSC member and Jiang rival Li Ruihuan reportedly mocked Jiang’s cultivation of the surviving Eight Immortals as “ancestor worship” (Bruce Gilley and Andrew Nathan, China’s New Rulers, p. 165). Jiang only came into his own as a more independent figure in the mid-1990s, as he consolidated power in the Party bureaucracy and as Deng and other leading elders either died or were sidelined by age.

Although Jiang stepped down as General Secretary in 2002, and from his last official post as Chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission in 2004, he was reportedly very reluctant to retire. Pressed into retirement, Jiang would have preferred to designate his right-hand man, Zeng Qinghong, as his successor: However, Hu Jintao had been deep-selected by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s, tying Jiang’s hands in the lead-up to the 16th Party Congress in 2002 (Zheng Yongnian, The Chinese Communist Party as Organizational Emperor, p. 80; U.S.-China Commission, March 2012). Despite this restraint imposed on Jiang by the ghost of Deng Xiaoping, Hu Jintao’s ex officio authority was circumscribed throughout his tenure by Jiang’s enduring influence—and Hu himself bent over backwards to show deference to Jiang, as demonstrated by his slavish public efforts to promote Jiang’s political theories (Kerry Brown, Hu Jintao, p. 49–50; China Leadership Monitor, Fall 2003).

Jiang’s most significant legacy may well be the current tenure of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. Some unconfirmed sources have indicated that Hu Jintao made an attempt prior to the 17th Party Congress in 2007 to have his protégé Li Keqiang designated as successor to the post of CCP General Secretary, but that he encountered resistance from “retired leaders such as Wan Li, Jiang Zemin, Song Ping, Qiao Shi and Liu Huaqing, most of whom suggested Xi [as a] more suitable” choice than Li Keqiang to be the designated General Secretary-in-waiting (China: An International Journal, March 2009). During his time as heir apparent, Xi Jinping made ostentatious efforts to flatter and cultivate Jiang Zemin as a patron: For example, in an October 2009 meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Xi made a public show of presenting her with copies of two books published under Jiang’s name (Xinhua, October 13, 2009). [5]

Li Peng as an Ally of Jiang Zemin

Arguably the most influential elder remaining from the Deng Xiaoping era, Li Peng (86) has acted as a political ally of Jiang Zemin on major issues over the past two decades. Li was PRC Premier from 1987–1998, and then served as Chairman of the National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) from 1998 until his retirement in 2003. Li Peng is a stalwart of the conservative “left” wing of the CCP: as a PBSC member in 1989, he was one of the staunchest advocates of the use of force, and has maintained a hardline voice against political liberalization in the years since. He has also been a supporter of firm state control over the economy, and during his tenure as premier took a go-slow approach to the restructuring of state enterprises (Yongnian Zheng, Globalization and State Transformation in China, pp. 90–93).

Although nominally subordinate to Jiang Zemin’s status as the “core” leader of the CCP’s third-generation leadership, in the early years of Jiang’s tenure Li reportedly treated him in a dismissive fashion. Li also limited Jiang’s freedom of action in some policy areas: For example, as head of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (LSG), Li’s voice trumped that of Jiang’s on foreign policy matters through most of the early 1990s (China’s New Rulers, p. 173). However, Li Peng’s attitude and actions shifted throughout the decade, as the second-generation elders gradually passed from the scene and Jiang shored up his position as Party leader. Li benefitted from Jiang’s successful maneuvering to retire Qiao Shi in 1997, as Li assumed the NPC chairmanship vacated by Qiao’s retirement. Li Peng returned the favor by backing Jiang in 2002 as the latter resisted calls from within the Party for his full retirement, thereby allowing Jiang to control the military for two more years (China’s New Rulers, pp. 72–73).

From retirement, Li Peng may be expected to weigh in against any initiatives that might weaken the CCP’s monopoly on power. His greatest personal concerns are likely ensuring that the Party’s official verdict on Tiananmen remains unchanged, and that his children—some of whom occupy powerful and lucrative positions in the electric power and insurance industries—are protected from corruption investigations. [6]

In this, Li Peng will be assisted by his longtime protégé Luo Gan (79), who since retirement in 2007 has become an elder in his own right, albeit on a lesser tier of influence. Luo is a former PBSC member and director of the Politics and Law LSG from 2002–2007. Luo has been described as the “temple guardian for the legacy of Li Peng,” who would firmly oppose any effort to revise the official verdict on the events of 1989 (China’s New Rulers, p. 109).

Jiang’s Protégés

Jiang wields influence through an extensive patronage network of officials—many of whom, such as Premier Zhu Rongji, NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo and Vice-Premier Huang Ju, rode Jiang’s coattails from the Shanghai Party apparatus to high offices in the central government. Jiang’s most powerful protégé is Zeng Qinghong (74). In the later years of Jiang’s tenure, Zeng held a trifecta of offices—director of the CCP Central Committee General Office (1993–1999), head of the CCP Organization Department (1999–2002) and chair of the CCP Secretariat (1997–2007)—that placed him at the center of elite-level Party affairs and made him a powerful political fixer for his patron.

Zeng continued this role throughout the decade-long tenure of Hu Jintao—acting formally as head of the Party affairs portfolio in the 16th Politburo Standing Committee from 2002–2007, and informally as the leading active member of Jiang’s “Shanghai Gang” patronage network. [7] Although Hu Jintao and Zeng have reportedly enjoyed a good working relationship, Zeng’s influence represented a powerful alternative center of authority to that of the Party’s official senior leader. This was particularly true regarding senior-level appointments early in Hu’s tenure, in which “Zeng made personnel decisions and Hu could only approve them” (China’s New Rulers, 91). Zeng Qinghong was reportedly a pivotal kingmaker in the backroom bargaining prior to the 17th Party Congress, which resulted in Xi Jinping’s advancement to pole position in the contest for the Party’s top office (Duowei, November 5, 2007; China: An International Journal, March 2009).

Other PBSC members who retired following the 16th and 17th Party Congresses also now enjoy elder status, albeit at a lower level of influence: They remain part of Jiang’s political machine, rather than independent figures in their own right. Former PRC Vice-Premier Li Lanqing (82) appears to possess limited influence. Other figures who acted as political fixers for Jiang, and who possessed stronger bases of bureaucratic support, are likely to remain more influential. In the late 1990s, Jia Qinglin (74) worked to consolidate Jiang’s control of the capital’s Party apparatus following the purge of Beijing Party boss Chen Xitong, and Jia has remained one of Jiang’s most loyal supporters. Jia may be particularly beholden to Jiang for shielding him from corruption investigations pertaining to Jia’s tenure as Fujian Party secretary (China’s New Rulers, pp. 124–125). Former propaganda czar Li Changchun (70) similarly became a close supporter of Jiang during the 1990s, and as Guangdong CCP Secretary from 1998–2002 worked to bring the province’s independently-minded Party bureaucracy to heel (China’s New Rulers, pp. 118–119).

Former NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo (73) is another prominent figure who emerged from the Shanghai Party apparatus, where he served as the city’s CCP Secretary in the early 1990s, to enter the top echelon of CCP leadership. Wu is one of Jiang’s more powerful lieutenants: As NPC Chairman he held a formal rank second only to Hu Jintao, and in terms of informal authority he likely stands behind Jiang and Zeng as the third most powerful elder of the “Shanghai Gang.” Although Wu rode Jiang’s coattails to power, he possesses more independent standing than some other members of the Shanghai faction who owe their positions entirely to Jiang. Like Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, Wu was one of the Party cadres flagged as part of Deng Xiaoping’s “Four Transformations” effort to promote promising younger officials, and he was appointed as Shanghai’s youngest nominee to the 12th CCP Central Committee in 1982 (China’s New Rulers, pp. 104–105).

Wu also enjoys a good relationship and common views with Li Peng. Wu worked under Li Peng in the State Council from 1995–1998, where he walked a fine line between serving Li, Zhu Rongji, and Jiang Zemin (China’s New Rulers, p. 106). As a vice-premier in charge of state industries in the late 1990s, Wu shared Li Peng’s cautious approach to the reform of inefficient state enterprises, out of both sympathy for local officials and concern for potential social unrest. His approach also reflected concern for the authority of the CCP, with Wu stating that “the Party must absolutely not lose its political leadership powers with regard to the enterprises,” and that CCP committees “should take part in the decision-making in the enterprises with regards to key issues” (Krug and Hendrischke, The Chinese Economy in the 21st Century, pp. 11–12). Such stances, although reflective of the thinking of Li Peng and Jiang Zemin, sometimes brought Wu into tension with the more impatient and forward-leaning Zhu Rongji, who led economic reforms in the 1990s (China Leadership Monitor, Winter 2002; Roderick MacFarquhar, The Politics of China, pp. 515–516).

Wu is also a political conservative in the mold of Li Peng. Over the past decade, Wu has been one of the CCP’s most outspoken opponents of political reform, as exemplified by his 2011 declaration of the “Five No’s”—no to multiple parties holding power; no to diversification of the Party’s ideology; no to a separation of powers between branches of government; no to a federal model of government; and no to privatization of the economy (BBC, March 10, 2011; Sujian Guo, Chinese Politics and Government, p. 118). From retirement, Wu Bangguo may be expected to align with Li Peng, Luo Gan, Jiang Zemin and other conservative elders opposed to any diminution of the CCP’s monopoly on power, or to any reassessment of the Tiananmen legacy.

Activities by Jiang Zemin Allies in the Lead-Up to the 18th Party Congress

The leadership transition of the 18th Party Congress in November 2012 held high stakes for the future direction of government policy, as well as the personal interests of many senior CCP power-brokers. In the months preceding the Congress, a number of elders reemerged into public view in an apparent bid to increase their profile—and presumably, their political influence—prior to the transition.

Li Peng was one such elder who stepped out from behind the curtain of retirement in 2012. In June, a CCP publishing house published “Li Peng on Macroeconomics,” a selected collection of the former premier’s reports, speeches and conversation notes dating from 1984–2006 (Xinhua, June 26, 2012). In early August 2012—just as the Beidaihe leadership conference was getting underway—the People’s Daily ran a full-page article praising Li Peng’s legacy of economic management (South China Morning Post, August 7, 2012). Immediately prior to the opening of the 18th Party Congress, Li Peng appeared in the news again for making a donation of three million renminbi ($500,000)—supposedly using proceeds earned from his books—to a university scholarship fund for students from Yan’an, the headquarters of the CCP from 1937 to 1947 (South China Morning Post, October 31, 2012).

Other, less influential elders also took steps prior to the 18th Party Congress to make symbolic indications of factional loyalty. [8] In late October 2012, Chinese media featured unusual stories praising an obscure song titled “Moonlight and Shadows,” with the background story that Jiang Zemin had contacted former vice-premier Li Lanqing to seek his assistance in obtaining sheet music for the song. Li Lanqing published an article in People’s Daily describing his exchanges with Jiang on the matter, and effusive commentary offered on a state-run television channel stated that “[t]his beautiful romantic song, for it to be able to reappear, [and] for us to be able to remember it, all the credit should go to our comrade Jiang Zemin” (Caixin, October 31, 2012; Los Angeles Times,  November 1, 2012).

The elder who adopted the highest public profile prior to the Congress was Jiang Zemin himself. This followed earlier uncertainty regarding his health and continuing clout: In July 2011, rumors spread that Jiang Zemin had died or was gravely ill after he failed to appear at celebrations marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the CCP. However, in October of that year, state media made a point of showing a frail-looking Jiang appearing at ceremonies commemorating the centennial of the fall of China’s last imperial dynasty. Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution called Jiang’s scripted re-appearance “highly political,” and interpreted it as a sign that “retired top leaders […] want to have more say on the country’s economic policy, political succession and foreign relations” (Straits Times, May 17, 2012). In February 2012, PRC state media announced the publication of foreign language editions of the second volume of Jiang Zemin’s selected works (Xinhua, February 18, 2012). In the mid-autumn weeks preceding the congress, Jiang conducted a significantly higher number of public appearances, including a September concert in Beijing, where he was accompanied by Zeng Qinghong and former vice-premiers Li Lanqing and Zeng Peiyan; an early October meeting with the president of Shanghai Ocean University; and an appearance at the 110th anniversary of his high school (Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2012; South China Morning Post, October 12, 2012).

These moves coincided with persistent rumors that Jiang and other elders were actively involving themselves in the behind-the-scenes deal making preceding the Congress. Candidates particularly favored by Jiang reportedly included Yu Zhengsheng, Zhang Dejiang, Zhang Gaoli and Wang Qishan, all of whom were elevated to seats on the PBSC (New York Times, November 7, 2012; Washington Post, September 26, 2012). At the opening of the 18th Party Congress itself, Jiang occupied a prominent seat next to serving CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao (South China Morning Post, November 9, 2012). As stated by Christopher Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “My sense of the games that Jiang is playing is, ‘This is my last hurrah, and I want to show that I still matter’ ” (New York Times, November 7, 2012).

Jiang’s enduring political clout—alongside that of other elders such as Li Peng and Song Ping—was a contributing factor in shaping the conservative politics of the Hu Jintao era. Hu’s tenure saw considerable continuity with that of Jiang—in terms of both resistance to any political reforms that might dilute the CCP’s monopoly hold on power, as well as a determination to maintain the Party’s control of key pillars of the economy. Jiang’s influence and the checkered pasts of many of his protégés were also likely factors in the limited and highly selective nature of corruption investigations throughout the past decade. As Hu himself has now entered formal retirement and become an elder in his own right, he will have his own opportunities to influence policy behind the scenes—an issue to be addressed in the next article in this series.

This is the first of a two-part series of articles examining the role of retired senior officials in elite-level Chinese politics. Part 2 of this article will address the loose coalition of elders aligned with Hu Jintao, and offer assessments on the likely future influence of elder figures in Chinese politics.


  1. Terms commonly used in Chinese are zhengzhi yuanlao, “political elders;” and lao tongzhi, “old comrades.”
  2. The “Eight Immortals” were: Deng Xiaoping, Bi Yibo, Chen Yun, Song Renqiong, Peng Zhen, Wang Zhen, Li Xiannian and Yang Shangkun. For more analysis of their families and history, see: Bloomberg, December 26, 2012.
  3. For two accounts of how retired CCP elders dominated elite-level decision-making regarding the Tiananmen crisis, see: The Tiananmen Papers, pp. 256–264, 308–314; and Pu, Chiang, and Ignatius, Prisoner of the State, pp. 25–34.
  4. For a detailed, empirical study of advancement in the CCP, see: American Political Science Review, February 2012.
  5. For commentary on the significance of this event, see: Elite Chinese Politics and Political Economy Blog, October 15, 2009; and Asia Sentinel, October 13, 2009.
  6. For commentary regarding Li Peng’s concerns for the Tiananmen verdict, see: The Guardian, May 29, 2012. For a sample discussion of the business interests of Li’s children, see: Asia Times, August 17, 2007; and The Telegraph, October 10, 2013.
  7. The continued dominance of Jiang’s followers in the new Standing Committee indicates that Jiang Zemin, and to a lesser extent Li Peng, have remained more powerful figures behind the scenes than many realized (U.S.-China Commission, March 2012; China Leadership Monitor, Winter 2001).
  8. For discussion of the tradition in CCP politics of praising a leader’s writings, speeches or cultural tastes as a means of signaling loyalty, see: Journal of Politics, October 2008.