Political Factions and Spicy Ginger: Elder Networks in PRC Politics (Part 2)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 20

Zhu Rongji (left), Song Ping (center) and Li Lanqing (right) appear at the opening of the 18th Party Congress, sitting at a table reserved for former members of the Politburo Standing Committee. (Credit: South China Morning Post)

Part 2: The Patronage Network of Hu Jintao

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

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

The triumph of Jiang Zemin in elevating prominent protégés into the ranks of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012—at the apparent expense of candidates favored by former Chinese President Hu Jintao—led to renewed discussion among China watchers of the continuing clout wielded by Jiang and other CCP elders behind the curtains of the Chinese political stage. However, Hu Jintao also possesses a support network of elders who have backed him over the years, as well as protégés who may become influential in the years ahead.

Surviving Elders of the “Second Generation” and “Third Generation” of CCP Leadership

The very eldest of China’s political elders—and the only two surviving former PBSC members of Deng Xiaoping’s “second generation” of Chinese Communist politics—are Wan Li, former Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC); and Song Ping, former Gansu Party secretary and head of the CCP Organization Department. [1] Both men are 97 years old.  In recent decades the two men have represented opposing schools of thought regarding political reform within the CCP, but both have been generally aligned with supporting Hu Jintao.

Wan Li has a history of sympathetic, albeit cautious, attitudes in favor of political liberalization and reform (Joseph Fewsmith, China’s Deep Reforms, p. 336). He reportedly had poor relations with Jiang Zemin in the 1990s, and acted as a political ally of Jiang’s rival Qiao Shi (Bruce Gilley and Andrew Nathan, China’s New Rulers, p. 184). Wan Li is one of the weaker elders: He retained his position on the PBSC amid the Tiananmen crisis of 1989, but was politically sidelined due to his sympathetic views of the protest movement (Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, The Tiananmen Papers, pp. 305­–306). He has had a limited public role in recent years, although he surfaced in 2004 as part of a public call by a group of former Politburo members for the CCP to adopt limited democratic reforms, and in 2005 as part of an effort to rehabilitate the official reputation of Zhao Ziyang (Washington Post, January21, 2005). Wan Li’s politically weak position is compounded due to age, infirmity and the lack of a bureaucratic base, and he played no discernible role in the preparations for the 18th Party Congress.

Song Ping was a long-time political ally of Deng Xiaoping, and has acted as an important patron to Hu Jintao and officials close to him. Song served as Gansu provincial CCP Secretary in the late 1970s, when he responded to Deng’s call to promote cadres who were “more revolutionary, younger, more knowledgeable, and more competent” by identifying a young hydrographic engineer named Hu Jintao as a promising figure to be groomed for higher office (Willy Wo-Lap Lam, Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era, p. 6). Following terms of Party leadership in Guizhou and Tibet in the 1980s, by 1991 Hu reportedly became the de facto director of the CCP Central Organization Department, once more under the cognizance of his old mentor Song Ping. (The China Quarterly, March 2003). Song’s patronage, as well as Deng’s approval of Hu’s handling of unrest in Tibet, led to Hu being “helicoptered” into the PBSC in 1992 at the relatively youthful age of 49 (Zhiyue Bo, China’s Elite Politics, pp. 241–243).

Song was also an important figure behind Wen Jiabao’s entry into national politics. Wen was an obscure figure in the Gansu provincial geology bureau when Song’s nomination sent him to Beijing in 1982 to serve in the Ministry of Land and Resources (China’s New Rulers, p. 95). This was followed by rapid promotions to Vice-Minister of Land and Resources in 1983, and by 1986 to directorship of the CCP Central Committee General Office (China Vitae). The latter position made Wen an inside actor at the highest levels of the CCP, as well as a close aide to then-CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Song has also provided encouragement to other officials associated with Hu Jintao: For example, he supported Hu’s protégé Li Keqiang in a 2001–2002 campaign organized by Li to dispatch urban cadres on problem-solving trips to rural villages in Henan Province (China’s New Rulers, p. 149).

Song is a political conservative intent on ensuring the survival of the Party and its monopoly hold on power, and his hard-line views on CCP authority likely further influenced his protégé Hu Jintao in adopting conservative stances on political reform. Song was a firm supporter of the use of force in 1989, and in the aftermath of Tiananmen he spearheaded a purge of CCP ranks intended to weed out cadres who may have sympathized with the protestors (James Miles, The Legacy of Tiananmen, pp. 27–28; The Age, August 25, 1989). Despite this, Song supported the post-Tiananmen political survival of his protégé Wen Jiabao, defending Wen’s close support of ousted General Secretary Zhao Ziyang as indicative of Wen’s loyalty to the Party as an institution (John Tkacik, Civil-Military Change in China, p. 109).

Song remains politically active. He has made public appearances at recent significant Party events—to include sitting directly behind Hu at a 2011 speech honoring the 90th anniversary of the CCP, and at the commencement of the 18th Party Congress (China Central Television, July 1, 2011; South China Morning Post, November 9, 2012). By some reports, he was one of the leading elders consulted on the personnel appointments that emerged at the 18th Party Congress (China: An International Journal, March 2009). However, Song’s influence is almost certainly waning due to age, and he is unlikely to be a major voice in future leadership deliberations.

There are a handful of other surviving former members of the PBSC whose tenures straddled the “second generation” of Deng and the “third generation” under Jiang. Hu Qili (85) is a weak figure, who has played no discernible role in politics since his removal from the PBSC amid the Tiananmen crisis in 1989, for siding with Zhao Ziyang (The Tiananmen Papers, pp. 260–263). However, two other figures of a reformist bent made it through 1989 with their careers intact, and have remained engaged in political affairs—frequently as loosely-aligned allies acting in opposition to Jiang Zemin. Qiao Shi (88) held a seat on the PBSC from 1987 through 1997, serving in powerful roles as the head of the Politics and Law Leading Small Group (placing him in charge of the PRC’s police and security services), and as Chairman of the National People’s Congress. In this, Qiao followed in the footsteps of his mentor Peng Zhen, one of the “Eight Immortals,” who occupied the same offices in the 1980s. [2] Li Ruihuan (90) served on the PBSC from 1989 through 2002, serving as chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the head of the CCP propaganda apparatus. In May 1989, Deng and his fellow elders considered Li as a candidate for Party general secretary before opting instead for Jiang Zemin (The Tiananmen Papers, p. 262). Li has had a close relationship through the years with both Song Ping and with Song’s protégé Hu Jintao (China’s New Rulers, p. 168).

Qiao and Li have both had a frosty relationship with Jiang Zemin throughout the past 25 years, acting as critics of Jiang across a spectrum of issues—ranging from Taiwan policy, to Jiang’s ideological campaigns, to Jiang’s resistance to retirement. (Richard Bush, Chinese National Security Decision-Making Under Stress, p. 147; China’s New Rulers, p. 191; South China Morning Post, February 16, 2000). In the 1990s, the two men sought unsuccessfully to use their chairmanships of the NPC and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) to promote a stronger role for these institutions relative to the central CCP apparatus and the State Council—organizations then controlled by Jiang and Li Peng, respectively (China’s New Rulers, p. 191). Additionally, both men have made statements supportive of a greater role for the rule of law in China, in the face of opposition from Party conservatives who fear such reforms might weaken the authority of the CCP (Susan Shirk, Competition for Power and the Challenges of Reform in Post-Deng China, April 1996).

The relationship between Qiao Shi and Jiang Zemin has been particularly tense—and may have extended to frictions between Qiao’s supporters and the family of Bo Yibo, who was a strong supporter of Jiang throughout his time in office. [3] Jiang leveraged Zeng Qinghong’s close relations with the Bo clan as part of a successful campaign to force Qiao Shi out of office at the 15th Party Congress in 1997 (Willy Wo-Lap Lam, The Era of Jiang Zemin, pp. 335–336). Accordingly, during the Congress Bo Yibo threw his weight behind the mandatory retirement of all Politburo members over 70, with an exception made for Jiang; this reportedly left Qiao resentful toward the Bo family for assisting Jiang’s efforts to have him sidelined (Richard Baum, China Under Jiang Zemin, p. 24). Tensions have continued between the men in the years since: For example, reporting from 2007 indicated sharp exchanges between Qiao and Jiang at Beidaihe leadership conferences preceding the 17th Party Congress (Caixin Blog, January 18, 2012).

Zhu Rongji and His Economic Technocrats

Zhu Rongji (86) occupies a special and separate status among the former Shanghai officials elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee under Jiang Zemin. As Shanghai mayor under Jiang in the late 1980s, and as the city’s CCP Secretary after succeeding Jiang, Zhu was an outspoken and pugnacious figure who clashed regularly with other officials. He was not one of Jiang’s favored protégés: Prior to Zhu’s appointment to the premiership in 1998, Jiang reportedly favored Wu Bangguo for the position (Business Week, January 26, 1997). Jiang also used Zhu as a scapegoat for policies unpopular with Party conservatives, such as the management of relations with the United States at the time of the 1999 Belgrade embassy bombing, and concessions made during the negotiations leading to China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (China’s New Rulers, pp. 194-196). Further, Zhu’s forceful stances in the 1990s in favor of state sector economic reform brought him into sometime conflict with other leading political figures, especially Li Peng (Hui Feng, The Politics of China’s Accession to the World Trade Organization, pp. 105 and 109).

Zhu did not cultivate a strong bureaucratic base of support within the CCP—both his self-image and his brash, overbearing manner have been ill-suited to the cultivation of loyalists in a patronage network. Further, Zhu signaled late in his tenure that he intended to withdraw from political life, and he has kept a low profile in retirement, with little indication that he has attempted to leverage his authority as an elder to weigh in on policy decisions or personnel appointments (China Leadership Monitor, Winter 2002; China’s New Rulers, pp. 160–161). Nevertheless, Zhu enjoys an enduring indirect influence through his selection and advancement of technocratic officials throughout major state economic planning institutions. [4] Most significantly, Zhu Rongji actively groomed Wen Jiabao as his successor, and Zhu’s support and patronage were key factors in ensuring Wen’s elevation to the post of PRC Premier in 2003 (China Leadership Monitor, Winter 2002; China’s New Rulers, pp. 99–101). Wen’s tenure, in turn, was key to preparing Li Keqiang to assume the premiership in 2013.

Elder Activities in the Lead-Up to the 18th Party Congress

The Party’s leading elders have been politically active in major controversies over the past two years. One such issue was the Bo Xilai affair, which again pitted rivals Qiao Shi and Jiang Zemin against one another. Reflecting both support for Hu Jintao and his old animosities with the Bo clan, Qiao Shi reportedly favored a fuller investigation and harsher punishments for Bo Xilai’s abuses of power. Jiang Zemin, on the other hand, while acceding to Bo’s prosecution and removal from office, favored a lighter hand—reflective both of his old political alliance with the Bo family, as well as concerns that further investigations could tarnish other protégés whom Jiang had elevated to high office. (Wall Street Journal, September 6, 2012; China Leadership Monitor, Summer 2012).

However, the most critical issue facing the CCP leadership in 2012 was the leadership transition of the 18th Party Congress. In the lead-up to the Congress, a number of Party elders attempted to assert a higher public profile—and with it, their voices in the policy process. One method used to accomplish this was the publication of books on public policy and the arts. Former PRC Premier Li Peng was one prominent elder who did this, but he was not alone (see China Brief, October 10). In 2012, Li Ruihuan, a long-time opera buff, published Li Ruihuan Talks About the Art of Beijing Opera. Former Vice-Premier and Jiang loyalist Li Lanqing—already the author of books on education policy and China’s economic reforms—published two titles during the year, one on Chinese modern music, and the other a collection of his calligraphy. [5] Aside from raising the profiles of the authors, the publication of such works asserted their status as political thinkers and culturally sophisticated men—all part and parcel of a traditional Chinese image of enlightened scholar-officials.

Some of the more politically-active elders also made noteworthy public appearances in the lead-up to the 18th Party Congress; as the private activities of elders are not normally mentioned in Chinese state media, reporting on these events suggests that the timing of these stories was not accidental. In October 2012, Li Ruihuan made a rare public appearance at the China Open tennis tournament in Beijing, and accompanying Li were retired PRC Vice-Premier Wu Yi, Beijing CCP Secretary Guo Jinlong and Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun. Due to Li’s history of clashing with Jiang Zemin, and to the linkages of Li and his companions to Hu Jintao, this appearance was interpreted by some as a signal of support for Hu ahead of the Party Congress. [6]

At the August 2012 leadership conferences at the seaside resort of Beidaihe—the location of high-level Party debates since the Mao Zedong era—there were reportedly sharp disagreements between elders regarding personnel appointments to be made at the Party Congress, and over the position of Xi Jinping. Elders Qiao Shi and Song Ping reportedly made harsh criticisms of Xi Jinping at the conference; this was accompanied by Xi disappearing from public view for two weeks, amid conflicting rumors that he had suffered a heart attack or a back injury (The Telegraph, September 14, 2012). Between the Beidaihe conference and the Party Congress, other Party elders—led by Li Peng and Jiang Zemin—reportedly worked to block Hu Jintao’s reformist protégés Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao from receiving seats on the PBSC (Reuters, November 20, 2012).

Implications for the Future

During the decade-long tenure of CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao from 2002 to 2012, many observers came to believe that Party bureaucratic norms for both policy-making and personnel appointments had become more institutionalized, resulting in a concurrent decline in the informal influence wielded by retired officials behind the scenes. [7] However, the continued dominance of Jiang Zemin’s followers in the new PBSC indicates that Jiang—and to a lesser extent Li Peng—have remained more powerful figures behind the scenes than many realized. It also illustrates the continuing influence of Party elders as a group, and of the importance of patron-client ties as a prerequisite for advancement into the top ranks of the Party. Analysts of PRC leadership politics may wish to consider that “factions” within the CCP might be better understood as competing patronage networks, in which retired senior leaders retain considerable influence.

Followers of Jiang Zemin are dominant in the current PBSC leadership, and Jiang’s majordomo Zeng Qinghong likely remains a highly influential figure behind the scenes, owing both to his strong bureaucratic base and his ties to Jiang and Xi Jinping. Zeng is best situated to take the leading role in Jiang’s patronage network should the elder man become sidelined by infirmity. However, Hu Jintao is likely to emerge as a powerful elder in his own right in the leadership transitions to occur in 2017 and 2022. Jiang Zemin and Li Peng will be increasingly sidelined by age, while Hu (currently 71) could remain politically engaged for another two decades, assuming that his health holds up. Furthermore, although Hu and his “Communist Youth League Faction” suffered an apparent political defeat in 2012, Hu may yet emerge a long-term winner: The ranks of rising figures appointed to the full Politburo contain many followers of Hu, and one of his key protégés, Hu Chunhua, appears to be in pole position to succeed Xi Jinping in 2022. [8] The contours of PRC politics in the 2020s could well be shaped by seeds planted by Hu Jintao, just as Deng Xiaoping set in motion events that ensured Hu Jintao’s ascension to the Party’s top posts five years after Deng’s own death.

A wild card in this process is the future role to be played by Xi Jinping and his supporters. In the first two years of his tenure as CCP General Secretary, Xi has acted in a much bolder and more assertive fashion than either Jiang or Hu, both of whom conducted themselves cautiously under the gaze of their still-powerful predecessors. Hu Jintao was five years into his tenure before launching the 2007 corruption investigation-cum-political purge against his critic Chen Liangyu, a Politburo member and the Party boss of Shanghai (China Leadership Monitor, Winter 2007). By contrast, in his first year in office Xi has proceeded with a far more ambitious purge against the supporters of former PBSC member Zhou Yongkang, with Zhou himself now officially targeted by the Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission for “serious disciplinary violations” (Xinhua, July 29).

Some have speculated that Xi’s purges could serve in part as a mechanism to clear aside officials whose loyalties lie with his predecessors, and to open space in the upper ranks of the Party bureaucracy for his own loyalists (Bloomberg, July 4). Although Zhou Yongkang has been the primary target thus far, Xi’s anti-graft campaign has also taken down protégés of both Jiang and Hu, and the two men have reportedly pressed Xi to bring the campaign to an end—before the damage to the Party bureaucracy becomes too great, and before the investigations creep any closer to the interests of the CCP’s most powerful families (Financial Times, March 31). A key issue to watch will be whether or not Xi’s administration puts former Premier Wen Jiabao and his family in the crosshairs—a possibility suggested by events over the past year, such as Wen taking the highly unusual step in January of sending a letter to a Hong Kong journalist protesting his innocence (South China Morning Post, January 19).

Xi’s actions to date suggest a willingness to challenge his predecessors on major issues of policy, and to forge ahead with constructing a patronage network of his own. If Xi Jinping elects to more aggressively assert his authority in the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress in 2017—when proteges of Hu Jintao such as Li Yuanchao, Hu Chunhua, and Wang Yang could potentially ascend to higher positions, and Zeng Qinghong and other members of Jiang’s Shanghai network will remain powerful—then the stage could be set for a potential three-way competition over the Party’s top offices, and the unwritten rules about the influence of “old comrades” would need to be reconsidered. The resulting power struggles could see the elders of the CCP denied their accustomed deference on matters of leadership succession, and set the stage for contentious inter-Party battles over appointments in the years ahead.

This is the second of a two-part series of articles examining the role of retired senior officials in elite-level Chinese politics. For "Part 1: The Patronage Network of Jiang Zemin," see (China Brief, October 10).


  1. In the discourse of the CCP, the “first generation” of Chinese leadership refers to the Mao Zedong era, while the “second generation” refers to the collective leadership under Deng Xiaoping that assumed power in the late 1970s. Jiang Zemin was formally designated the “core” leader of a “third generation,” with his real power growing throughout the 1990s as Deng and fellow elders passed from the scene. Since 2002, generations of CCP leadership have become more defined by the decade-long terms of Party general secretaries—with Hu Jintao identified as the foremost leader of the “fourth generation” leadership formed by the 16th and 17th Party Congresses (2002–2012), and the currently serving Xi Jinping recognized as the head of a “fifth generation” cohort that will presumably remain in office through 2022.
  2. For discussion of the client-patron relationship between Qiao Shi and Peng Zhen, see Michael E. Marti, China and the Legacy of Deng Xiaoping: From Communist Revolution to Capitalist Evolution (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2001), p. 6.
  3. For evidence pointing to a possible rivalry between the networks of the Bo family and Peng Zhen/Qiao Shi, see: John Dotson, The Chinese Communist Party and Its Emerging Next-Generation Leaders (U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission staff research report, March 2012), p. 68, endnote #213.
  4. For discussion of personnel appointments and economic policy decisions made at the time of Zhu Rongji’s retirement, see: Kjeld Erik Brodsgaard, “The 10th National People’s Congress in China: A Note on State Personnel Changes and Economic Achievements,” Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies, No. 17 (2003).
  5. These books by Li Ruihuan and Li Lanqing have been published in foreign editions. See: Li Ruihuan, Li Ruihuan Talks about the Art of Beijing Opera (SDX Joint Publishing Co., 2012); and Li Lanqing, Chinese Music in the 20th Century and Beyond (Gale Asia Press, 2012), and Chinese Seals and Calligraphy (MacMillan Educational Press, 2012).
  6. Shi Jiangtao, “Li Ruihuan the Latest Retired Party Heavyweight to Appear in Public,” South China Morning Post, October 10, 2012. For background on Wu Yi as a protégé of Zhu Rongji and a supporter of Hu Jintao, see Willy Wo-Lap Lam, Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006), pp. 19 and 23.
  7. The supposed increasing institutionalization of CCP leadership has been a common theme in academic and media commentary in recent years. For two illustrative examples, see:  Cheng Li, “Leadership Transition in the CPC: Promising Progress and Potential Problems,” China: An International Journal, Vol. 10 No. 2 (2012); and Brendan Forde, “Change in the Top: Leadership Succession in the Chinese Communist Party,” Australian National University Undergraduate Research Journal, Vol. 3 No. 11 (2011).
  8. For analysis on the potential future prospects of key political protégés of Hu Jintao, see: William Wan, “China’s Hu Seeks to Exert Influence Long After He Leaves Power,” Washington Post, Nov. 5, 2012; and John Dotson, Outcomes of the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th National Congress (U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission staff research report, December 2012), pp. 20-21.