Post-Congress Appointments Motivated by Factional and Ideological Biases, Not Reform

With the just-ended 17th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress marking the mid-point of his ten-year tenure, General Secretary and President Hu Jintao is a man in a hurry. There is little wonder why after consolidating his grip over the party, state and army, the “new helmsman” has moved quickly to fulfill the goals enunciated at the five-yearly conclave. These include promoting administrative transparency, rule of law, “intra-party democracy,” and overall, implementing the “scientific theory of development” that was enshrined in the CCP Charter at the closure of the week-long congress (Xinhua, October 21).

Since new initiatives on the economic and social fronts will only be implemented after Premier Wen Jiabao has set up his second–and last–State Council cabinet in March 2008, Hu and other members of the newly elected Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) have concentrated on personnel changes. This is to ensure that, in the words of the president: “power will be exercised in [broad] daylight,” and that the party will pick cadres who are not only honest and uncorrupt but equipped with “enhanced governance capability” (People’s Daily, October 16). A number of appointments have been made within party headquarters and at the level of provincial or municipal party chiefs in the past week. More significantly, the post-Congress leadership has settled on a handful of senior cadres who will be appointed Premier Wen’s deputies at the National People’s Congress (NPC) five months later.

The rash of high-level personnel changes, however, shows that the Hu leadership’s primary concerns are factional requirements rather than how well the newly promoted cadres will acquit themselves through economic or political reform. Consider first the newly minted regional party bosses as well as department heads within CCP headquarters. A delicate balance has been struck between affiliates of Hu’s Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL) Faction and members of the so-called “Gang of Princelings,” or the offspring of party elders. Thus, Jiangsu Party Secretary Li Yuanchao was made Director of the CCP Organization Department, a move that could further swell the political fortunes of CCYL Faction affiliates. Following Shanghai party boss Xi Jinping’s elevation to the PSC, his old job was given to Hubei Party Secretary Yu Zhengsheng. Commerce Minister Bo Xilai is due to be named CCP Secretary of the directly administered city of Chongqing, while the incumbent Chongqing Party Boss Wang Yang, another Hu favorite, is heading to Guangdong to become the rich province’s party boss in early 2008 (China Daily, October 27; Associated Press, October 27). Both Li and Wang had worked under Hu when the latter was CCYL First Secretary in the mid-1980s. Xi, Yu and Bo are the sons of much-decorated Long March veterans, respectively former NPC Vice-Chairman Xi Zhongxun, former Tianjin Mayor Yu Qiwei and former Vice-Premier Bo Yibo.

This fairly equitable distribution of top positions and other political resources among the major cliques is in line with President Hu’s goal of enhancing “harmony within the party.” Yet are these fast-rising stars among the fifth-generation leadership, or cadres in their 50s, fully cognizant of Hu’s “scientific theory of development?” Do they have the prerequisite “governance ability”? Take, for example, the career trajectories of Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang. While Jiangsu, the province to the north of Shanghai, has prospered under the 57-year-old Li’s watch the past few years, there have also been collateral environmental problems. In May 2006, things came to a head when a layer of stinking blue algae enveloped Lake Tai, a famed tourist spot popular with locals as well as foreign tourists. It was only after the scandal became international news that Li took drastic measures to close down dozens of chemical factories in the vicinity (AFP, October 27). There have also been doubts on whether Wang, 52, has what it takes to run Guangdong. Despite Wang’s reputation as a can-do “Young Marshal” (shaoshuai)–a nickname given him by Chinese reporters–the CCYL Faction affiliate has only been the No. 1 official of a province or department for less than two years. By contrast, Guangdong’s current and previous party bosses–Zhang Dejiang and Li Changchun–had more substantial experiences before they were given the coveted Guangdong post.

Moreover, how about the caliber of cadres who will become leading members of the State Council when Premier Wen’s new cabinet is endorsed at the NPC plenary session next March: Executive Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, Vice-Premiers Hui Liangyu, Zhang Dejiang and Wang Qishan? Li, a close ally of President Hu, has already left his job as Liaoning Province party secretary. He will take over the late Huang Ju’s finance portfolio and become chief economic troubleshooter. Hui, the only incumbent vice-premier to stay for another term, will continue to handle agriculture and flood control. Zhang, Politburo member and Guangdong party chief, is due to replace the highly respected Wu Yi as trade tsar, while Beijing Mayor Wang will assume the portfolio of industry and infrastructure upon the retirement of Zeng Peiyan (Bloomberg, October 21; Forbes, October 21).

Of the three designated vice-premier, only Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan has a well earned national stature as well as an overall satisfactory track record as a reformer and administrator. As executive vice-governor of Guangdong in the late 1990s, Wang won plaudits from foreign businessmen by aptly tackling a rash of scandals surrounding failed government financial companies such as Guangdong International Trust and Investment Co.. In early 2003, the son-in-law of former Vice-Premier Yao Yilin was appointed to his current post partly to handle the emergency caused by the SARS epidemic. The 59-year-old Wang earned high marks from the World Health Organization (WHO), not only for full cooperation with the international agency but also subsequent attempts to modernize the Beijing health system. Under his supervision, preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics has been largely on target (Xinhua, February 27).

The suitability of Li Keqiang and Zhang Dejiang because of their heavy portfolios is questionable. Li’s performance as the party secretary of Henan and Liaoning provinces is at best mediocre. Furthermore, the 52-year-old fifth-generation cadre continues to be haunted by allegations that while running Henan from 1998 to 2004, he did not do much for the tens of thousands of AIDS victims in the province, mostly destitute farmers who sold their blood to unhygienic blood collection centers run by corrupt local officials. Li earned his promotion to the PSC–and the No. 2 slot in the Central Government–largely due to his being the long-time protégé of President Hu. The cadre often known as “Hu’s clone” is one of the few Politburo members with a doctorate–a Ph.D. in economics from Peking University–and he is deemed a Mr. Clean (TIME [Asia Edition], October 25). Personality aside, it is doubtful whether the Anhui Province native has the clout and experience to handle the difficult portfolio of cooling down overheated sectors such as the stock and property markets, curtailing inflation and excessive fixed-assets investments and liberalizing the country’s unwieldy financial institutions.

Zhang’s assumption of soon-to-retire Vice-Premier Wu Yi’s trade portfolio may be even more problematic. While the 61-year-old cadre has nearly ten years of experience running the two high-growth coastal provinces of Zhejiang and Guangdong, he is considered an old-style, almost Maoist cadre more comfortable with organizing ideological or propaganda campaigns than discussing international trade with Western negotiators. A graduate of Kim Il Sung University in North Korea, Zhang caused a stir when he expressed opposition to the CCP admitting private entrepreneurs as members back in 2000. This was despite the fact that then-president Jiang Zemin had already made clear the party’s intention to “make progress with the times” by broadening its base of support. Moreover, the tough-talking Zhang has strayed from President Hu’s injunctions about nurturing a “harmonious society” by allowing police and People’s Armed Police (PAP) officers to crack down hard on Guangdong peasants who were protesting against illegal land seizures. One such incident near the Shenzhen special economic zone in 2005 reportedly led to the deaths of 20 or so demonstrators (New York Times, December 10, 2005).

In general, recent national and regional appointments have buttressed the trend, first started in the Jiang Zemin era, of favoring party functionaries above government technocrats. The majority of the 25 Politburo members endorsed by the 17th CCP Congress are apparatchiks or party affairs specialists rather than State Council administrators with ample experience in economics, finance, trade and technology portfolios. Despite its alleged commitment to market reforms, the Hu-Wen leadership has continued the trend of filling senior government posts with former party secretaries. By contrast, career civil servants and technocrats in the central Government, including a number of elite ministers trained by former Premier Zhu Rongji and Premier Wen, have lagged behind in the race up the hierarchy. For example, Ma Kai, the Chairman of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, is likely to become State Council Secretary-General in March 2008 (Reuters, October 17). This despite earlier speculation that Ma would join the Politburo and be made a vice-premier (China Brief, October 17). Other well-regarded State Council cadres who have failed to win major promotions at the Congress include the Governor of the People’s Bank of China Zhou Xiaochuan and Chairman of the State Banking Regulatory Commission Liu Mingkang (Reuters, October 27).

The concentration of decision-making powers in the hands of party apparatchiks runs counter to the doctrine of the “separation of party and government” first preached by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping in the mid-1980s. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, ex-president Jiang and President Hu have reversed Deng’s doctrine by expanding the clout of the heads of CCP departments as well as regional party secretaries. Although the aggrandizement of the CCP’s authority–in addition to the promotion of the harmonious co-existence of the party’s various factions–may produce socio-political stability, these goals may undercut an equally important imperative like filling important posts with talented and experienced officers.