Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 16

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

That Jiang Zemin’s apparent refusal to retire has wrought havoc on an already rickety political system is clear from the reactions of the two persons deemed closest to the president: Vice President Hu Jintao and Jiang’s wife, Wang Yeping.

Hu, still regarded as Jiang’s heir-apparent, has joined the nearly 1,000 generals, ministers and provincial party secretaries who had written petitions to ask Jiang to remain in his posts of CCP general secretary, chairman of the Central Military Commission and member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) after the upcoming 16th Party Congress. According to party sources, however, Hu has professed his obeisance to Jiang, who turns 76 this month, with a devilishly ironic twist. The sources said Hu told Jiang he supported the idea that for the sake of stability and continuity, the president should retain his positions for at least a few more years. However, Hu added that for the same reason, all incumbents of the seven-member PSC should also postpone their retirement.

Hu’s supposed demonstration of loyalty had presented a big problem for Jiang. It is a long established tradition that new blood be injected into the party at every congress. More important, Jiang will be extremely uncomfortable to see PSC incumbents–such as Premier Zhu Rongji and Central Disciplinary Commission head Wei Jianxing–staying on. Hu’s proposal that there be no change to the PSC line-up also means Jiang could not install proteges–including Vice-Premier Wu Bangguo and head of the CCP Organization Department Zeng Qinghong–into the all-powerful body.

Then there are the intriguing comments Wang made on her husband’s future. A devout Buddhist who often worships at the Hongluo Temple in the outskirts of Beijing–which reserves a private room for her to burn incense and say prayers–Wang has this year repeatedly urged Jiang to step down in entirety. According to a source close to Jiang’s personal think tanks, Wang had a “sixth sense” that her husband’s staying on in office would do no good for the family, including their two sons. “In 1989, Wang was opposed to Jiang, then party boss of Shanghai, going to Beijing to assume the top party post,” the source said. “She maintained a residence in Shanghai and stayed there for a couple of years even after he had moved to the capital.”

The sentiments of Hu and Wang–in addition to other strong reactions from party members ranging from Politburo heavyweights to college professors–have demonstrated that Jiang’s refusal to make an early commitment to full retirement has opened up a Pandora’s box of uncertainly and recrimination.

So far, of course, Jiang has kept largely mum about his retirement plans. That he has done nothing to stop the “please stay, we need you” petitions, however, is evidence enough that the president is eager to retain a dominant say in Chinese politics after the 16th Congress. His lust for power–and the limelight–was illustrated a few months ago when he accepted an invitation from a senior official of an East European country to pay a state visit there in mid-2003.

Because the Chinese Constitution stipulates that no one can serve more than two terms as state president, Jiang is obliged to step down from that post in March 2003, thus rendering impossible his making any more state visits overseas. And his taking up the invitation for one in the middle of next year is widely seen as a sign of refusal to accept reality–and party regulations.

Then there are the relentless efforts by Jiang publicists to lionize the “core” of the Third Generation leadership through ideological campaigns reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. Apart from singing the praises of the president’s pet “Theory of the Three Represents” (that the party represents the most advanced productivity, the most advanced culture, and the masses’ interests), a slew of media articles is being readied to glorify the thirteen years under Jiang’s rule as the “golden age of reform.”

There are indications, however, that Jiang may not be getting his way–and that his assumption of imperial airs may have served to unite his enemies on both the left and right of the political spectrum. That the opposition is gaining strength is the rationale behind the latest propaganda salvo from the Jiang camp. The exercise centers on the president’s recent pronouncement about the “three emphases” that, in Jiang’s words, “stress be put on the overall situation [of the party and nation], on unity and on stability.”

Diplomatic analysts said Jiang propounded the “Theory of the Three Stresses” in a speech at the Central Party School on May 31. The speech, they said, only parts of which had been publicized by the official Xinhua News Agency, contained criticism of unnamed cadres who had refused to toe the Jiang line. They added that despite the rhetoric, Jiang and company had not been able to silence those said to have fostered disunity and instability through, for example, opposing Jiang’s power bid.

Also in early summer, Jiang admitted that he was encountering fierce opposition when he fingered certain “conspirators and careerists” within the party’s senior ranks. Jiang reportedly said in an internal speech: “We must raise our guard against conspirators and careerists within the party. They pose a big threat to party unity and stability.” A Chinese source familiar with the speech said the paramount leader did not say who the bad apples were–or what they were after. However, the source said Jiang was targeting cadres who were opposed to his desire to maintain influence after the 16th Congress. Yet Jiang’s unusual step of decrying unnamed “conspirators” had caused widespread disquiet–and anger–among Politburo members and other senior cadres. The source said PSC member Wei had earlier this month asked Jiang who the conspirators were. “Jiang refused to tell Wei anything,” the source said. “However, Jiang’s close aides have recently expressed disapproval of another Politburo Standing Committee member Li Ruihuan.” Both Wei, 71, and Li, 68, have shown reluctance in taking part in propagation campaigns to extol Jiang’s teachings, particularly the Theory of the Three Represents. Moreover, Wei, who is expected to retire, and Li, due to become head of parliament next March, have urged Jiang to step down in the coming few months.

There is also speculation in Beijing that Jiang was sending a not-so-subtle warning to Vice President Hu and his aides to not push too hard for the 59-year-old leader’s speedy assumption of power. Jiang and proteges such as the Organization Department’s Zeng Qinghong are said to be unhappy with the fact that Hu has installed numerous members of his Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction in central and regional positions.

If Jiang was indeed casting subtle aspersions at Hu, the implications for leadership succession–and the future of Chinese politics–would be most ominous. After all, Jiang’s tirade against enemies within the party’s high echelons was reminiscent of a speech made by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1971 that there were heinous “conspirators” in the party. A few months after that outburst, Mao’s supposed heir-apparent Defense Minister Lin Biao died while apparently trying to flee to the Soviet Union after his “plot” to seize power had been exposed.

Analysts say even if Jiang were to somehow change his mind in time and yield power to Hu at the 16th Congress, the damage has already been done. The president’s posturing and grandstanding smacks of feudalistic, dynastic politics. And his half-hearted commitment to norms and political processes within the party–however problematic they are–will engender more factional strife between members of his Shanghai Faction and Hu’s CYL Faction in the rest of the decade.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a China analyst.