Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 12

By Gordon G. Chang

It may not have been “the shot heard ’round the world,” but it shook China nonetheless. Especially the modern metropolis of Shanghai. There were many unfinished tasks for the leader of China’s most populous city, but when Xu Kuangdi returned from his recent trip to France and Monaco, the mayor had only one thing left to do: clear out his desk. Earlier this month he had been unceremoniously relieved of his job. And while he toured the brighter spots of Europe, Party cadres at home undermined his position. The Financial Times reports that Xu had no warning of the move. His term as mayor was not supposed to end until next year. He always said that he wanted to return to an academic life, but he was probably thinking of a more graceful departure from his short, but distinguished public career.

Official media say that Xu gave up one of the most important jobs in China at his own “request,” but we know that he had been feuding with Huang Ju, the uninspiring Shanghai Communist Party secretary and real boss of that metropolis. The mayor may have won acclaim in his city’s neighborhoods and around the world, but that recognition counts for little in the politics of a Communist country. As one person noted on a Shanghai website after Xu’s resignation, “in China, talent cannot beat conspiracy.”

Xu was sent down to Beijing, where he became the Communist Party secretary of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, an obscure organization. The internationally respected mayor will be closer to the heart of Chinese power now that he’s in the capital, but only if we think in geographic terms. In the world of Communist politics, this man has been banished to a political backwater.

The hasty departure of Xu could be the first shot in China’s political transition, which formally begins next year. Beginning in the fall at the Sixteenth Party Congress and continuing into spring 2003 at the National People’s Congress, almost all the top posts in the Party and the central government are supposed to change hands. In Party lingo, the Third Generation leadership is slated to make way for the Fourth. Hu Jintao, we are assured, will become the next general Party secretary (next year) and then the new president of the central government (in 2003). Jiang Zemin will gracefully give up these posts, according to the experts.

Optimists tell us that the upcoming transfer of power will go according to plan, but that assessment is just wishful thinking. Neither of the two prior transitions in the history of the People’s Republic followed the script, and there is no indication that this one will be any smoother. We know that the Communist Party is already split at the top over various issues. More important, Jiang Zemin is trying to cling to power. He can make mischief for his successor for years, a decade even, if his health holds out. “No communist country has solved the problem of succession,” said Henry Kissinger in 1979. That is true today, more than two decades later. Today, leaders do not lose their lives when they lose political struggles. This, of course, is a sign of progress and maybe even of hope. Moreover, cadres have developed internal rules that are supposed to govern the Party’s day-to-day mechanics. The cadres now talk about “inner Party democracy,” but that’s mostly hot air when it comes to transition at the apex. The transfer of top posts in China is still a matter of personality.

The truth is that few outside leadership circles in Beijing know what is happening in China’s corridors of power. We will surely discover more about Xu Kuangdi’s fate in the days and months ahead. We may even learn more about Hu Jintao, the man that Deng Xiaoping picked to lead China after Jiang’s tenure ends. We will eagerly follow events as they unfold. News will be reported, analyzed, dissected. After all, China watchers have to watch China. But does it really matter what they will tell us as careers of cadres shine or burn out in the coming months?

No, it will not, at least in the first few years of the political transition. China’s leaders attempt to run their country through consensus. In a period of transition, senior cadres will seek to consolidate their power. That means years will pass before Hu Jintao, or perhaps someone else, emerges with enough authority to truly lead. We will not see dramatic changes in policy for some time to come.

That’s the nature of the Maoist system, which has changed remarkably little since the early days of the People’s Republic. The Communist Party still dictates, and society is supposed to follow. China may look more up-to-date with its super highways, skyscrapers and technology parks. But the essential structures of the old era remain. “Put politics in command,” commanded China’s most famous master of politics, Mao Zedong. Today’s leaders still do. It’s the nature of their system.

Because the essence of Party rule remains more or less the same, we should not be surprised when careers seem to rise or fall overnight. Respected journalist Craig S. Smith of The New York Times reports that Xu Kuangdi’s transfer “stunned Shanghai residents and foreign business executives.” No doubt it did. Foreigners have been banking on a more modern China as they pour billions of dollars into the People’s Republic. Yet this generation of investors, like most of the previous ones, will be disappointed if they think that China’s political system is as modern as the appearance of Shanghai. China’s cities may look 21st century; its leaders, however, are still back in the 19th.

The members of the Politburo often talk about the rule of law, but in their country the word of the Communist Party is the law. China’s top legislator, Li Peng, said so at the 2000 meeting of the National People’s Congress. In a few words he wiped away the country’s constitution and decades’ worth of effort to institutionalize legal norms. In a country where law does not bind the Party, how can we believe that senior cadres will ever transfer power smoothly?

We may not have heard the last of Comrade Kuangdi. Jiang Zemin himself used the mayoralty of Shanghai to reach China’s top job, and Premier Zhu Rongji also held that Shanghai post. At least in today’s makeup of Party leaders, the so-called Shanghai Faction still leads. We may see greater things from Xu Kuangdi, 64, in the years ahead. But the truth remains that, for the moment, the former mayor is, in the words of one foreign observer, “missing in action.”

In the meantime, a drab Party functionary, Chen Liangyu, has been appointed as Shanghai’s acting mayor. Chen will undoubtedly do a competent job and not offend the even more drab Huang Ju, who is destined for a more prominent job in Beijing himself. Color both of these cadres colorless as they seek to blend in.

The recent troubles of Shanghai’s Xu Kuangdi point out the predicament of all the Chinese people. If the well-liked mayor was not safe in today’s China, the modern China, is anyone? No. But then again, they never were in the People’s Republic. We should know that by now.

No one should have been surprised that Mayor Xu lost his job. As long as the system does not change, China will never fail to disappoint.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, published by Random House.