Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 24

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

While China’s new Communist Party chief Hu Jintao has hardly emerged as first among equals–let alone the dominant figure–in China’s new Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), his chances of survival in factional infighting may not be as low as once expected. Furthermore, subtle but unmistakable resistance to a “Jiang dynasty” appears to be growing in Chinese politics.

Jiang Zemin, at 76, has kept up his usual schedule of almost daily meetings with foreign dignitaries and still monopolizes the first several minutes of CCTV news most evenings, as if he were still the Party’s general secretary and a member of the Politburo. Last month’s 16th Congress relieved him of those posts, but he hogs the spotlight nonetheless. Russian President Vladimir Putin came to Beijing earlier this week–the first important foreign visitor since the Congress–and Jiang and his handlers made it very clear that the president is still calling the shots. Putin’s expressed desire to get to know the younger leadership was brushed aside, and his separate meeting with General Secretary Hu very much a side-show.

Jiang intimates have dropped not-so-subtle hints to foreign visitors that he will hang on to his post as chair of the Central Military Commission (CMC) for at least a couple of years, and use that platform to exert as much influence as he is able on military and national security affairs. It is true, of course, that after Hu becomes state president at the National People’s Congress in March, Jiang will have to yield the top spot on key party bodies such as the Leading Group on Foreign Affairs and the Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs. Yet diplomatic analysts say Jiang may be able to circumvent this by creating–and heading–a new, Chinese-style National Security Council to coordinate foreign, intelligence and military affairs.

Personnel movements in the wake of the Congress have confirmed the predominance of the Shanghai Faction–now under the control of Jiang’s alter ego, new PSC member Zeng Qinghong. Zeng has near-total control of the Central Committee Secretariat, deemed the party’s nerve center. And because key Secretariat members such as Organization Department director He Guoqiang are Zeng’s cronies, Zeng has been able to maintain a dominant say over the appointment, transfer or demotion of cadres.

Reflecting the long-standing strength of the Shanghai Faction among career party hacks, appointments both at the Congress and immediately afterwards have confirmed the ascendancy of CCP apparatchiks at the expense of professional–and less ideologically inclined–administrators or managers.

The twenty-five-member Politburo has a much higher percentage of party functionaries than the one formed at the 15th Congress in 1997. A record twelve party secretaries of provinces and directly administered cities–including the former and current party bosses of Shanghai and Beijing–were inducted to the elite body last month. By contrast, only three ministers from the State Council, or central government apparatus, made it to the Politburo. They were State Councilors Wu Yi and Luo Gan and State Development and Planning Commission Minister Zeng Peiyan.

Premier Zhu Rongji has not hidden his displeasure over the advancement of party affairs specialists at the expense of ministers. He reportedly fumed that while officials such as the minister of finance or the central bank president were among the highest ranked in most countries, the new Politburo had no place for Finance Minister Xiang Huaicheng or People’s Bank of China Governor Dai Xianglong.

Party hacks have also had a field day in the spate of post-16th Congress reshuffles. A notable example is the new party boss of Guangdong, Zhang Dejiang, the former Zhejiang party secretary deemed close to Zeng. As the number one official of China’s most market-oriented province, Zhang’s brief is seen as enhancing the competitiveness of the Pearl River Delta in the face of challenges from the Greater Shanghai region. But Zhang, a graduate of Pyongyang’s Kim Il-Sung University, has handled ideological matters most of his career. And his orthodox views about the private sector have cast doubt on his suitability for the Guangdong post. In early 2001, for example, he wrote an article in the conservative journal Huaxia Forum entitled “We must make it clear that private businessmen cannot be enrolled in the party.”

According to a veteran cadre in Beijing, Zeng advocates appointing more regional party secretaries as government ministers. In late November, Hubei party boss Wang Xudong was appointed secretary of the leading Party members’ group at the ministry of information industries and will replace the controversial Wu Jichuan. Wang has a technical background and once headed a research office in the now-defunct Ministry of Electronics Industry. However, he has specialized in party affairs the past decade or so, rising to be Zeng’s deputy at the Organization Department before being transferred to Hebei in mid-1990.

“During his tenure as premier, Zhu [Rongji] has been largely successful in vetoing the appointment of party functionaries as ministers or vice ministers in the State Council,” a Western diplomat said. “Zhu’s likely successor Wen Jiabao, who has a weaker power base in the party and government, may have to acquiesce in the Organization Department’s bid to install party affairs specialists in a number of major government posts.”

However, President Jiang’s cynical effort to retain power–and his relentless promotion of the Jiang [Shanghai] Faction–has spawned widespread indignation among non-Shanghai Faction cadres. Such anti-Jiang sentiments could easily translate into sympathy if not support for Hu and his outgunned Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction. At the very least, there are signs of a consensus within the PSC that more public emphasis on the pre-eminence of Jiang could detract from the authority of Hu–and that this would be detrimental to party unity. This is behind the apparent agreement among a majority of PSC members that there should be no more declaration of loyalty to “Chairman Jiang” in the media.

Consider the intriguing difference in the way in which the Liberation Army Daily and the Xinhua News Agency reported the same event. Two days after Jiang’s position as CMC chairman was renewed on November 15, the four heads of the PLA headquarters departments called staff meetings in their respective units to discuss the “spirit of the 16th Congress.”

A November 17 report by the Liberation Army Daily quoted the new chief of the General Staff Department, General Liang Guanglie, as saying that the PLA must “resolutely listen to and follow the instructions of the party central authorities as well as [those of] Chairman Jiang.” The other department heads–including Generals Xu Caihou, Liao Xilong and Li Jinai–repeated the same message. The November 19 Xinhua report, however, which also quoted the Liang, Xu, Liao and Li speeches, made no reference whatsoever to a need to follow the instructions of Chairman Jiang. Xinhua’s report was used by major papers such as the People’s Daily.

It is significant that Jiang still controls the army media through the CMC General Office. But Xinhua director Tian Congming is a Hu Jintao ally, and their friendship goes back many years. It was Tian, then a Xinhua photographer, who took the famous picture of Hu in full anti-riot gear the day after the suppression of the anti-Beijing riots on March 7, 1989. The Xinhua line seems to have prevailed, because after November 19, the Liberation Army Daily also dropped reference to the imperative of heeding Chairman Jiang’s instructions.

Unlike Jiang, Hu–who is number two in the official pecking order–has stayed very much out of the limelight. His first meeting with a foreign dignitary, Finnish President Tarja Halonen, took place thirteen days after the 16th Congress. It is notable that Hu mentioned Jiang only once–saying that he had made a “very good report” at the Congress. Yet for the first time in several years, Hu did not heap praise on Jiang’s teachings or say that the party must carry out Jiang’s edicts. It is true that the vice president has for the past few years been at the forefront of propaganda campaigns to extol Jiang dicta such as the “Theory of the Three Represents.” But there are indications that Hu is anxious to emerge from Jiang’s shadow.

Moreover, during ideological sessions conducted by pro-Jiang PSC members such as Zeng and Li Changchun in late November, there was also no reference to the need to toe the Jiang line. In his speech at a graduation ceremony of the Central Party School, Zeng referred to Hu in a somewhat deferential manner. The Jiang confidante underscored the need to implement the 16th Congress spirit “under the strong party central leadership with comrade Hu Jintao as general secretary.”

It is, of course, most unlikely that Hu will in the near future become what Jiang was from the mid-1990s until last month–the “leadership core” of the CCP. However, it is too soon to write off the 59-year-old leader as another Hua Guofeng, Chairman Mao Zedong’s hapless successor as party chairman. Party sources in Beijing said the decision not to eulogize Jiang in public had won broad support among different CCP factions. They said should Jiang go on flaunting his staying power, the outgoing president could only weaken his own faction–and make it easier for Hu to gradually consolidate his grip over the party.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.