Striving for Balance: Assessing Recent Municipal and Provincial Leadership Changes

Recent personnel changes in major cities and provinces in eastern and central China attest to a new power configuration in the leadership. While remaining in his role as the “core” leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), President and General Secretary Hu Jintao has struck a deal with the various factions by allowing their affiliates to assume a fairly equitable share of the leadership positions. These compromises on appointments are in accordance with Hu’s axiom of “constructing a harmonious society that is based on harmony within the party” (Xinhua, December 18, 2006). Within the new Central Committee and Politburo to be formed at the 17th Party Congress in October, cadres deemed close to Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao are expected to enjoy a slight, though significant majority, with the remainder of the slots to be parceled out among other cliques.

Apart from Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League (CYL) faction, prominent power blocs in the polity include the State Council technocrats under Wen, the remnants of former president Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai faction (now led by Vice President Zeng Qinghong), and the offspring of party veterans known as the “princelings.” Hu’s adherence to the neo-Confucianist principles of harmony and balance among the cliques means that the famously cautious leader is placing stability and party unity above bold and thorough reforms, particularly those in the political arena. Ideological and political liberalization, seen as destabilizing and disruptive of harmony, will continue to be relegated and marginalized.

The appointment of former Zhejing Province party secretary Xi Jinping as the new party secretary of Shanghai best reflects the spirit of “intra-party harmony.” Xi, 54, is a low-profile “princeling,” deemed acceptable to most factions. Son of Long March veteran Xi Zhongxun (1913-2002), Xi has no links with the CYL, which is President Hu’s key power base. Yet many CYL affiliates remember with fondness the fact that Xi’s father was one of the few party elders who defended the late CCP and CYL chief Hu Yaobang—a Hu mentor—when the liberal leader was sacked in January 1987 (Yazhou Zhoukan, April 8). Xi has replaced disgraced Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, who was arrested last September for alleged corruption and other “economic crimes.”

Interlocutors in Beijing who are familiar with Hu’s thinking said that Xi was a better choice than oft-mentioned candidates such as Jiangsu Party Secretary Li Yuanchao or United Front Department Director Liu Yandong, both Hu loyalists. Given the long-standing animosity between Hu and the Shanghai-affiliated officials, Hu realized that appointing his own protégé to lead the metropolis might engender the kind of internecine bickering that would undermine his “social harmony” dictum. Moreover, Xi has a largely laudatory record running Zhejiang, which is known for the vitality of its private sector. His move to Shanghai would almost certainly enhance the cooperation between the city and the two neighboring powerhouse provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu. According to CCP tradition, the top official of Shanghai is slated for Politburo membership, and Xi has thus become the first member of the “fifth generation” leadership—a reference to cadres born between the early 1950s and 1960s—to earn Politburo status (Wen Wei Po, March 26).

The choices of new party secretaries for Tianjin and the provinces of Zhejiang, Shandong and Shaanxi also reflect a balance between factional requirements and considerations of competence. Xi’s replacement as Zhejiang party secretary, Zhao Hongju, is deemed a close associate of Vice President Zeng (Asia Times, April 4). A veteran of the party’s Organization Department, Zhao, 60, is also one of several Shandong Province natives who have been elevated since last year. The apparent rise of a “Shandong faction” in Chinese politics will act as a counterbalance to the political fortunes of several officials—many of them Hu protégés—who earned their spurs in China’s western provinces, particularly in the regions where the president served between the 1970s and early 1990s.

Likewise, considerations of competence and compatibility seemed to be the major determinants in the promotion of Shandong Party Secretary Zhang Gaoli to the post of party secretary of Tianjin, a slot that often carries Politburo status as well. Zhang, a former mayor of the Shenzhen economic zone near Hong Kong, is seen as a suitable candidate to lead Tianjin, which has become the hub of China’s economically booming Beijing-Tianjin-Bohai Zone (Ming Pao, March 26). While Zhang, 61 owed his initial rise to the patronage of former president Jiang, he is among the first batch of regional cadres to have crossed over to the Hu-Wen camp.

Except for the fact that he is a native son—and thus qualifies for membership in the inchoate “Shandong Clique”—the new party boss of prosperous Shandong, Li Jianguo, does not have obvious factional affiliations. Li, 61, is a former party secretary of the mid-western Chinese province of Shaanxi, which is one of the few heartland regions that have attracted substantial foreign direct investment, especially in the high-tech sector. Replacing Li as Shaanxi party secretary is fifth generation rising star Zhao Leji, 50. Zhao first received national attention in 2002, when he was named governor of the remote Qinghai Province at the age of 45 (Xinhua, March 26). Zhao was promoted again the following year when he became party secretary of the same province.

By and large, Politburo members who have the largest say in personnel changes in the run-up to the 17th Congress—Hu, Wen and Zeng—have placed continuity, stability and harmony above speedy and thorough-going reforms. This applies even to perhaps the least controversial aspect of administrative reform: party rejuvenation. Apart from Shanghai’s Xi, only two fifth generation stalwarts, Li Yuanchao and Li Keqiang, the party secretaries of Jiangsu and Liaoning Province, respectively, are believed to be guaranteed membership in the Politburo. In addition, if the membership of the Politburo Standing Committee will be reduced from the current nine members to seven, as is likely to happen, only a handful of the new faces will be inducted into the policy-setting council. This is due to the consensus already reached by the CCP leadership that at least four Standing Committee incumbents, namely Hu, Wen, Zeng and National People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo will stay on for another five more years.

Given that almost none of the relatively younger protégés of Hu—or affiliates of the other factions—have remarkable track records, it is possible that none of the fifth generation cadres will be inducted into the Politburo Standing Committee at the 17th Party Congress. This is despite the fact that when the 14th Party Congress was held in 1992 to confirm former president Jiang as the “core” of the third generation leadership, the conclave simultaneously selected Hu as the representative of the fourth generation by appointing the then 49-year-old into the Standing Committee.

Even more important than the issue of factional balance or rejuvenation, however, is whether the leadership’s redoubled emphasis on harmony and stability will halt initiatives that are considered too risky or controversial. For example, owing to Hu and Wen’s reluctance to alienate opponents of private property, the newly enacted Law on Property Rights had been repeatedly postponed and watered down. Even with such concessions, “Leftists” or quasi-Maoists have savaged Hu and Wen for abandoning the sacred tenets of Marx and Mao (International Herald Tribune, March 8).

It is similarly due to Hu’s desire to avoid upsetting Shanghai cadres that investigations into the alleged corruption of former Shanghai party chief Chen have been confined to narrow parameters. While the “crimes” and fate of Chen will likely be announced at the Seventh Central Committee plenary session just before the 17th Congress, it is unlikely that other senior members of the Shanghai faction will be implicated. The same goes for the ongoing investigations into real estate-related corruption within the Beijing municipality. The surprising arrest of former Beijing vice-mayor Liu Zhihua in mid-2006 signaled Hu’s determination to root out graft and related economic crimes in the capital, which are reportedly linked to a Standing Committee member with close ties to former president Jiang (Yazhou Zhoukan, April 22). Since then, a few of the heads of municipal districts have been arrested, though there are no signs that any “big fish” will be caught before the 17th Congress.

Even more serious is Hu’s apparent failure to render full support to Wen’s recent pronouncements on political liberalization. At an international press conference last month, the premier pointed out that far from being “unique to capitalism,” values such as democracy, freedom and human rights were “the common cultural fruits of the entire world.” Wen also called for deeper political reforms to eradicate problems such as corruption and “the over-concentration of power.” Many of the premier’s statements on democracy and reform, however, were excised from transcripts released by state media (Xinhua, March 15; People’s Daily, March 16). A major reason was that the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of ideology and propaganda, Li Changchun, disagreed with many of Wen’s statements. Li is infamous for his long record of harassing dissidents, journalists and civil-society activists, including Chinese AIDS activist and doctor Gao Yaojie. Chinese intellectuals fear that for the sake of maintaining a façade of unity, President Hu might agree to allow Li, a one-time protégé of former president Jiang’s, to remain on the Standing Committee after the 17th Congress.