The Death of Huang Ju: Filling the Chinese Leadership Vacuum

On the surface, the recent death of Politburo Standing Committee member and First Vice Premier Huang Ju presents President Hu Jintao with an opportunity to further consolidate his power by marginalizing the influence of the rival Shanghai Faction within the Chinese leadership. A former mayor and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Secretary of Shanghai, Huang was rumored to have been involved in business irregularities since the late 1990s and was suspected of corruption. Yet, the Shanghai Faction led by former president Jiang Zemin and Vice President Zeng Qinghong remains influential, as illustrated by the obstacles that Hu and his faction have encountered while trying to widen the anti-graft dragnet in Shanghai in the wake of the September 2006 detention of Chen Liangyu, Huang’s successor as the party secretary of the city.

Eight months after the arrest of Chen for his involvement in the misuse of a multi-billion yuan social security fund, the pace of the investigation has dwindled. This is despite expectations that the demise of Huang, who had been terminally ill with cancer for the past year, might afford Hu and his allies, Premier Wen Jiabao and Secretary of the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) Wu Guanzheng, new openings to ensnare more “tigers” from among venal Shanghai Faction affiliates. Political sources in Shanghai say that Huang’s close relatives are on “intimate terms” with both Chen and his associates, who were allowed to utilize the social security fund for various dubious investments. Moreover, what Shanghai insiders call the Huang Ju Clique is believed to have provided backing and “political shelter” to disgraced Shanghai mogul Zhou Zhengyi. A rags-to-riches tycoon, Zhou was first arrested by the CCDI in 2005 for alleged speculation in the stock and real estate markets. Owing to interference by both Jiang and Huang, Zhou was given only a short jail sentence and released in mid-2006. He was re-arrested not long after Chen’s detention (China Daily, December 8, 2006). It is understood that since mid-2006, the CCDI has stationed more than 100 agents and investigators in Shanghai. No major breakthroughs, however, have been reported in connection with the corruption rings associated with Chen, Zhou and several Shanghai Faction members.

In contrast, Hu and the CCDI’s Wu have scored impressive victories regarding graft cases outside of Shanghai. One recent example is the surprisingly harsh death sentence that the former director of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, received last month (New York Times, May 29). Given that Zheng was detained three months after Shanghai’s Chen, the CCDI and other related agencies managed to complete investigations into dozens of Zheng’s relatives and affiliates within just six months. Similarly, satisfactory progress has been reported in the clean-government campaign in another directly administered city, Tianjin, where dozens of CCDI agents have been working assiduously since late last year. Early this month, the fast-growing industrial and financial hub was rocked by the supposed suicide of the Chairman of the municipal Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Song Pingshun. A former police chief who had been apprehended for questioning by the CCDI in early summer, Song is believed to be the overseer of a corruption ring that included Tianjin’s chief prosecutor, Li Baojin. Li, a protégé of Song’s, was arrested last year (Ming Pao, June 6; Associated Press, June 8).

Diplomatic sources in Beijing said that after the demise of his 69-year-old protégé, former president Jiang asserted his influence in support of Huang’s family. This has, in effect, prevented the CCDI or other anti-graft bodies from pursuing a host of Shanghai-based suspects. Jiang’s re-assertion of a party elder’s prerogatives has met opposition in Shanghai, where Huang and his family members are far from popular. It is well known that Huang had allowed his wife to be involved in business long after the CCDI and the Ministry of Supervision had announced regulations forbidding relatives of senior cadres from engaging in commercial activities. Moreover, Huang’s daughter, who settled in California in the mid-1990s after marrying into a prominent Taiwanese American family, is said to have helped quite a few of Huang’s associates invest in or immigrate to the United States.

The official obituary issued by Xinhua carried pro forma eulogies of Huang’s contributions to the development of Shanghai. It also noted, however, that the conservative leader played a key role in the unpopular campaign against “bourgeois-liberalization”—a code word for Western ideological concepts—in the mid-1980s (Xinhua, June 5). Moreover, after he became party leader of Shanghai in 1994, Huang became preoccupied with securing his personal interests within the municipal party and government apparatus. Huang also sought to undercut and diminish the authority of his deputy, Shanghai mayor Xu Kuangdi, a capable and well-regarded technocrat who was a protégé of former premier Zhu Rongji’s. The Western-trained Xu refused to humor Huang and retired in 2001.

The Hu administration’s apparent failure to succeed in the popular anti-corruption campaign has deprived the Fourth Generation leadership of the wherewithal to convince the masses of their ability to deliver a series of pledges laid down soon after their elevation at the 16th CCP Congress in late 2002. Other major promises made by Hu and Wen such as narrowing the divide between the rich and poor as well as bridging the gap between coastal and hinterland China will take much longer to materialize. Last week, the CCDI issued yet another series of regulations that stated that currently serving or recently retired cadres are banned from establishing businesses with associates; are forbidden to free shares of listed companies or other gifts; and are prohibited from seeking employment or other advantages for their relatives (People’s Daily, June 9). The lackluster performance of the CCDI’s “tiger-killing” expedition in Shanghai, however, has tarnished Hu’s ambitious campaign to nurture clean governance.

Meanwhile, with little over four months until the 17th CCP Congress, the energy and attention of the leadership is now focused solely on the distribution of coveted slots on the CCP Central Committee, the Politburo and its Standing Committee that will occur during the Congress. The 81-year-old Jiang’s continued influence is notably evident in this regard. A source in Beijing familiar with the deliberations within the Shanghai Faction has noted that the former president had held “fairly detailed discussions” with Hu on personnel changes at the Congress. “As usual, Jiang counseled stability,” the source said. “Jiang urged Hu not to bring too many new faces into the nine-member Standing Committee.” For this and other reasons, the majority of the nine Standing Committee members are poised to be given new five-year terms. Apart from Hu, Wen and parliamentary chief Wu Bangguo, these nine members include Zeng, 68, and Li Changchun, 63, who holds the ideology and propaganda portfolio that includes media censorship.

Considering that the age of 68 was set as the retirement age for Politburo members at both the 15th and the 16th Party Congresses, Zeng’s extended tenure can only be seen as yet another instance in which rules and regulations are being bent to suit the political expediency of the day. Hu and Wen, however, have had difficulty convincing Jiang and other Shanghai Faction stalwarts that Wu Guanzheng, 69, should also be allowed to retain power. Hu had argued that following Zeng’s example, the leadership collective should also make an exception for Wu so that the latter would have a few additional years to complete his relatively successful anti-corruption drive. Regarding Li Changchun, the youngest Standing Committee member, the issue is not one of age but of the overall perception that his extremely orthodox approach to ideology and propaganda has stifled the spirit of innovation that Hu and Wen have been trying to foster during the past two years. Li, however, has successfully curried favor with ex-president Jiang, who is lobbying forcefully for him to remain in the Standing Committee.

Perhaps most significant is that President Hu has had difficulty inducting a Fifth Generation representative from within his own faction into the Standing Committee. Since Hu, 65, is expected to retire from the party leadership at the 18th CCP Congress in 2012, the law of succession would dictate that a protégé of Hu’s should be installed into the highest policymaking organ as soon as possible. The problem with Hu’s younger-generation associates and underlings, however, is that almost none of them has acquired the experience or developed a national stature that is commensurate with Standing Committee membership. For example, the two front-runners to succeed Hu as party chief, the party secretaries of Liaoning and Jiangsu, Li Keqiang and Li Yuanchao, respectively, have failed to distinguish themselves during the past four to five years.

Sources in Beijing stated last week that a compromise might be accomplished between Hu and the Shanghai Faction: that a Hu protégé with enough experience and stature be elevated to the PSC. The name mentioned in this context was the veteran director of the CCP United Front Department, Liu Yandong, 62, who had worked closely with Hu within the Communist Youth League leadership in the 1980s. Not only is Liu popular and trusted by Hu, but also, after the expected retirement of Vice Premier Wu Yi next spring, she will be the nation’s highest-ranking woman. Under this scenario, Liu would assume the position of State Vice President, while incumbent Zeng will take over the chairmanship of the CPPCC. Unlike Hu’s younger protégés, Liu is acceptable to most CCP factions. Moreover, there is a consensus among senior political circles that a woman in the Standing Committee will better enable China to fit into the global norm of having additional senior female officials.

The problem for President Hu is that Liu is hardly a rising star of the Fifth Generation. There is also a possibility that, should Hu fail to elevate any of his Fifth Generation protégés to the top this time around, the Shanghai Faction as well as other CCP cliques may settle on somebody else at the 18th Congress in 2012 —perhaps a so-called princeling, or the son of a party elder—for the position of the next CCP General Secretary. These intriguing developments reveal that despite the impression given by the official media that Hu is China’s undisputed leader, there are serious limitations to his powers. He has been forced to resort to time-honored horse-trading practices with other power blocs in order to move the party forward.