WILL THE HEIR APPARENT BE A WEAK NUMBER ONE?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 9

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Vice President Hu Jintao has encountered some problems in factional infighting within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)–and this could affect his pivotal trip to the United States.

It is important to note that while Hu is regarded as the heir-apparent of President Jiang Zemin, he is not a member of Jiang’s Shanghai Faction. For the past year or so, Jiang’s cronies have bent over backwards to ensure that while Hu may become party chief and state president in the coming year, he will be a weak Number One. Jiang’s proteges will still be able to wield substantial clout.

THE REINING IN

To rein Hu in, his political foes have played up improprieties–and in some instances even corruption–among officials who work in departments and units that lie within his portfolio and jurisdiction. First came the so-called fake certificates scandal that hit the Central Party School (CPS), which Hu heads. While the CPS has for years been giving away masters degrees and other qualifications fairly indiscriminately to its students–most of whom are mid- to senior-ranked cadres from the provinces and central units–the malpractice has received substantial media attention the past two months. CPS critics have also cited cases of cadres skipping classes–and even taking side trips to the casinos in Macau. CPS administrators have also been taken to task for planning a ultramodern sports complex worth more than 100 million yuan.

Referring to the scandal, Jiang criticized Hu indirectly when he said at an internal session that “the academic life and work-style in the CPS is quite problematic.” Hu was therefore obliged to chastise himself publicly, despite the fact that some party insiders in Beijing believed that the CPS had come under fire because a dozen-odd liberal scholars there had angered Jiang by penning papers decrying the tradition of “excessive concentration of power” within the CCP’s top echelons.

The CPS affair, however, was used to good advantage by some of Hu’s enemies, including the head of the Central Committee’s Organization Department (CCOD), Zeng Qinghong, a top aide to President Jiang. Recently, Zeng, who controls appointments, scored a sizeable victory when he succeeded in installing one of his deputies at the CCOD, Yu Yunyao, as a vice principal of the CPS. Because Yu has marginal academic credentials and is a relatively conservative commissar, his appointment was greeted with dismay by some of the school’s liberal theorists. The second incident has to do with alleged improprieties surrounding Project Hope, a semi-official outfit that raises money among Hong Kong and overseas-Chinese communities for rural education in central and western China.

Project Hope has reportedly lost millions of yuan by using public donations in risky and ill-considered investments. Matters became worse when state authorities last month tried to suppress a long expose on Project Hope that was published in the famous muckraking Guangzhou paper, Nanfang Weekend. Given that Project Hope has some affiliation with the Communist Youth League–which is Hu’s power base–and that a number of senior Project Hope officials once worked for Hu, Hu’s prestige has also suffered.

At the same time, the supposed faux pas that Hu made during his trip to Europe last October have been recycled by his political foes in an apparent attempt to put pressure on the inexperienced would-be global statesman. For example, while in France, Hu had a brief session with a group of Chinese intellectuals resident in Paris. Among them was outspoken writer Lin Xiling, a victim of the Anti-Rightist Movement of the 1950s. Although Lin has of late espoused considerably more pro-Beijing views, Hu was criticized for being indiscreet in agreeing to see her. Hu was also faulted by a number of Jiang aides for not disputing the head of state-level protocol the British accorded him during his stay in London.

PLA PERSONNEL CHANGES

Much more threatening to Hu than these innuendo and finger-pointings is the series of personnel changes that have taken place in the provinces and the People’s Liberation Army. Since late last year, leaders in more than half of China’s thirty-one1 provinces and major cities have been reshuffled–and more changes are expected in the run-up to the 16th CCP Congress this autumn. Likewise, around 200 mid- to senior-ranked PLA posts at both central headquarters units and the regional commands have changed hands. Because Jiang and CCOD chief Zeng have masterminded these changes, it is not surprising that the Jiang [Shanghai] Faction has been the major beneficiary of the reshuffles.

“In the Chinese tradition, the most effective way for a newly promoted supremo to establish himself is through appointments and promotions,” said a veteran party cadre. “Because Jiang and Zeng have already filled most of the civilian and military slots with relatively young officials, however, Hu may have to wait three years or more before he can make another series of appointments.”

That Hu is on the defensive on the domestic front could mean he will be even more careful than usual while touring the United States. The vice president’s advisers have cited the lesson of Premier Zhu Rongji, whose reputation took a dive after being accused of making too many concessions to the Americans during his 1999 U.S. tour. These Hu advisers said that members of the U.S. Congress and the media might well be much more aggressive than their European counterparts in pursuing Hu on such sensitive questions as human rights and Tibet.

TREADING CAREFULLY IN AMERICA

Moreover, Hu is wary about being seen as upstaging Jiang, who is himself making a trip to America in October. A source close to Hu’s entourage said that, given the experience in Britain, the vice president had asked the Chinese Foreign Ministry to ensure that U.S. authorities would not accord him an excessively high level of protocol. The source said in terms of substantive matters, Jiang, who also heads the party’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA), had asked Hu to “broaden and develop” Sino-U.S. ties during his trip. “Jiang has instructed Hu to impress upon the Americans,” the source added, “that good relations with China are of supreme importance to Washington’s own interests.”

Analysts have said that recent hiccups in bilateral ties over America’s closer links with Taiwan could hurt the atmosphere of Hu’s talks with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. But it is expected that, while Hu would take a tough stance on matters of principle such as Taiwan and Tibet, he would not engage in serious arguments or horsetrading with his hosts. The analysts also said if there were deals to be struck, these would be accomplished during Jiang’s American sojourn in October. The party’s LGFA merely wanted to play up the symbolism of the Hu trip, meaning that both countries were willing to focus on areas of common concern despite significant differences over Taiwan and other issues.

Hu will pass his test if he can handle himself well not only with Bush and Cheney but, more important, with “China-bashing” congressmen and journalists–as well as anti-Beijing protestors who are expected to show up in big droves throughout his itinerary. It is understood that Hu’s aides have tried to persuade the super-cautious vice president to avail himself of the global limelight by projecting the image of a new-style, forward-looking Chinese leader. And Hu, who the few weeks before his departure had been holding almost daily seminars with Beijing’s America specialists, is also aware that his domestic stature will be much enhanced if his maiden U.S. tour turns out to be a success.

Given his lack of foreign policy expertise, it is likely that Hu will simply read from the script on matters including Sino-U.S. ties and Taiwan. The real surprise for the United States–and for his audience at home–would be if the 59-year-old, would-be “core of the Third Generation leadership” felt emboldened enough to lay out some bold visions for economic and, particularly, political reform.

After all, liberal CPS theorists have been doing substantial research on political liberalization for the past two years, and they have received at least tacit support from Hu. Airing even a sensitized version of such reformist ideals could earn Hu a tremendous amount of good will not only in the West butmore important, back home.

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.

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