With Zhou’s Circle Down, Xi’s Purge May Turn to Hu

Ling Zhengce (Credit: Xinhua)

The Xi Jinping administration has chosen June 30, the eve of the Chinese Communist Party’s 93rd birthday, to make two announcements about Beijing’s 18 month-long anti-graft campaign. With these, he has largely eliminated the remaining allies of his rival Zhou Yongkang—and he may be moving on to take on those of ex-President Hu Jintao.

Former Politburo member and Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission, General Xu Caihou, was expelled from the party. He will later face prosecution in a military court for alleged economic crimes. Moreover, three of the closest cronies of the former member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), Zhou Yongkang, lost their party membership the same day. The trio, former CNPC President and Minister at the State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission Jiang Jiemin; former deputy general manager of CNPC Wang Yongchun, and former assistant minister of public security Li Dongsheng, were accused of disciplinary infractions including graft-related misdemeanors (Xinhua October 30; South China Morning Post, October 30). These developments show that the Central Commission for Disciplinary Commission (CCDI), which is headed by Xi ally and PBSC member Wang Qishan, is about to wrap up marathon investigations into the two of the largest-scale corruption rings in the era of reform. The big question being asked in Beijing’s political circles is: Are Xi and Wang targeting other sectors within the party-state apparatus such as the mammoth tuanpai or Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction that has been headed by ex-president Hu since the late 1980s?

This possibility was evidenced by the arrest on June 19 of the Vice-Head of the Shanxi Province branch of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Ling Zhengce. Given Ling’s mid-level ranking and lack of exposure in the national media, his detention for “serious disciplinary offences” should not have elicited a lot of attention. However, Ling, 62, who spent his entire career in the land-locked province, is the brother of Ling Jihua, a confidante and troubleshooter for ex-president Hu for more than a decade. A number of mainland Chinese, Hong Kong and foreign media have run stories claiming that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign will target Ling Jihua next. Even more significantly, the fate of Ling Jihua will impact directly on the prospects of other members of the CLY such as Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Li Keqiang and Politburo members Li Yuanchao, Wang Yang and Hu Chunhua (Radio Free Asia, June 19; BBC Chinese Service, June 19, Ming Pao [Hong Kong], June 19).

Ling Jihua, 57, began working for Hu when the latter was CYL Secretary from 1982 to 1985. After Hu became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2002, Ling served as Director of the Central Committee General Office as well as the director of Hu Jintao’s office. Ling’s career, however, suffered a major blow when his son Ling Gu was killed in a traffic accident while driving a Ferrari. It transpired that the younger Ling was the proud owner of several expensive imported cars. Rumors suggested that Ling’s wife, Gu Liping, had amassed a huge fortune through her consultancy businesses. After the incident, Ling was transferred to the less important post of Director of the United Front Department. And he failed to be inducted into the Politburo at the 18th Party Congress. Ex-President Hu reportedly defended his protégé on more than one occasion, saying that since Ling worked 16-hour days at the Zhongnanhai party headquarters, he was not able to monitor the activities of his wife and son (VOA Chinese Service, November 12, 2012; South China Morning Post, September 3, 2012).

That Xi might be going after Ling Jinhua was evidenced by a hard-hitting commentary on the Lin Zhengce case by the official Xinhua News Agency. Entitled “Having someone in the imperial court still doesn’t help,” the piece decried cadres who “use blood ties and marriage as a link to form a ‘clan of corruption,’ to protect one another.” “A politician might use public funds or his authority to benefit one of his siblings, then rely on that sibling to use his influence over hiring and internal investigations at key moments,” Xinhua added without mentioning Ling Jihua by name. It did, however, cite the example of two notorious “brothers in crime,” former minister of railways Liu Zhijun and his younger brother Liu Zhixiang, whose career thrived in the ministry due to his brother’s help. Both ended up getting suspended death penalties for corruption and abuse of power (Xinhua, June 20; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], June 20).

Zhang Lifan, a respected Beijing-based party historian who has been following Xi’s anti-graft crusade closely, told Hong Kong media that “there is an intimate link between corruption investigations and power struggles among different factions in the party.” Zhang and other observers indicated, however, that Xi might not target Ling Jihua. After all, more than two years have elapsed after the Ferrari incident. More significantly, Gu Liping was last year allowed to retire from several foundations, which were considered “front companies” through which she allegedly made her millions. What seems beyond doubt, however, is that the pressure being put on Ling might serve Xi’s purpose of marginalizing the CYL clique, which is still deemed a major faction in the party-state apparatus (Cable TV [Hong Kong], June 20; Singtao Daily [Hong Kong], April 2, 2013).

It is instructive to look at the performance—and political fortunes—of several Hu protégés who successfully made it to the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) at the 18th Party Congress. As the second-ranked PBSC member, Premier Li Keqiang has gained a reputation for ardent advocacy of market-oriented reforms. “We should allow the market to do what it does best” has become a much-quoted aphorism of “China’s first Ph.D. premier.” Li, a former party boss of the CYL, has also been active on the foreign-policy scene. The Peking University-trained lawyer and economist is often charged with using China’s economic heft to bolster the country’s diplomatic footprint around the world (Xinhua, June 20; Chinatoday.com.cn, December 16, 2013; Sohu.com, November 27, 2013).

According to the old rules of collective leadership set up by Deng Xiaoping, each PBSC member has a clear-cut portfolio. The premier has traditionally been the foremost policymaker in financial and economic matters. While major decisions have to be made after consultation with the general secretary and other PBSC members, the premier has the ultimate responsibility for the economy. Xi, however, created the Central Leading Group on the Comprehensive Deepening of Reforms in late 2013 partly to arrogate to himself authority over the economy. Xi is chairman of the leading group, and Li is one of the three vice-chairs (See China Brief, “New High-Level Groups Threaten Line Between Party and Government,” April 9). Moreover, Li was left out of the drafting committee which put together the landmark Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensive Deepening Reforms, which was endorsed by the Third Central Committee Plenum last November (Ming Pao, November 16, 2013; Radio France International Chinese Service, November 16, 2013).

On June 13, Xinhua reported that Xi chaired the sixth meeting of the Central Leading Group on Finance and Economics. The CLGFE was established in 1980 and normally the Head of this Leading Group is the prime minister. Since the 1980s, it has been a long-standing tradition of the state media not to report on the activities of the CLGFE. This same lack of transparency holds true for other leading groups or commissions under the PBSC: we never know, for example, when the Central Leading Group of Foreign Affairs meets and what its agenda is. After the 18th Party Congress, the CLGFE has been convened six times but only the sixth meeting was reported by Xinhua and CCTV. One reason could be that Xi wanted to clear up widespread assumptions that Premier Li was the boss of the CLGFE. As late as last May, Baidu.com—the most widely used search engine in mainland China—reported that Li had headed the CLGFE since the 18th Party Congress (Sina.com, June 14; Ming Pao, June 14). 

After Xinhua’s June 13 dispatch on the CLGFE, the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekend asserted that the CCP General Secretary has since 1987 doubled as the head of this leading group (Southern Weekend, June 14). However, at least four other official media, People’s Daily, Beijing Youth Daily, Henan Business Daily and the Guangzhou-based Nandu Weekly, have reported that Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao were the leader of the CLGFE when they were premiers (Henan Business Daily [Zhengzhou], June 20; People’s Daily, June 14; Beijing Youth Daily, June 14, Nandu Weekly [Guangzhou], July 26, 2013). Premier Li has significantly less powers than ex-premiers Zhu and Wen and has to play second fiddle to Xi in financial and economic issues, as evidenced by the many times that the President and Commander-in-Chief have pointed out that economic construction must “manifest the principle of the party running the economy.” A number of Chinese media have even given Xi the unofficial title of “top-level designer” of reforms in the economic and other spheres (21cn.com [Beijing], June 21; China News Service, June 20).

That four Politburo members who are deemed Hu protégés—Vice-President Li Yuanchao, Vice-Premiers Wang Yang and Liu Yandong and Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chunhua—have kept unusually low profiles also testifies to the declining influence of the CYL Faction. Both Li and Wang, who first joined the Politburo in 2007, narrowly missed induction to the PBSC at the 18th Party Congress. Vice-President Li has been put in charge of mass organizations handling work regarding youth, women, overseas Chinese and scientists. He has also helped President Xi and National People’s Congress Chairman Zhang Dejiang look after Hong Kong-related policies (People’s Daily, June 13; Xinhua, June 12). These portfolios, however, are not usually deemed heavyweight ones. Wang, one of the most charismatic leaders of the CYL Faction, enjoyed a high profile when he was party chief of Guangdong from 2007 to 2012. The Hu protégé made a name for himself as an advocate of “the third wave of thought liberation.” He also attracted national attention through giving more leeway to the media and NGOs in his province. Wang, who was dubbed “young marshal” by the Chinese media, also made waves in economic policy by coining the slogan “enlarging the cage and changing the bird”—a reference to the province’s ambitious goal in going high-tech (Xinhua, October 17, 2008; China News Service, April 14, 2008). After the 18th Party Congress, however, the relatively few occasions in which the vice-premier in charge of foreign trade was given prominent treatment by the national media were almost exclusively related to negotiations with senior economic officials from the United States (Xinhua, May 13; Phoenix TV News, July 11, 2013).

Even more intriguing is the political future of Guangdong party boss Hu Chunhua, a former first party secretary of the CYL who was groomed by ex-president Hu for the very top. Hu, 51, is one of only two Sixth-Generation cadres to have been inducted into the Politburo in 2012. Unlike predecessor Wang Yang, Hu has steered clear of controversial issues such as economic and ideological reform since arriving in Guangzhou. He has instead focused on less contentious areas such as eradicating prostitution in Dongguan, which is notorious for its nightclubs and massage parlors. Since the spring, Guangzhou has also led the nation in cracking down on “naked officials,” a reference to cadres who have sent their close kin—as well as ill-gotten gains—abroad (Phoenix TV News, May 30; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], February 11). However, the arrest on June 27 of Guangzhou party secretary Wan Qingliang—who headed the province’s CYL operations from 2000 to 2003—for suspected corruption could adversely affect Hu’s reputation, due to the fact that Wan works directly under the Guangdong party boss (Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], June 27; BBC Chinese Service, June 27). Indeed, the likelihood of President Xi, who has accumulated more powers than his two predecessors, accepting Hu Chunhua as his successor, seems slim. Since coming to power in late 2012, Xi has promoted cadres from disparate backgrounds—but not a single one with CYL credentials (See China Brief, “All the General Secretary’s Men: Xi Jinping’s Inner Circle Revealed,” February 15).

Equally significant is the fact that the very nature of the CYL leadership has undergone subtle changes. Going as far back as the late party general secretary Hu Yaobang, typical CYL cadres are specialists in party affairs, particularly areas such as organization, ideology and propaganda. Yet more cadres from heterogeneous backgrounds have in the early 2010s made it to the front ranks of the league. For example, four out of seven members of the CYL Secretariat formed in mid-2013 are former executives with state-owned enterprises (SOEs). They include First Party Secretary Qin Yizhi as well as He Junke, Xu Xiao and Fu Zhenbang. Qin, 48, has 13 years’ experience serving in different branches of Sichuan-based Ansteel Corp., one of China’s largest steelmakers. He, 45, is a veteran technician and manager in aerospace firms including the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp. Xu, 41, worked in the state-owned China Chang Jiang Energy Corp for 20 years, while Fu, 38, spent 15 years with major SOEs such as the China Three Gorges Corporation (Xinmin Weekly [Shanghai] August 15, 2013; China News Service, June 20, 2013).

Xi and his close comrade, fellow princeling Wang Qishan, the PBSC member in charge of graft-busting, have used the anti-corruption drive to curtail the political influence of rival factions within the party. So far, Xi has effectively liquidated the Zhou Yongkang Gang: 200-odd associates and underlings of the former PBSC member have been arrested since late 2012. Tackling the CYL Faction, however, could unleash ferocious internecine bickering that could undermine political stability, which is a common goal of the CCP’s disparate blocs. After all, ex-president Hu started nurturing the tuanpai since he was inducted to the PBSC at the 14th CCP Congress in 1992. Apart from the four Politburo members mentioned above, Director of the Propaganda Department, Liu Qibao, Beijing Party Secretary Guo Jinlong and Shanghai Party Secretary Han Zheng are deemed CYL alumnae. And of the nine Central Committee members who were born in the 1960s, four are associated with the CYL Faction. Apart from Hu Chunhua, they are President of the Supreme People’s Court and former party secretary of Hunan Zhou Qiang; Chairman of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Nur Bekri; and Heilongjiang Governor and former CYL First Party Secretary Lu Hao (Ta Kung Pao, March 20, 2013; Asia Times, December 4, 2012). Despite Xi’s apparent success in becoming a virtual strongman, he may have to think twice about an open break with ex-president Hu and his followers.

Over the longer term, Xi’s apparent mixture of graft-busting and browbeating his political foes runs counter to Chief Architect of Reform Deng Xiaoping’s much-admired goal of instituting checks and balances among disparate factions in the polity. As Beijing-based legal scholar Chen Yongmiao pointed out, “corruption arises due to defects in the Chinese political system.” “If systemic reform is not carried out, even if a ‘big tiger’ is brought down today, another ‘big tiger’ will soon fill his place” (Radio Free Asia, September 2, 2013).