Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 21

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

One of China’s many ironies is that most of the prospects for political reform may well hinge on one of the least popular cadres of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): alternate Politburo member and Head of the Organization Department, Zeng Qinghong. In the eyes of perhaps the majority of party officials, as well as China observers, Zeng, 63, is a princeling (the son of party elder Zeng Shan)–and President Jiang Zemin’s alter ego and hatchet man.

Zeng, a former Shanghai vice party secretary, was instrumental in helping Jiang get rid of political foes–among them, former President Yang Shangkun, former Beijing party boss Chen Xitong, and former Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member Qiao Shi. The Jiangxi province native is such a controversial figure that while he was made an alternate (second-tier) member of the Politburo at the 15th party Congress in 1997, Jiang’s PSC colleagues have repeatedly prevented him from giving his faithful follower full Politburo status. In internal opinion polls on the popularity of senior cadres, Zeng has consistently ranked well below such stalwarts as Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, Vice President Hu Jintao, and Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Li Ruihuan.

Jiang, however, has indicated unequivocally that one of his conditions for stepping down–he is 76 years old–is that Zeng be made a PSC member at the upcoming 16th congress. And it is all but certain that Zeng will be inducted into the elite body–and be given the portfolio of party affairs currently being held by Vice President Hu. Jiang’s intention is that Zeng will become the head of the Jiang Zemin (Shanghai) Faction in his stead.

Political sources in Beijing, perhaps reflecting his rapidly expanding clout, say that there has been a “revisionist look” at Zeng’s career and thinking. They have indicated that Zeng is the man to watch after the 16th Congress, that Zeng’s future moves–as much as Hu’s or Wen’s–are critical to reform.


First, while Zeng is poised to become the most junior affiliate of the new PSC, he will be a member of the triumvirate–which will include Hu and Wen, respectively the frontrunners for the posts of party chief and premier–that will run China. It can be argued that in many ways, his power base is more secure than Hu’s. Thanks to support from Jiang and his position as CCP personnel chief, Zeng has been able to install a large number of Shanghai Faction affiliates in key positions during thorough-going regional reshuffles that took place from late 2001 to mid-2002. A Beijing source remarked that a good number of future Central Committee members would feel personally beholden to Zeng for their advancement.

Furthermore, despite his lack of a military appointment, Zeng has–with Jiang’s backing–been able to nurture close ties with a number of senior People’s Liberation Army generals. By contrast, Hu, who has been a CMC vice chairman since 1999, has been kept out of the loop (by Jiang). “Three possible inductees to the Politburo at the 16th Congress–Generals Cao Gangchuan, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou–consult with Zeng on a regular basis,” the Beijing source said. “Hu, on the other hand, has minimal contact with the generals, who are collectively deemed the party’s king-maker.” An indication of Zeng’s military clout–Zeng, who once worked in the PLA’s General Political Department–is that his sister, Zeng Haisheng, was recently made a senior officer in the General Logistics Department. Zeng Haisheng, who has the rank of major general, was once an engineer with the army engineering corps.


Wu Jiaxiang, a former party official who has done research at Harvard University, said the struggle between Zeng’s Shanghai Faction and Hu’s Communist Youth League faction could dominate factional dynamics after the 16th Congress. The big question for China observers, then, is: If, as is likely, Zeng will be a powerful figure in the post-16th Congress order, will he be a force for reform?

“There is no question that Zeng is significantly more liberal than Jiang or other members of the Third Generation,” said a senior scholar at an official think tank. For example, he continued, when both Zeng and Jiang were members of the Shanghai party committee in the mid-1980s, Zeng had alerted Jiang, who was a mayor and then party secretary, to new ideas about economic and political reform. “Zeng and intellectuals in his circle expressed interest in ideas ranging from checks and balances within the party to the federal model of government,” the scholar said. He added that Zeng is in many ways more capable than Hu, who is renowned for his caution and fear of offending party elders.

U.S.-based commentator Zong Hairen, also a former party cadre, makes this generous appraisal of Zeng in his forthcoming book on the Fourth Generation: “Zeng is smart and knows how to get things done; he has major abilities and a sweeping vision [for the country].”

Since becoming head of the Organization Department in 1999, Zeng has played an important role in promoting “inner party democracy,” or boosting the level of transparency and accountability in the party. His initiatives have included introducing cha’e (competitive) elections to pick local-level party secretaries. Until this innovation, a provincial party secretary had pretty much full authority in appointing the party bosses of counties and districts. Zeng has also favored holding public exams to recruit officials of up to the level of vice heads of departments in the ministries and provinces.

The former vice party secretary of Shanghai is among several leaders to have pushed forward the idea of “elitist politics.” This means ensuring that members of “new classes” such as private businessmen and returnees from abroad will have a chance to become party and government cadres.


For Zeng to shed his image as Jiang’s aide-de-camp and schemer-in-residence, however, he has to show he can rise beyond narrow factional dynamics. In the past few months, the Jiang doppelganger has alienated more moderate and liberal cadres because of the apparent role that he has played in ensuring that the retiring president can maintain his influence after the 16th Congress. “To prepare himself for a bigger role after the 16th Congress, Zeng has made himself out to be a closet liberal,” a Western diplomat said. “Yet even the relatively reformist ideas that Zeng has come up with–including promoting ‘inner party democracy’–will only serve to accentuate the predominance of the CCP and its dominant faction.”

Even as he has consolidated his position as Jiang’s spokesman and favorite Fourth Generation cadre, however, the wily Zeng has also been building bridges to Hu. On a number of party functions since early summer, Zeng has openly praised Hu’s “perspicacious views” and asked fellow officials to study well the vice president’s speeches. It is quite possible, however, that after the 16th Congress, the power struggle between the Zeng and Hu camps will intensify. The only way that such internecine bickering may profit the country is if the Zeng and Hu factions were to engage in a competition regarding which one could push reform the farthest. After all, political liberalization is the one area that Jiang has neglected most during his 13-year tenure.

This felicitous outcome, however, remains unlikely, at least in the near future, simply because whoever emerges as top dog in the Politburo must first demonstrate his ability to maintain stability and CCP supremacy. And the preoccupation for both Hu and Zeng in the coming two to three years will most probably be to uphold socialist law and order rather than introduce political reform that smacks of Western influence.

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.