Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 10

By Wen Yu

Since the Chinese communists came to power in 1949, China has suffered gravely from succession politics. During the Maoist era that ended in 1976, convulsive political tensions and struggles surrounding the succession issue had greatly damaged the relationships among the ruling elite and brought untold suffering to millions of ordinary Chinese. In the late 1980s, China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping purged his own designated successors Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang one after another when they displeased him. In the subsequent political struggles to succeed Deng, ultimate decisions on succession were made in secret by a small group of party elders at Deng’s home. China today, like its past, has not institutionalized succession. This is especially true regarding the position of the “core leader”–the top man at the center, whose effective leadership is critically important to maintaining stability in China. The uncertainty of smooth transfer of power has been highly damaging to the system in the past and has the potential to remain disruptive in the future.

It is widely believed that Hu Jintao, a member of the all-powerful Standing Committee of the communist party’s Politburo and China’s vice president, will succeed Jiang Zemin as party general secretary and president when Jiang starts to hand over power in fall 2002. But as Hu has to assure Jiang of his continuing fidelity, it is difficult for him to build up his own power base while Jiang is still around. Though it seems unlikely that Hu will be purged by Jiang before next fall, one can not rule out the possibility that Hu could be nudged aside by other contenders before he consolidates his position after the succession. In this scenario, Zeng Qinghong, now an alternate member of the Politburo, is the main potential challenger to Hu.


In China, the offspring of veteran communist revolutionaries belong to the privileged class. They are labeled “princelings,” or the “princes’ party,” though it is not an organized political group. Many of them, drawing on the influence of their parents, now hold important positions in the party, government and military, or head lucrative trading companies. Zeng Qinghong is one of these princelings.

Zeng Shan, Zeng Qinghong’s father, was a senior commander of the communist Third Field Army during China’s civil war that ended in 1949 and a member of the party’s Central Committee before Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Zeng’s mother Deng Liuqin, who is still alive, used to be the director of the Shanghai-based East China Kindergarten in the early 1950s, where the children of many senior officials were brought up. In a country like China where power resides in informal connections, the network of personal ties the Zeng family has cultivated over the decades has proven to be extremely useful.

Born in July 1939, Zeng Qinghong graduated from a Beijing technology college in 1963. His skill at political intrigue did not become evident until 1984 when he was made deputy director of the party’s municipal organization department in Shanghai. When Jiang Zemin became Shanghai mayor in 1985, he immediately found in Zeng a man he could trust.

When the pro-democracy student movement of spring 1989 was gaining momentum nationwide, Jiang was Shanghai party secretary and Zeng was his deputy. Acting on Zeng’s advice, Jiang closed the World Economic Herald, a liberal Shanghai-based weekly advocating bolder political and economic reform, in May 1989 and managed to keep the local student movement under control. Contrary to the bloody military crackdown in Beijing on June 4, 1989, Shanghai student demonstrations ended without bloodshed. Thus Jiang acquired merit in Deng’s eyes and was made party general secretary in June 1989.

A popular Chinese saying goes, “when a man attains immortality, even his pets ascend to heaven.” This is true of the Jiang-Zeng relationship. Shortly after Jiang’s promotion to Beijing, Zeng was made deputy director of the party Center’s General Office that handles administrative details of the bureaucracy. In 1993, he became the director. Taking advantage of his power at the General Office, Zeng functioned as Jiang’s “chief housekeeper.” When Jiang was appointed in winter 1989 to chair the Central Military Commission that controls the military, he had to remain on the periphery as he had no prior military experience. It was Zeng that helped Jiang cultivate and establish ties with the military brass by putting to use his family’s extensive network of connections. Zeng’s “housekeeping” also furthered Jiang’s interest at the Central Discipline Inspection Commission (responsible for seeking out violation of party rules), the Central Commission for Political and Legal Affairs (in charge of the court and prosecuting systems and other repressive apparatus), Propaganda Department (overseeing the media, education and political studies), Organization Department (handling personnel appointments) and many other central party bodies. Zeng even extended his influence into foreign affairs. In the 1990s, when Jiang went abroad to visit foreign countries, Zeng, more often than not, was in the entourage.


Zeng rarely speaks out on China’s major domestic and foreign policy issues except to echo Jiang’s remarks. His role as Jiang’s “chief housekeeper” is equivalent to that of a “chief eunuch” to the emperor in ancient China. Though the eunuch enjoyed unrestricted access to the emperor, he had nothing to claim in his own right and his role was often frowned upon by ministers in the court. To advance Zeng’s own political career, Jiang maneuvered to make Zeng an alternate member of the politburo and a member of the party Central Committee’s Secretariat at the 15th Party Congress in 1997.

In October 1998, Zeng made an effort to further consolidate Jiang’s power. He submitted a proposal to the Politburo in the name of the Secretariat to launch the “Three Stresses” (politics, studies, righteousness) campaign among party cadres at and above the county level. This was in name a rectification campaign to correct unhealthy tendencies. To a larger extent, however, it was an effort to strengthen Jiang’s political control. After the Politburo had approved the proposal, Zeng instructed the Secretariat to list forty-five articles written by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zeming as the required reading for the campaign. Fifteen of these were Jiang’s speeches, thus putting him on a par with Mao and Deng.

In March 1999, Zeng moved to head the powerful Organization Department, giving him more power to promote Jiang’s and his own supporters. Over the years, Zeng has successfully installed members of the “Shanghai Gang” (a term used to describe Jiang’s proteges who had worked in Shanghai when Jiang was party secretary there) for leading positions at the central and regional levels.

At the party’s 5th Plenum in fall 2000, it was widely expected that Zeng would be promoted to full membership in the Politburo to fill up a vacancy. That move would have prepared the way for Zeng’s elevation to the Politburo’s Standing Committee at the 16th Party Congress. But Zeng’s promotion did not occur. At the 6th Plenum this past fall, Jiang again failed to install Zeng in the Politburo, as several members of the Standing Committee reportedly opposed Jiang’s plan with success.

It seems unlikely that Zeng would rival Hu Jintao for the top spot at the 16th Party Congress scheduled for fall next year, however, Jiang has continued to portray Zeng as China’s No. 2. This past September when Jiang was having a closed-door meeting with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, he reportedly referred to Hu and Zeng as China’s “core leaders” of the next generation. In a meeting with Russian President Putin at the Shanghai APEC summit in October this year, Jiang made an effort to introduce Zeng to Putin and asked, “Do you know Qinghong? He is our director of the Organization Department and a member of the Secretariat.” By the standard practice in the party, Jiang, a senior, would refer to Zeng, a junior, as “Comrade Zeng Qinghong.” If the relationship is close, Zeng would be addressed as “Comrade Qinghong.” The reference to Zeng simply as “Qinghong” implies an extremely close relationship between the two.

Given the possibility that Jiang will continue to exercise a great deal of political influence after his retirement, the most likely scenario is that China will be ruled by a “troika” consisting of Hu, Zeng and the new premier, with Jiang as the overlord behind the scenes. But should Hu show any sign of disobedience, he could be ousted before he has the time to build and consolidate his own base of supporters. If this happens, Zeng could emerge as the victor amidst the subsequent jockeying for power at the apex. But as most Chinese believe that the nation’s social and economic progress hinges on a strong and stable central leadership, the possible division at the top does not bode well for China in the years to come.

Wen Yu is the pen name for a former Chinese official.