China’s new Long March Part 1


China’s new Long March: one step forward; two steps back

The power transition to China’s new leaders will stretch to the next People’s National Congress in late March 2013, and perhaps even beyond that to a Party meeting in the autumn. After all the debates and speculation about China’s choices, the silence has so far been deafening during this transition period. In this special series of ECFR blog posts, François Godement will examine the signs of where China’s politics and policies are heading under Xi Jinping.

Part 1: the Godfather’s last waltz

It already feels like decades ago. Last autumn, in a climax after two years of top level political debate and sniping, there was still talk about momentous choices. Following Wen Jiabao (still prime minister in name until the next March session of China’s formal legislature) or in fact stealing a march on him, liberals in the media, Party insiders and rights lawyers were speculating on a new step towards legal rule. Economists were making a case for the fight against “vested interests” (for which read: top family relatives and cronies, state enterprises and local real estate barons). That fight coincided with the movement pushing  for the rule of law – because it was clear that without a separation of the legal system from the Party-state, the Party left to itself simply could not defeat its own clans and interests. A massive real estate bubble, exploding inequality, and the flare-up of the Bo Xilai case seemed to demonstrate this graphically.

The summer had also climaxed with a renewal of incidents and agitprop against Japan. But there was little doubt that these movements were rearguard actions by conservatives trying to force a rally around their other causes. The prevailing explanation was that factional struggle prevented any cool-headed, moderate leader from forcing a compromise or at least a pause. If he did so, he would be pilloried in public. So Chinese liberals and the world suffered the drummed up tantrum around the Senkaku-Diaoyu islets, and the Japanese mostly turned the other cheek. It seemed as if there were two political wings or parties at the top of China, with public intellectuals rooting either for the liberal democratic or nationalist populist camps. This is the situation that ECFR’s publications, China at the Crossroads (April 2012) and China 3.0 (September 2012), captured with representative views from both sides.    

Something went wrong not long before the 18th Party Congress in November. Xi Jinping’s two week disappearance has never been explained, but in retrospect there is a strong similarity with former Chairman Mao’s ability to disappear from sight and launch counteroffensives.  He and some top level party leaders and influential retirees did not seem too happy in the spring with the excoriation of Bo Xilai and his ideology – the mixture of singing Maoism, populist pork-barrel politics, and violent persecution of personal enemies. For a good reason: although there clearly would have been later a personal competition with Bo, he was a “useful idiot” to counter liberal and legalist demands, and an earnest supporter of militarist and nationalist trends.

Conversely, over the summer, outgoing president Hu Jintao left his prime minister Wen Jiabao in the lurch, and made his peace over the Bo Xilai issue. Bo’s wife was sentenced with not so much as a stitch showing in her dress that would have pointed at any implication for Bo: truly, a remarkable show trial. But Hu Jintao’s price was clearly a compromise over the political succession at the 18th Party Congress: he had strong candidates from his Youth League support base. They were Li Yuanchao, the Party’s organisation chief, his chief of staff Ling Jihua, the reformist leader of Guangdong province Wang Yang, and the only woman at the top, Liu Yandong. These were lined up to balance known hardliners and “red princes” – the second generation leaders from ruling families. The month of August saw intense strife at the top.

True, there was always something uncertain about such a clear-cut scenario: Hu Jintao himself has been a king of ambiguity during his decade of rule, and the notion that he would be able to impose beyond his own tenure a choice he never made for himself was suspicious. In any case, the sky fell on him by mid-October. Outwardly, the black swan was the twin revelation of Ling Jihua’s and Li Yuanchao’s attempt to cover up Ling’s son Ferrari car accident; and the New York Times enquiry into the wealth of PM Wen’s relatives: although the NY Times journalist did push all sort of doors during a long investigation, it is hard not to think that some of these doors were not left ajar for him.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: Wen had led the chase against Bo Xilai, a slippery slope. Bo’s taste for violence may have been unique, but his corruption wasn’t. And so Xi put the first nail into Hu’s coffin, when he and his backers – including former president Jiang Zemin, still going strong at 86 – said “no, thank you” to Hu’s olive branch on the Bo Xilai case. Two major supporters of Hu were now denounced for the kind of sins they reproached to their adversaries.

And so, the conservatives reverted to the oldest trick in the Chinese Communist Party’s book: they assembled an “enlarged” Politburo where veterans came back with a vengeance alongside regular members. That meeting gave “guidance” to a Central Committee plenum. It formally announced the date for the Party Congress in the same breath that it announced the expulsion of Bo Xilai for bribery, improper conduct and “other crimes.”  Having taken the joker out of Hu’s game, the new coalition destroyed his own grouping. The most significant move was made at the head of the army. Two of Hu’s candidates for vice-presidency of the Military Affairs Commission failed to make it, while at least one general close to Xi did. To show who was the boss, this was publicly announced before the Party Congress.

When the Party Congress opened, the floor was taken from under Hu Jintao. Visibly strained and tired, he only read parts of his general report –a rumour has it that the final text was actually finished after the Congress closed, and under the guidance of Xi Jinping. Hu surrendered immediately his chairmanship of the Military Affairs Commission – the Party State’s number one position since 1935 and the Long March. And the choreographed camera work that is now part of the staging of these events insistently focused on former president Jiang Zemin, a big hulk of a whale standing right behind Hu Jintao and seemingly ready to swallow him. Jiang had been thought to have closed his personal secretariat in 2008, and had reportedly suffered a cardiac arrest in 2011. Other retirees prominently displayed in the official filming included Zeng Qinghong, a former leader last seen in public in March 2010, who was thought to have completely retired from public view in exchange for forgiveness of his son’s financial dealings abroad.

A fair piano player, former president Jiang Zemin is also experienced in the waltz, and once invited the wife of French president Chirac onto the floor for a dance. As he zipped across the Party Congress floor, half a step behind Hu Jintao, one cannot help but think that he was performing his last successful waltz. The Standing Committee that emerged from the 18th Party Congress, China’s true seat of power, clearly bears his mark as much as Xi Jinping’s:

First by age: the incoming members are actually older than their predecessors five years ago (an average of 63.4 versus 62.1 years). Old men have reasons to beware of youngsters.

Second by a case of reverse genetical engineering: out of seven Standing Committee members, four are either children of former top leaders or have a wife who is one. The crown goes to Yu Zhengsheng, the Shanghai party boss. His father once was a husband of Jiang Qing – Mao’s celebrated third wife – and ruled over Tianjin in the 50s. While one relative worked for Chiang Kaishek and another defected to the United States, Yu served Deng’s son at his foundation for the handicapped, then Jiang Zemin himself at the Ministry of Electronics. Wang Qishan’s wife was the daughter of Yao Yilin, a former Politburo member and vice-premier who has backed Jiang Zemin’s career. Zhang Dejiang – whose degree in economics was earned at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang – is the son of a PLA major general.

Xi himself, of course, is a princeling whose father served Mao and Deng. He may have lived for a while in a cave dwelling during the Cultural Revolution. But in late August 2012, when the direction of the succession was in the balance, he is said to have remarked in frustration, “My family’s house was taken over by strangers. Now they want to rent me back some rooms, but I want it all.” 

It is said that Wang Yang, the reformist Party boss for Guangdong who had actually been very careful in preceding months, was actually brought down by the complaints of the children of the Ye family: the descendants of Marshall Ye Jianying, who are the largest real estate promoters in opulent Guangdong province. The theme of second and third generation children is not taboo in China – there are even official websites that publish glowing pictures and descriptions of the glitziest cast members (see this article for an example of a young celebrity row).

But a deeper truth may have emerged. Faced with a tough choice for reforms that might hinder or even bring down the interests of a new power elite, party elders have elected to practice genetic engineering. While one of China’s leaders, Wang Qishan, is said to have advised his colleagues to read Tocqueville’s classic “The Old Regime and the Revolution”, his colleagues are building a de facto aristocracy. A French sinologist, Jean-Luc Domenach, has painstakingly reconstituted the history of Mao’s court and its intrigues from available archives and biographies.[1]It is a fascinating read, showing an old man bitterly failing with his own family and turning into a Chinese King Lear – devouring his colleagues and their children. But the most striking conclusion of the book – written without any allusion or even reference to events after Mao’s death – is that these persecutions inside the Party actually strengthened the bonds inside surviving families and among their children. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping restored to their former seats all survivors of the 1956 Central Committee who had not been promoters of the Cultural Revolution. In 2012 Jiang Zemin locked up China’s top echelon with children of the 1950s or with some of his direct underlings. The CCP’s ideology may be on the wane, but its DNA is now encased inside the leadership.

Immediately after the 18th Congress ended, observers reassured themselves with a new thought: kept away from the Standing Committee, younger and more reformist leaders, often selected by Hu Jintao, would have their day in five years – when five of the seven new Standing Committeee members will be forced out by the customary age limit. Waiting five years to resume reform – or to patch up relations with Japan and Korea – is a theme currently heard around Beijing. It is likely that the current line-up is the creation of Jiang Zemin, rather than Xi Jinping, who will also have to work for the next succession in less than five years. But five years is a still a long time in politics. 

(Next: the issue of Xi Jinping’s style)

[1]Jean-Luc Domenach, Mao, sa Cour et ses complots : derrière les Murs Rouges, Paris, Fayard, 2012.


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