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China: Party Plenum And Power Politics

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The Sixth Plenum of the 16th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee (Beijing, October 8-11,2006) has given an impression that power politics in China continues to remain murky and that uncertainties could mark the scenario leading up to the next year’s 17th Party Congress. Rightly or wrongly, perceptions have been gaining ground in the pre-Plenum atmosphere about an ongoing factional rivalry in the PRC – between the one represented by an increasingly assertive Hu Jintao, the top Party, Military and State leader in the country and the other by former Party boss Jiang Zemin, whose known protégés have continued to stay in power. The pattern of personnel changes carried out in the period prior to the session, involving key posts in the Party and State including those in provinces, has given credence to the belief that Hu Jintao, since he succeeded Jiang as Party General Secretary in 2002, has been able to consolidate his power to a considerable extent. Hu has been able to appoint his loyalists (mostly consisting of cadres from the Communist Youth League, his power-base) to a number of positions. The removal of Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, close to Jiang, from his office on corruption charges in September 2006, has been seen as a signal, especially outside China, pointing to Hu’s intentions to eliminate his predecessor’s remaining influence over domestic politics and to establish himself as a leader without challenge by the time of next Party Congress. Not surprisingly therefore, on the eve of the Plenum, all eyes were set on signs towards further strengthening of power by Hu Jintao.

To prove that there is no factional fight, all the nine members of the Politburo Standing committee (PBSC) attended the plenary session in a show of unity position, expectations. The session offered no firm evidences of Hu showing signs of strengthening his position.. It is true that ‘building of harmonious socialist society’ in the country, while keeping ‘economic construction as central task’, has been accorded a ‘ more prominent position’ now, but the concept itself is not being ascribed to Hu Jintao personally yet, as it should be, thus denying the leader an ideological status required for becoming the supreme leader. (Hu’s ‘ Scientific Development’ idea did not figure in the Fifth plenum’s call, but is included in the present communiqué. On both occasions, credit to the idea was not given to Hu). Also, the Sixth Plenum has persisted with the existing practice of calling Hu as Party General Secretary, hinting that granting of the status of ‘core’ of the fourth generation leadership to the leader may take some more time. It is also possible that a consensus has emerged in the CCP over having a collective leadership on a permanent basis from now on, with the General Secretary remaining only a ‘primus inter pares’.

The Plenum’s failure to announce reshuffles in the Party hierarchy has raised fundamental questions on the future power politics, Hu’s further consolidation of power in particular. Did Hu face resistance in the Plenum in the matter of appointment of his followers to the top Party posts and thereby further expand his power base? Though it is not mandatory to announce reshuffles in a Plenum and this can come later, appointments and dismissals have generally been common to past gatherings (for e.g Central Military Commission expansion and removal of former Minister Tian Fengshan in the Fourth Plenum on corruption charges). In the background of existing age restrictions for high level posts, a successor to Hu Jintao should be in horizon now (Such an informal selection has always been noticed in past Plenums preceding the Party Congresses). This has not been the case in the present session. Its silence on the removal of the Shanghai Party Secretary Chen a month ago and the required replacement in the Politburo (Ms Liu Yandong, present United Front Work Department chief, a Hu loyalist, was to succeed Chen as per reports) has surprised many. Also, all the speculations about fresh appointments to key posts in the Plenum did not materialise (for e.g the reported nomination of Politburo Standing Committee member Zeng Qinghong as head of the Preparatory Committee for the 17th Party Congress and additions to the Politburo with leaders like Li Keqiang, the Liaoning Party chief, considered by some as successor to Hu Jintao.

Hu Jintao delivered the Work Report to the Plenum (Full text not yet released). The choice of Wu Bangguo, a PBSC member ranking second in Party hierarchy and Chairman of National People’s Congress, to explain the draft proposal on the ‘harmonious socialist society’ concept at the Plenum, appears significant. Wu is considered close to Jiang and had held Party positions in Shanghai. The selection meant that Wu would henceforth assist Hu Jintao by performing the follow-up work regarding the proposal till the next year’s Party Congress. Also, a message is apparently being conveyed that the support to the concept is free from factional influences. (In the Fourth and Fifth Plenums, the main themes were governing capabilities of the Party and 11th Five year Plan, 2006-10, respectively. On the basis of their area expertise, Hu entrusted the draft explanation responsibility at the Fourth Plenum to Zeng Qinghong, chief of CCP Central Committee Secretariat looking after day to day party affairs and at the Fifth Plenum to Premier Wen Jiabao, the economy specialist.).

The Sixth Plenum is unique in the sense that for the first time, the session devoted exclusively to social development issues other than political and economic affairs. This could be a response to the severity of social crisis gripping the PRC and the need to address it immediately. The occasion however merits approach from another angle. Through his concept of social harmony, Hu by all indications has tried to utilise the event to project himself as a fourth generation Party theoretician. Whether he has been completely successful in this regard, however remains a question. Secondly, at least certain key policy goals formulated earlier (like ‘safeguarding national sovereignty and security’ and the ‘three major historic tasks of modernisation, unification and promoting world peace’) could have been reiterated in the Plenum, which was not the case (except for a short mention of national reunification). The Plenum has now made ‘Harmonious Socialist Society’ as a fourth ‘long term historic task’.

Signed articles on the Plenum in the Chinese language media have given some additional insight into the contents of Hu Jintao’s Work Report and Wu Bangguo’s resolution, (full texts have not been made public so far). They seem to indicate the inclusion of the following in the two documents – ‘Harmonious Socialist Society’ is targeted at ‘special interest groups’ in the Party (Guang Ming Ri Bao, October 5,2006), Ideological education in respect of social harmony is important as adherence to ‘iron bowl’ philosophy is yet to disappear, Party unity needs improvement as there are still ‘cliques’ and corruption among leading cadres in some places damaging social harmony and the new recognition given to ‘house-hold wealth’ needs to be seen in the context of the still persisting belief that it violates ‘collective interests’ (Xinhua, Chinese, October 14,2006). What the influential academician and head of the China Study Centre of Tsinghua University Hu Angang has said could be important. He commented that Hu Jintao’s ‘ Harmonious Socialist Society’ concept is born out of a ‘political consensus’ and the next step should be to arrive at a ‘consensus among the community’ (Xinhua, Chinese, October 14, 2006).

Summing up, it can be said that Hu Jintao has been r unable to further consolidate his power in the Plenum especially by making personnel appointments favourable to him at the highest levels, throwing open the possibilities of continuing resistance to the leader from within the party in the organisation front. This is despite the otherwise bright picture now for Hu in a general sense with his theoretical contribution of social harmony receiving a political consensus. The period up to the next year’s Party Congress will be interesting to watch under the existing circumstances.

(The writer, Mr.D.S.Rajan, is a former Director, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Email:

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