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China: Speculations About a Power Struggle

Four events, which took place in China in the very recent period, have given rise to speculations, especially abroad, on a power struggle developing in the country. Given the opaque Chinese political system, such a phenomenon should not come as a surprise to anybody. Said to be involved in the struggle is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chief and the country’s President, Hu Jintao, perceived as a leader trying to further consolidate his leadership position through weeding out the remaining supporters of former President Jiang Zemin from positions of power.

In chronological order, the events, all seemingly unrelated, are the following – the arrests of Shenzhen Mayor Xu Zongheng and some senior Guangdong officials on corruption charges (June 2009), the eruption of ethnic unrest in Xinjiang (5 July 2009), the reported figuring of Hu Jintao’s son Hu Haifeng in a corruption investigation started by the authorities in Namibia (17 July 2009) and the promotion of four senior military officials as full generals of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (20 July 2009).

Taking first the developments in Shenzhen, notable is a speculative analysis in the overseas Chinese website Bo Xun (21 June 2009) to the effect that the arrests of Xu Zongheng and the Guangdong Provincial People’s Consultative Conference Chairman Chen Shaoji along with at least six other provincial officials, are a continuation of Hu Jintao’s drive against Jiang-loyalists which began in 2006 with the ouster of the former Shanghai Mayor, former Politburo member and a Jiang protege Chen Liangyu from his positions on corruption charges. It has conveyed a sense that Hu Jintao is implementing his anti-Jiang manouvres in Guangdong through his protégé, He Guoqiang, presently the Secretary of Party’s Central Discipline Inspection Commission.

Next, the riots in Xinjiang are being viewed, at least by some, as reflecting a factional fighting in China. For e.g., the well known Chinese dissident in exile Wei Jingsheng (www.asianews.it, 27 July 2009) has seen the hand of Jiang faction in the unrest in Xinjiang as part of its fight back against Hu Jintao. Wei has felt that the Jiang faction, which still controls China’s legal system and courts, deliberately fuelled tensions in both Guangdong and Xinjiang and that in the latter, it has been successful in demobilising the police force during Urumqi riots, creating an opportunity to Uighurs to kill the Han Chinese. He has added that feeling a loss of face under such situation and in order to re-secure his position at home, Hu Jintao was compelled to return to Beijing cutting short his G-8 engagements in Italy and that the World Uighur Congress was not the real reason for the ethnic unrest in Xinjiang.

The third event concerns the reported intention of the Namibian authorities to question Hu Haifeng, the son of Hu Jintao, on a corruption case involving supply of port and airport scanners to Namibia by the Chinese company NucTech of which the junior Hu remained as CEO till 2008; prima facie it appears unconnected with a power struggle. But whether or not the Jiang faction would try to exploit the case in order to weaken Hu Jintao’s position is likely to remain as a question for speculative analysts. They may argue that NuTech officials, including Hu jintao’s son, if found corrupt, should be treated in the same way as it was done in the cases of Shenzhen and Shanghai mayors. This being so, official efforts which are being made to cover up the developments relating to Hu Haifeng, speak for the current nervousness of the Hu regime over the issue (for e.g. the ban order of the CCP Propaganda Department on all domestic and internet media including Sina and Netease, from reporting on NuTech episode, issued immediately after the exposure of Hu Haifeng’s case in the international media like the Telegraph, 17 July 2009, www.news.yahoo.com, www.time.com).The full Chinese language text of the government instructions ( “show no search results for key words like Hu Haifeng, NuTech, Namibia etc”) was promptly picked up in full by the bloggers in the West.

The fourth event pertains to the promotions of three PLA officers to the full rank of General on 20 July 2009. Again a speculative question touching the power struggle aspect, has immediately surfaced; an overseas Chinese analyst (Victor Shih, http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu) has raised a question whether Hu Jintao is trying to shore up support in the Army, in the backdrop of a possible Namibian probe of his son. The three promoted officers were –

1. Ma Xiaotian, who is a Central Committee member and so far Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff. He has an Air force background and took part in the Sino-US Defence Consultation talks, besides meeting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. He is against US military alliances in the Asia Pacific. Ma led the Chinese Observers Group to the First Sino-Indian counter-terrorism exercise held in Kunming in end 2007. His father was Ma Zaiyao, a former instructor in the PLA Political Academy.

2. Liu Yuan, is the son of the former Chinese President, Liu Shaochi, a Central Committee member and so far, the Political Commissar of the Academy of Military Sciences. Liu is supposed to be hawkish on sovereignty issues particularly on Taiwan.

3. Zhang Haiying, so far Political Commissar, Chengdu Military Region, son of General Zhang Zhen, a former CMC Vice Chairman and Politburo member.

It is obvious that the three promoted officers are all “princelings”, meaning children of Party elders or retired Generals. A widely prevalent view overseas is that Hu Jintao who has no military background, is using such promotions of the sons of first and second generation revolutionaries to senior PLA posts, for consolidating his base in the military. Hu had done so in the past also, for e.g. in July 2004, he promoted six top military officers as generals. A point worth noting in this connection is the importance now being given in China to Hu Jintao’s command over the military, for e.g. his call to integrate the requirements of the PLA and the people (Beijing, 25 July 2009) is being compared with the one made by Mao Zedong in the past for setting up an army based on the concept of ‘military-people unity’. (www.71.people.com.cn, 27 July 2009)

As actions intended to quell such speculations on factional infighting in the Party, the nine Politburo Standing Committee members, have appeared together several times in a show of unity (Politburo meeting on 9 July 2009 to discuss Xinjiang, the Shanghai 2010 World Expo ceremony on 15 July 2009 at Beijing, Hu Jintao’s address to the country’s diplomats on 20 July 2009 and the Politburo meeting in advance of the 82nd PLA founding anniversary on 25 July 2009).

To come to a judgment on a topic like power struggle in China, no scholar can afford to rely on speculations only, unless they are backed by facts. However, the prevailing closed system in China does not provide any opportunity for analysts to impartially analyse facts concerning sensitive political subjects. The only alternative available to them is to read between the lines of open official records and speculate, as in the foregoing.

So how do we read the speculative comments appeared so far? The least that can be said is that they, emanating from some knowledgeable observers, deserve enough attention, as tools for further research. In an overall sense, at the same time, it can not be denied that the internal political situation in China remains stable, based on a policy consensus between the existing two informal factions with in the CCP top leadership (Knowledgeable experts like Cheng Li of John L.Thornton China Centre recognize a ruling ‘team of rivals’ in China, consisting of a ‘populist’ faction led by Hu Jintao and an ‘elitist’ faction consisting of leaders like Wu Bangguo and ‘Princeling’ leaders like Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to succeed Hu Jintao). If there are internal differences, care is being taken for not airing them in public.

Currently, the real threat to the political stability in China does not seem to come from potential intra-party conflicts over issues, as the ruling ‘collective’ leadership functions under the basis of a consensus and mechanisms exist to iron out differences. But Hu Jintao is only first among equals in contrast to the positions enjoyed by his predecessors; if his leadership fails to effectively address the emerging economic, social and even ideological issues in the country within a reasonable period of time, the consequence will be a beginning of nationwide unrest, which could be detrimental to the legitimacy of the CCP as a ruling party. Some signals of unrest have already emerged and if it goes unchecked, there could be chances of a struggle between factions with Hu Jintao as target.The 1989 student demonstrations are a case in point, which witnessed the fall of the then Party chief Zhao Ziyang.

What are the urgent issues facing the Chinese leadership now? The first and foremost among them is economic in character – the rural-urban income disparity and the development imbalance between advanced coastal regions and poor interior areas in the country. They have come to stay despite the investment-export led high-speed growth model followed in the post-1978 period, bringing in general huge benefits to the middle class. The government’s response to the imbalance has been in the form of a shift from its erstwhile GDP-centric policy to one aimed at achieving a ‘balanced development’. To understand the impact of this shift on the country, one has however to wait further. The latest worry for the leadership is on how to reduce the impact from the global financial crisis. A very recent official estimate has acknowledged the challenge in this regard by noting that though the Chinese economy has rebounded, uncertainties still exist in the face of falling export demands and sluggish industrial growth. (People’s Daily online, 27 July 2009).

As social factors, corruption, labour unrest and unemployment have become the government’s serious concerns. A nation-wide anti-corruption campaign has now been launched (He Guoqiang’s speech, Beidaihe, 27 July 2009), hinting that Shenzhen-type counter-measures are likely through out the country. If not handled properly, this may turn out to be another exercise, which can be exploited to settle political scores. On reducing unemployment and social unrest, various remedial measures are being implemented. (In the second half of 2008, 10 million rural migrants lost their jobs and 1 million graduates became unemployed). The CCP has announced a 5-year educational plan to cover the period of 2009-2013, aimed at enhancing the working abilities of grassroot cadres and facilitating acquiring of alternate skills by migrant and laid-off workers as well as retired army personnel. Also, ‘Patriotic education’ is being stressed as a tool to build social stability. A patriotic “double hundred” education campaign was carried out in May-June 2009 to select by voting 100 model heroes and 100 Party cadres who made contributions to New China). Nevertheless, factors responsible for social unrest are yet to disappear as can be seen from the large-scale violent protest by 30, 000 workers in Tonghua city (Jilin, 24 July 2009) against the merger of their steel company with a private enterprise in Beijing, during which the manager of the enterprise was killed. The merger proposal has since been withdrawn.

Not to be ignored is the situation in the ideological front; the leadership is confronted with divergent opinions in the country, which if not managed well, may have implications for China’s future politics and governance. The official policy seems to be allowing such viewpoints (from ‘neo-liberalists’ like those from the ‘Yan Huang Chun Qiu’ magazine group, ‘neo-leftists’ like Professor Wang Hui of Qinghua University and ‘ultra-leftists’ such as the Maoflag group) as a balance against each other and as policy inputs to the government whenever necessary (some neo-left view points were incorporated in the 11th Five Year Plan). Interesting in this context, is the revival in China of the old formula of “letting hundred flowers bloom and letting hundred schools of thought contend”, but with a proviso that the interests of stability and unity in the country should not get jeopardized while implementing it (Qiu Shi, 16 July 2009). Setting the limits at the same time to the ‘blooming’ are some top level prescriptions, for e.g the firm rejection by China People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Jia Qinglin of ‘neo-liberalism’ and Western-style democracy for China in his article in the CCP theoretical organ (Qiu Shi, 16 January 2009).

During the scheduled 18th party congress in 2012, the fifth generation of leadership is to take over China replacing the Hu-Wen regime. In all probability, the new set of leaders will be Xi Jinping (as Party General Secretary and President) and Li Keqiang (as Prime Minister). What needs to be watched carefully at this juncture is the scenario leading up to the forthcoming party Plenum in September 2009 which is expected to adopt a crucial roadmap on party building and economic development. In a broad sense, however, it would be important to pay close attention to the likely nature of impending power transfer in 2012. Jiang Zemin’s handing over of reins to Hu Jintao had been smooth; one can only hope that the situation will be the same during the next CCP conclave, with no place for a power struggle.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. email: dsrajan@gmail.com)

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