Re-emergence of former party leaders illustrates extent to which power in China is still about personalities and patronage
The melody to a long-forgotten song for the 1930s movie Jungle Princess. A hefty donation to a scholarship fund for poor students. Prominent seats at the women’s finals at the China Open.
From such apparently disparate strands, analysts discern a common theme: the re-emergence of China’s former party leaders just as incumbents prepare to hand power to younger figures this week.
When the 18th party congress opened last Thursday, the three generations took their places at the front of the dais in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. The anointed heir, Xi Jinping, commanded less attention than former general secretary Jiang Zemin, seated next to current leader Hu Jintao.
Other elders further down the table were easily identified by their fading locks – though former premier Li Peng, with his startlingly black brows, is clearly still wedded to the dye used by those in office.
The meeting, which concludes in Beijing on Wednesday, demonstrates the Communist party’s attempts to institutionalise politics and contain the power of individuals. Introducing set terms and age limits was supposed to ensure smooth transitions.
But the enduring role of retired leaders illustrates the limits of that project and the extent to which power in China is still about personalities and patronage.
“From Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin, to Hu Jintao, to Xi Jinping, the tradition carries on,” said independent scholar Chen Ziming.
While elders might not challenge the incumbents’ overall stance, said Chen, “they do pay attention to key events – especially political reform, their historical reputation or evaluation, and their children or relatives’ career arrangements.”
Last year, 86-year-old Jiang was so low profile that a Hong Kong television station was forced to apologise for wrongly reporting his death, which had been widely rumoured. This year, he has met the Starbucks CEO, attended a concert and written a verse for his old school.
Both People’s Daily – the official Communist party newspaper – and a state television channel devoted coverage last month to former leader Li Lanqing’s search for the sheet music to Moonlight and Shadows, from a Dorothy Lamour film. His patron Jiang had been able to write the song’s tune and lyrics from memory, it noted. It was, surmised analysts, a not particularly subtle hint about his continuing vigour and alertness.
Like former premier Li Peng’s 3m yuan (£300,000) donation to a scholarship fund, and the attendance of another elder, Li Ruihuan, at the tennis match, such forays into the public eye are intended to signal that retired leaders are still around and active, say analysts.
Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst, said their role reflected the hierarchical nature of Chinese political culture and tendency to venerate the old – but also, paradoxically, the introduction of hard and fast retirement rules. “They don’t jump so much as are pushed – and they are not reluctant to push back,” he noted.
Feng Chongyi, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Technology, Sydney, argued that they mainly influenced personnel choices. Jiang is widely reported to have played a key role in the choice of the new politburo standing committee – the top political body – pushing out candidates favoured by Hu.
“The patronage networks are extremely important for the protection and promotion of senior officials in China. There are strong mutual demands between patrons and clients. Jiang and other elders are making desperate efforts to support their protégés,” said Feng.
Not only do they want to protect their political legacies, but many also have families who have prospered in business – and whose fortunes could be made or broken by state policy.
But Jiang’s re-emergence may say as much about the party as about him. Some analysts think he has taken advantage of a vacuum; others see him as effect as much as cause, stepping in to voice broader frustrations with the current administration.
The sense that reforms have stalled over the last decade “helped Jiang Zemin rally a certain number of people; even leaders who didn’t belong to the Shanghai clique and are not particularly close to him,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University.
But, he warned, the intervention of elders contributes to the paralysis of the whole system, as vested interests accumulate.
Xi boasts the advantages of a revered revolutionary family and the backing of Jiang, who is thought to have been critical in his elevation. Yet he will have two predecessors and many more elders in the shadows.
“Are [elders] going to trust Xi Jinping as the new CEO of China and remain as board members meeting every year or so to evaluate results?” asked Cabestan. “The more retired emperors you have got, the more complicated the game is.”
Chen said that in theory Xi could rule without consulting the elders, but that his style made it unlikely.
“None of the laws or regulations or people’s opinions say he has to,” he noted.
“But Xi was chosen to be the next leader because he fit the requirements and is after their minds.”
The Changing of the Guard
China’s president and premier step down from their party posts for a once-in-a-decade leadership change.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party wrapped up its 18th Congress with the resignation of the country’s President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao from their top party posts to make way for the next generation of leaders to be unveiled on Thursday.
Hu stepped down to make way for Vice President Xi Jinping, while Premier Wen Jiabao left his post to Vice Premier Li Keqiang as more than 2,000 hand-picked Party delegates cast their votes for the three top policy-making bodies in the ruling party: the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.
Xi and Li were both elected to the party’s Central Committee at the end of the week-long meeting, according to state news agency Xinhua, setting the stage for them to be president and prime minister respectively.
The two, who have long been predicted to take over, are expected to be confirmed as president and prime minister when parliament meets for its annual session in March, completing the party’s second orderly succession since it took power in 1949.
The full list of the Central Committee well as the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee is expected to be released on Thursday, when Xi is expected to be officially announced as the party’s top leader.
All eyes will be on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest decision-making body which currently has nine members but is widely expected to be cut to just seven seats, according to veteran China political analyst Willy Wo-lap Lam.
“Whether inside China or overseas, the main thing people are concerned with at this congress has been the personnel changes, which will be announced at a meeting [on Thursday],” Lam said.
“But it is very clear that there has been a setback for intra-party democracy, because a lot of the retired leaders, especially Jiang Zemin, have been clearly involved in the selection of top personnel,” as delegates rarely vote against leadership guidelines.
“It was Jiang Zemin who put forward Xi Jinping’s name at the last 17th Party Congress as the successor to Hu Jintao,” he said.
‘Scientific development’ theory
The close of Hu’s political tenure has resulted in his theory of “scientific development” being entered into the Party’s constitution alongside Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and the “Three Represents” of Party elder and former president Jiang Zemin.
Political commentator Cai Yongmei, a former editor of the Hong Kong-based magazine Kaifang, said the congress and the inscription of Hu’s theories into the Party canon served as a stark reinforcement of China’s rule of man, as opposed to rule of law.
“If [a leader] has a lot of political influence, then their theories are likely to last longer,” Cai said. “In a society ruled by man [not law], all of the top leaders see themselves as playing a similar role to the founder of a religion.”
Cai said the congress had shown the world unequivocally that there would be no political reforms in China, in spite of a growing chorus of calls in favor, although it was still unclear exactly what the world could expect from the new administration.
“Now the old guard … have to sit back and enjoy the show, and it will take a while for us to see what the new leadership will be like after it has been fully revealed,” she said.
“The tone of the 18th Party Congress wasn’t [necessarily] the tone that will be struck by the new leadership.”
Overall, Cai said there had been a conservative retrenchment in Chinese politics since the military crackdown on the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.
“The Chinese Communist Party has faced its biggest challenges at this congress since June 4,” including the scandal surrounding former rising political star Bo Xilai who was linked to the murder of a British businessman, she said.
“I think they have a very keen sense of crisis, so they want to ensure that they hang onto power smoothly and completely; they have used all manner of security measures and held it behind closed doors.”
Lam said the inscription of Hu’s “scientific development” theories into the canon of the constitution were becoming a courtesy nod to outgoing leaders.
“This means that Jiang Zemin had the ‘three represents’ from his era, and now we have the so-called values of ‘scientific development’ from Hu Jintao’s tenure,” said
“I think that Hu Jintao is very concerned about his position in history now that he is retiring from public life.”
“His views on how to run the country now must get inscribed into the Party constitution,” Lam said, adding that there was little substance to Hu’s “theories.”
“It’s not very meaningful for China’s future development,” he said.
According to Wong Yiu-chung, director of the politics department at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, Jiang’s high-profile role in this congress had put pressure on outgoing president Hu Jintao, who may not succeed in retaining his post as head of the armed forces.
“If he doesn’t stay on [as chairman of the Central Military Commission], I think it’ll be because he was forced out,” Wong said.
“Jiang Zemin’s high-profile role has put a lot of pressure on Hu.”