Hu’s in Charge?

6 minute read
Matthew Forney/Beijing

A few minutes’ walk from the chic shopping district in what was once Shanghai’s French Concession, Dechang Road dead ends at an iron gate guarded by three men in military uniforms. Beyond stands a new, three-story brick house with tan stucco trim. Known to officials as the “Shanghai No. 1 Construction Project,” the property is supposed to be the retirement home of Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin. During China’s 16th Party Congress that concluded last week, Jiang, 76, became the first modern Chinese supremo to resign his position. He was expected to go off and peacefully build his libraryor whatever Chinese ex-leaders might doafter ceding control to Hu Jintao, 59, Jiang’s replacement as General Secretary.

But citizens who looked forward to their country’s first orderly transition of powerwithout the purges and midnight arrests that have marked past leadership changesmay be disappointed. Jiang isn’t going anywhere quietly. If anything, his retirement home is looking like China’s new seat of authority. He retains the title of President until the legislature meets in March, and he remains commander in chief of the country’s military indefinitely. More importantly, Jiang has stacked the Politburo’s Standing Committeethe Party’s most powerful bodywith so many of his cronies that it appears the Party’s ballyhooed transition to a younger generation of leaders has effectively been thwarted. Jiang even engineered an expansion of the Standing Committee from seven to nine members, presumably so he could get his right-hand man, Zeng Qinghong, and unpopular but loyal apparatchiks Jia Qinglin and Huang Ju into his postretirement support network.

The developments are ominous for Hu and for China’s political stability. Because he was unable to maneuver his own allies into prominent positions during the Party Congress, Hu may be years away from becoming China’s true leader. Jiang, when he took control of the government 13 years ago, at least had behind-the-scenes backing from his predecessor, Deng Xiaoping. Hu may not be able to count on Jiang’s support, portending political infighting that will distract the country’s leaders from China’s pressing social and economic challenges, which include rising unemployment and epidemic corruption. “Jiang has made a terrible mistake” by undermining Hu and hanging on to power, says Cheng Li, a professor and China expert at Hamilton College in the U.S.

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Why didn’t Jiang choose a graceful, statesmanlike exit? It’s not that Jiang and Hu, China’s Vice President, are mortal enemies. They’ve worked together for 10 years and are thought to share a similar vision of China’s future. After the congress Hu vowed to carry on Jiang’s economic liberalization policies and uphold the Theory of the Three Represents, Jiang’s doctrinal legacy that among other points calls for the Party to embrace once-shunned entrepreneurs. Arthur Waldron, a China specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests Jiang is hanging on simply because he isn’t ready to go. “The Party has a pure dominance hierarchy,” he says, “and it’s hard to give up being the alpha (male).”

That places Hu, a smart but bland technocrat, in the awkward position of having to consolidate his power through Machiavellian wiles. Every Chinese leader since Mao has signaled his own arrival by ousting his predecessor’s followers. Deng Xiaoping cast out Mao’s choice, Hua Guofeng, to become China’s supreme leader in 1978. And Jiang himself declared his independence in 1995 by ordering the arrest on corruption charges of Deng’s faithful Beijing Party chief, Chen Xitong. “The congress has resolved very little, and Hu will have to move against someone” in Jiang’s camp to show his strength, predicts Wu Guoguang, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a former aide to ex-Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang (who, incidentally, was purged in 1989).

Jiang’s power play may claim another victim: political reform. Pro-democracy advocates had hoped that Hu, who during his rise through the ranks has dropped tantalizing hints that he might want more open political institutions on the mainland, would quietly allow electoral experimentation. That’s unlikely if he is operating in Jiang’s shadow. Provincial leaders close to Hu are the types most likely to move ahead with local elections in regions far from Beijingespecially if there were a supportive hand in the capital. But now, “if Hu tries to do anything new, it implies that Jiang had the wrong approach, and then Jiang will block him,” speculates a former editor for the People’s Daily newspaper.

Political reform is likely to remain on hold, but China’s economic liberalization continues. The 16th Party Congress blew away the last pretenses that the mainland’s brand of communism stands for the working class. Last week, delegates cleared the way for capitaliststhe types reviled by Marx for “sucking living labor”to become Party members and promised financial reforms providing venture capital to entrepreneurs. For the first time, the Party named a businessman as an alternate member of its Central Committee: Zhang Ruimin, CEO of Haier, China’s most successful refrigerator maker. “The Party has changed its colors,” says Jean-Pierre Cabestan, director of the Hong Kong-based French Center for Research on Contemporary China. “It doesn’t care about ordinary people, it cares only about the lite.”

Will Hu remain among them? Certainly he didn’t spend his career rising to the top of the world’s most populous country just to parrot Jiang’s slogans. Eventually, he’ll want to introduce his own ideas. “I think he’s got two years,” says an editor at a Party-run newspaper. “If he doesn’t have a platform by then, he’s lost his chance.” The best Hu can hope for is that Jiang will surrender his position atop the military in March and his power will ebb slowly over the next few years. But it doesn’t appear likely that Jiang will be sitting in his rocking chair at his Shanghai home, letting Hu run the country.

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