HONG KONG — As Chinese Communist Party’s 16th Party Congress convened on Nov. 8, the delegates stood for two minutes of silence in memory of past leaders. Along with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, one of the names read out was that of Liu Shaoqi. It was a pointed reminder of CCP tumult and strife in past struggles for power.
The growing rivalry between Chairman Mao and President Liu in the early 1960s was one of the tensions spurring Mao to launch the ruinous Cultural Revolution during which an imprisoned and neglected Liu died a miserable death.
Mao then succumbed to the sycophancy of Lin Biao and made him his successor, only to fall out with Lin, suspecting him of usurping his leadership role. To this day, we do not know for sure whether Lin died in a Mongolian plane crash or in an ambush within Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound.
Mao then tried to prevent Deng Xiaoping from taking China along the capitalist road by making Hua Guofeng his chosen heir. Hua prevented a takeover by the Gang of Four with what amounted to a military coup. But Deng emerged supreme after extended party infighting.
Deng dreamed of the CCP achieving orderly successions. But he only involved the party when it became expedient to remove his first two chosen successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang by extra-constitutional means, using retired CCP leaders who had found Hu and Zhao too reformist for their taste.
Deng then stipulated a two-generational lineup of Jiang Zemin followed by Hu Jintao.
At first sight, an orderly transition has at last been achieved. Set against the CCP’s turbulent past, it is easy to assume that the last decade of reduced factionalism and enhanced economic growth has been an enormous achievement.
But the succession process is not yet complete. One stark contrast warns that the CCP may repeat past errors.
As the 16th Party Congress concluded, reports on China everywhere emphasized the new, stressing the orderly arrival of Vice President Hu as the new CCP leader. Everywhere, that is, except in China itself.
There, the strictly controlled media reported both the old and the new, giving as much, and often more, stress to the continued importance of President Jiang. One did not even have to read between the lines to get the essential message. It was not the first time in China’s long history that an old emperor had clung to power while rearranging the pattern of courtiers advising him.
But some Chinese must have been wondering if they were witnessing once again the quiet before the storm. For the media coverage made it increasingly obvious that, while Hu had succeeded to the top party position, it was Jiang who appeared to be winning the leadership contest.
Prior to the congress, the hope had been that the “third generation” of Chinese officials led by Jiang would gracefully, and completely, give way to the upcoming “fourth generation,” ostensibly led by Hu. Fears remained that the third generation would seek to hang on to power. Now these fears appear to have been justified.
First and foremost, Jiang remains the chairman of the CCP’s Military Affairs Commission, while Hu Jintao remains the vice chairman. Jiang, in other words, retains the position of being commander in chief of the People’s Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force. It is rather as if a retiring Japanese prime minister continues controlling the Self-Defense Forces even as his successor takes office.
The PLA may object to the fact that it is now led by someone who is no longer a member of the ruling Standing Committee of the CCP Politburo. Jiang has taken care of any such objections.
Second, he has packed the new Standing Committee with his supporters and proteges while increasing its size from seven to nine members.
Since Jiang can call upon the loyalty of at least six, and possibly seven, members of the new Standing Committee, he should have little difficulty getting what he wants. Whether Hu will as easily get what he wants remains in doubt. China-watchers are beginning to view Hu as a lone figure who will now have the more difficult task of strengthening his power base when he is already surrounded at the top by Jiang’s allies.
Third, Jiang has managed to get his “Three Represents” theory, which calls upon the CCP to widen its base beyond the workers and peasants, written into the party constitution. While his name has not yet been formally attached to his theory, Jiang has still carved out an ideological position that will require that he continue to be consulted on party affairs.
In these three ways, Jiang has done his best to ensure that he continues to exercise power after all of his third-generation colleagues have been retired. The indications are that Jiang will remain in the media spotlight, while the retirees will disappear.
So while the 16th Party Congress was also notable for introducing a very large number of new faces into the CCP Central Committee, Jiang has made sure that one old face is definitely not forgotten.
As in the past, an ostensibly retiring leader could not let the party freely choose a new leadership. As in the past, factionalism may now revive as frustrated CCP politicians plot and scheme. As in the past, one leader is no longer content to be merely first among equals. As in the past, the problems confronting China are now unlikely to be resolved through bland consensus.
The succession process is far from over. It will be completed at the National Peoples Congress session next March. It is possible that Jiang will then retire from the party Central Military Commission when he leaves the state body of the same name. But immediately Jiang brings one Asian parallel to mind as he threatens to become the Kakuei Tanaka of Chinese politics.
It will be recalled that former Prime Minister Tanaka greatly increased the size, influence and assertiveness of his faction of the ruling party after he retired from the top job.
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