The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held its annual plenum this week. The four-day gathering of top party officials was part pep rally and part policy incubator: It laid the groundwork for next year’s Party Congress, which is held every five years. This week’s meeting served another vital purpose: President Hu Jintao used it to consolidate his control of the party and to stamp out — subtly, for sure, but unmistakably — any opposition.
About 350 officials lead the 70-million member CCP. They gather annually to discuss policy and chart the overall direction of the country. The theme of this year’s Plenum was “Building a harmonious society.” It is the rhetorical formula that President Hu has developed during his tenure to guide policy. In simple terms, it means focusing on the disparities that have emerged in Chinese society, working to overcome them, and devoting more attention and care to those left behind as China embraces economic reform.
Mr. Hu’s approach is a pointed contrast to that of his predecessor, Mr. Jiang Zemin, whose policies favored those who could best exploit the opportunities of the New China. The result was a yawning gap between the overwhelming majority of Chinese who are poor and the new rich, and increasing social tensions.
The battle to shape policy has personal, political consequences, too. At the last Party Congress in 2002, Mr. Hu was named party general secretary and president of China. Yet his assumption of those offices did not end Mr. Jiang’s influence. Mr. Jiang’s supporters remained in influential positions and fought behind the scenes to ensure that his policies were not discarded. Their dissent was usually confined to closed-door discussions, but it periodically became public.
After four years in office, Mr. Hu is now ready to consolidate his power. He took a critical first step last month when Mr. Chen Liangyu, the party secretary for Shanghai, was removed from office on charges of corruption. Officially, Mr. Chen was forced out for being implicated in a pension fund scandal that involved the misuse of funds to finance real-estate deals. In fact, however, there were two other important dimensions to the move.
First, Shanghai was Mr. Jiang’s power base and Mr. Chen was a longtime supporter of the former president. His removal sends a clear signal to Mr. Jiang’s other supporters that they are vulnerable if they do not back the new president and his policies.
Second, the firing is an attempt to reassert central government control over outlying regions. Mr. Chen had won the enmity of the central government by refusing orders to slow Shanghai’s explosive growth. While Beijing is worried about the strains introduced by breakneck growth — overheating, corruption and widening disparities — local governments focus on new jobs, tax revenues and the opportunity to line their own pockets. Removing Mr. Chen sends a clear signal that such disobedience will not be tolerated.
There will not be a bloodletting, however. Two party officials in Henan Province have already been replaced and Mr. Hu appointed a political ally as governor of Hunan Province and another as party head of Guangxi. Those moves send a clear-enough signal to the opposition. A full-scale purge could set off real and dangerous factionalism in the leadership.
Mr. Hu’s assertion of power may be gratifying to him and his team, but it will not end the problems faced by the Communist Party leadership. Mr. Hu is right to be concerned about the huge gaps between the rich and poor in China, but the program “to build a harmonious society” is all-too silent on how that goal is to be achieved. Moreover, the ongoing “disobedience” by regional and state governments suggests that the central government may not have the tools it needs to enforce its will. It is unclear whether Beijing even has the accurate information essential to assessing the situation in distant provinces.
Most troubling is the single most dangerous flaw inherent in the one-party state. Absent the rule of law, there is practically nothing a government can do to guarantee that power will not be abused. In this environment, the inclination is always to cover up malfeasance rather than expose it, for fear of discrediting the party itself — as has happened so often in China’s past. And while Mr. Chen’s case shows a readiness by Mr. Hu to confront misbehavior, he is clearly being used as an example. In other words, the leadership is only willing to tinker on the margins, rather than embrace systemic reform that is needed to truly fight corruption.
As long as Mr. Hu and his fellow CCP members refuse to introduce independent checks on their power, then that power will be abused. That is a message the CCP is unlikely to take to heart in the runup to next year’s Party Congress.
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