An indication of a possible power tussle would be found in November when the 19th CPC Congress is scheduled to be held.
Chinese politics records a core leader as one who is considered intrinsic to the continuance of the Communist Party-State. So far, there have been three of them, in terms of the longevity of their political power: Mao Zhedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin (Chiang Tszemin). The most recent entrant in this pantheon is Xi Jinping.
In Beijing, there was a belief that Li Keqiang, a tuanpai or a leader of a faction of the party, was made the premier in 2012 as kind of a check on Xi Jinping’s absolutist attitude, a throwback to the Mao era.
But it appears that Li, a leader of the Communist Youth League (CYL), was not quite ready to take on the powerful ‘princeling’. (Those who have been children of veteran Chinese leadership elite, and often staying in the same compound Zhongnanhai, the Chinese top leadership’s headquarters and residences). Xi played with a stronger hand: not only did he have the support of other ‘princelings’, but also he had deep connections within the Chinese armed forces.
Jiang Zemin, the post-Deng strongman, who is in his nineties now, led the Shanghai gang that was also aligned with Xi. So Li was being set-up for a downfall, taking the beating for the sluggish performance of the economy, as in the Chinese system of governance, the premier looked after the economy. From 2012, even as China was still feeling heat of the 2008 Wall Street financial crisis spreading like wildfire as a pandemic across the world, the ‘Main Street’ economic recession was biting the biggest manufacturing hub of the world. The premier was being made the fall-guy of this economic slowdown.
As most of the apex level politics in China is still played behind the high walls of Zhongnanhai, seldom do the processes get reflected in the outside world.
But in this case, the ailing Chinese economy was being looked after, at the macro level, by Xi himself. This possibly saved Li because he was only the day-to-day handler. Thus even though the Party’s official news agency, Xinhua, speculated whether Li would survive, in May he went visiting Australia for a five-day trip. That was a signal he was back in favour.
How did this big survival story take place? As a tuanpai, Li too had a few cards to play. His mentor and saviour this time round, the previous President, Hu Jintao, now the senior-most former CYL member, had made sure that the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee had more party cadres of the rank and file filling up vacant positions. In addition, Hu’s big advantage was the general public ire against the princelings — considered the privileged who had the first call on national wealth and indulge in guangxi or cronyism.
So, Hu came up with the concept of ‘harmonious growth’ as a slogan at the popular level and let the Party feel the public heat about the ‘princelings’. Even then, he could not stop the 18th Polit Bureau Standing Committee (PBSC) being packed by the Party elite, five amongst the seven were ‘princelings’ and the Shanghai gang members. When Hu even resigned from the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) immediately after he laid down the office of the President of People’s Republic of China (PRC) — besides his style of a light touch when wielding power — many China watchers thought that he would recede to the background quietly.
But Premier Li’s resurrection and the talk of the next President being his chosen candidate, tell us that in China, the last word can never be foretold, before the sun-set years truly arrive.
For example, Jiang Zemin had held on to the chairmanship of the CMC till 2004, two years after Hu had become the President of the People’s Republic and general secretary of the Party.
As a sign of institutionalisation of the top jobs, in 1982 Deng had orchestrated a Constitutional change for fixing the term of office of all senior leaders. While the general secretary/president and the premier of the nation-state could only remain in power for two five-year terms — ‘two fives’ — the other leading lights of the Party-State level, right up to the PBSC, could remain in office till 68 years of age. Articles 79-84 of the 1982 Constitutional document detail all these facts. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were the first to embrace this change, and vacate offices as soon as their time was up.
Antennas of the world are quite concentratedly deployed now, and others have begun to read the tea leaves, so to say, whether the new Core Leader, Xi would leave office at the end of his ‘two fives’. One of the strong arguments in favour of his continuance in office is his ongoing ‘clean up’ of corruption campaign called the ‘catching tigers and flies.’
An indication of a possible power tussle would be found in November when the 19th CPC Congress is scheduled to be held. For, during this Congress, Xi will have to nominate his successor, who would first have to be nominated to PBSC, then be elected by the CC in 2022 at the 20th CPC Congress as President of PRC and general secretary of the PBSC, as the convention of leadership change Deng had prescribed.
While this factor is very important in exhibiting ‘rule or law’ and ‘discipline’ down the line, subtle pressure is being mounted on Xi to choose an understudy. The fact that he could not emerge the ultimate victor in getting rid of Premier Li Keqiang, after crucifying him publicly, is an indication of some weakness. Xi had even clipped the wings of the 87 million-strong members of the CYL last year, by reducing their budget drastically — even as strident Party mouthpieces called Youth League “inefficient.” Since the reform of the PRC began, the entrenched CYL had been feeding its cadres to the State bureaucracy.
The choice of the successor for 2022 is equally crucial and important for the future of the CPC as this is when the sixth generation would be reaching for the top jobs.
A few names have come up through what is termed by communist parties as ‘democratic centralism’. ‘Little Hu’ or Hu Chunhua was also member of the CYL, supposedly a protégé of the other Hu, the senior-most tuanpai.
As the tale is told, Hu Chunhua, who studied at the ‘prestigious’ Beijing University, had chosen to go to Tibet, considered still a ‘hardship post,’ after his formal education had ended. The first job he had in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) was as a journalist, and later as a political commissar in a state-owned hotel. Some see the coincidental tenure of Hu Jintao as the party chief in Lhasa, could not have done ‘Little Hu’ any harm. He had found his sponsor.
Now, he is the governor of Guangdong, the place of one of the early Chinese Special Economic Zones, crafted by Deng.
The other candidate for the ‘dual leadership’ of PRC — the previous term ‘collective leadership’ has become a little odious after the ‘core leader’ business — is Sun Zhengcai, and was already in the heart of the administration as an agriculture minister, thus an integral part of the State Council.
Sun was sent to Chongqing to steer the provincial Party there. As he ran the Party as its secretary with sufficient adroitness, it got him the Polit Bureau seat. The vast province that was once the capital of the Guomindang-run PRC was Sun’s territory. Clearly, he was nimble in politicking, considering he was sent there, soon after tectonic shift level development of Bo Xilai, then governor and a flashy-styled ‘princeling’, became the first PBSC casualty of the “catching tigers and flies” campaign, along with his wife.
Thus, this Hu and Sun team could, with high probability, become the sixth generation leadership of the Party-State. This is also the generation that had not undergone Mao’s ‘permanent revolution’ phase of Party-State building and maintaining his own pre-eminence. They came of age during the more stable political climate and a measure of economic liberalism, that sort of seeped in to the social and cultural life too.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).