As in the past, personal loyalties and competition among political factions were central to the selection of these men. But conflict was muted by a consensus in the upper ranks that the Party organization could not survive another fierce conflict similar to the struggles over ideology that took place during the Mao years, or the kinds of sudden purges that characterized Deng’s leadership. The conflict over succession was also constrained by a balance of power among the factions. For all his apparent dominance and self-promotion, Jiang Zemin was relatively weak when compared with Mao and Deng. Both of these men named their successors (several times, in fact). Jiang was not able to dictate unilaterally who would get a single seat on the Politburo.
The decisions on who would be members of the Standing Committee and the Politburo (and other important assignments, such as positions in the CCP Secretariat) were made jointly by a few top leaders, among them not only Jiang but the second-ranking Party leader Li Peng and Jiang’s political tactician Zeng Qinghong. They in turn were attentive to what the Party calls “public opinion,” a phrase that refers to the views of the two or three hundred high Party officials around the country. No matter how strong a candidate’s backing by one faction or another or how favorable his image within the Party, he could not be promoted without a good rating from the Organization Department on such qualities as ideological probity, loyalty to the Party, attitude toward work, and ability to mobilize others. And as Zong’s materials show, the Organization Department’s research is probing and its assessments are often acute.
Still, personal conflicts became much more intense during the past two years. Up to the end Jiang fought to decisively influence the post-transition leadership, and tried to force his chief rival, Li Ruihuan, into retirement, an effort that will probably continue right up to the eve of the Party congress. There will be more disagreements as the new leadership haggles over the second-level cabinet and parliamentary appointments that are to be made next March. This may have been the first succession battle fought according to agreed-upon rules. But a battle it was, and one that is not over.
All the new leaders are the beneficiaries of a process of meritocratic winnowing that was initiated twenty years ago by Deng Xiaoping, who put into effect China’s historic economic reforms. Deng sponsored the “four transformations” program, which aimed to produce Communist leaders who, as he put it, were “revolutionary, younger, more knowledgeable, and more specialized.” In the early 1980s this program enhanced the careers of all the men and women who have now been chosen for membership in the new Politburo.
In response to Deng’s campaign, senior officials throughout China during the early 1980s conducted a search for people of around forty with college educations, technical backgrounds, Party membership, and good administrative records. Deng tried to instill the principle of meritocracy within a Party system that had put a premium on political loyalty. In the arid northwestern province of Gansu, for example, the provincial Party secretary Song Ping found the young Hu Jintao working on the staff of the provincial construction commission. Impressed by his brightness and efficiency, he promoted Hu by several ranks to the position of deputy head of the commission. Such quick promotions were then, and still are, rare among China’s bureaucrats, who are obsessed with seniority. The same kind of speeded-up selection advanced the career of Li Ruihuan, who was transferred from a mid-level job in the Youth League secretariat in Beijing to a vice-mayor’s post in Tianjin. A similar story could be told about Wen Jiabao, Wu Bangguo, Luo Gan, Zeng Qinghong, and so on down the list of the new Politburo.
Still, identifying a pattern of promotion does not explain personal success in reaching the highest positions. In each case not only personal competence and ambition but also the luck of finding the right sponsors was crucial. Hu Jintao, for example, after serving briefly in the Communist Youth League in Beijing, accepted successive assignments as Party secretary of two of China’s poorest provinces, Guizhou and Tibet. He left no strong record of accomplishment in either place—except that he declared martial law in Lhasa in March 1989, the first time that this had ever been done in the People’s Republic of China. This set a precedent for the declaration of martial law in Beijing two months later.
Yet in 1992 Deng wanted to promote one person under fifty to the highest body as a way of showing that China’s succession process was now reliable enough, and predictable enough, to include in the Politburo a young man with a long career ahead of him. He chose the forty-nine-year-old Hu. Until now it has not been clear why Hu was chosen from among several candidates, including the current premier designate, Wen Jiabao. Zong Hairen traces Hu’s promotion to the influence of his mentor from Gansu, Song Ping, who in 1992 was a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and, as head of the Organization Department, had an important voice in the selection of the new group of leaders.
What gave Song the chance to make the case for Hu was a relatively minor dispute over the appointment of a provincial official. One of the many changes planned by the Organization Department was the reassignment of the governor of the huge province of Sichuan, a man named Zhang Haoruo, to a position in Beijing where his rank would be lower than that of a colleague who had been governor of a smaller province. Zhang regarded this as an insult and refused the assignment. The four Party officials, including Song, who were responsible for arranging this and many other senior appointments in preparation for the imminent Party congress were furious at such insubordination, all the more so because it came so soon after the Tiananmen crisis, when many mid-level Party officials had disobeyed the Party leaders by supporting the pro-democracy demonstrators. Moreover, this was only a few months after a battle within the Party over military appointments, which raised questions about the loyalty to Deng Xiaoping of some of his most trusted supporters.
In this atmosphere, Song was able to emphasize Hu Jintao’s record of never refusing an assignment from the Party and of willingness to serve in some of China’s poorest and most difficult regions. The others agreed, hoping to send a message to the Party ranks about the supreme importance of loyalty. Hu’s elevation to the PBSC ahead of his contemporaries made him the presumptive successor to Jiang Zemin.
In the decade since, Hu has not exercised much real authority. What he has done, however—and it is a remarkable achievement in light of the troubled history of the People’s Republic—is to survive. For ten years he offended no one: he did not grab prematurely for power; he deferred not only to those above him but to those below; and he allowed no distance to open between himself and Jiang Zemin. When arrangements for the 2002 power succession began to be seriously discussed in 2000, Hu was still there, and nothing has happened to change that position.
If Hu’s rise to power looks like a matter of careful, quiet progress upward, Jiang’s retirement from the posts Hu now inherits has aroused more controversy, suggesting how fragile Party norms and institutions can still be. Much has been written in the Western press about Jiang’s desire to hold on to power, but it has not been well understood how limited his choices have been. Jiang, who is now seventy-six, has already served two and a half terms as general secretary. In 1997, as part of a successful attempt to get rid of a senior colleague, Qiao Shi, who threatened his power, Jiang arranged for a respected retired official to propose that central leaders should not accept reappointment after the age of seventy—except Jiang himself who, at seventy-one, would be, as he then promised, the only exception. This established an informal norm that Politburo leaders over the age of seventy should not stand again for their posts. According to highly publicized reports, Jiang considered trying to violate this understanding; but we doubt these reports are true. In any case, the consensus for an orderly succession was too strong for his colleagues to support Jiang for another term as Party secretary. And the national constitution limits the state president to two terms, which Jiang has had.
The only ambiguity that might have allowed him to continue in a powerful position concerned the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, in effect the civilian commander of the military forces, a post for which there are no rules governing succession. Mao held it until he died, and Deng gave it up voluntarily two years after his retirement in 1987 from all his other high posts, after having used it as the base from which he intervened in Party politics during the 1989 Tiananmen crisis. Had Jiang been able to keep the military chairmanship, he might have occupied a position analogous to Deng’s, and might have been able to exercise veto power over the Fourth Generation’s decisions on extremely sensitive matters such as domestic political reform and policy toward Taiwan.
Some of Jiang’s supporters within the military commission and elsewhere in the Party made a pitch for him to stay on, on the grounds that his leadership was indispensable at a time of turbulent change. But others in high places argued that Jiang’s promise to retire in 2002 made no sense if he did not retire from all his posts. They pointed out that there was no international or domestic crisis that made him indispensable and that Hu Jintao was well prepared to take over as the top leader. Moreover, if Jiang stayed on in some powerful capacity, the Party would have had to arrange a parallel post at least for Li Peng, whose seniority and prestige within the Party were approximately equal to Jiang’s. If Jiang and Li Peng could have this privilege, what would stop other retired leaders who had for years stayed out of politics from reinserting themselves into policy debates? Such a sequence of events would make it look as if the Party was not self-confident or united enough to carry out a normal transition of power, and would make Jiang look ridiculous. The members of the Politburo arrived at a consensus that they would not revert to a less orderly period in CCP politics.
Starting in mid-2002, parts of the press controlled by the army and by the Party published stories celebrating Jiang’s “unique” leadership abilities and calling attention to the historic importance of his theories on Party rule. Much was said about his having provided a new social basis for party rule with his theory of the “Three Represents”—advanced productive forces, advanced culture, and the broad masses of the people, each of which, he held, should be a central concern of national policy. This doctrine was said to be new in its evident appeal to the educated, business-minded middle classes. The attention given to Jiang’s theory was widely interpreted in the West as a sign that he was going to stay in office.4 The opposite was true. The Propaganda Department was merely giving Jiang a resounding send-off.
Closely linked to the issue of Jiang’s “full retirement” was the issue of whether Li Ruihuan could continue to serve in the Standing Committee. As the fourth-ranking member of the outgoing leadership, but eligible to continue in office because he is under seventy, Li was the most vocal advocate of Jiang’s leaving all his posts and for the promotion of Hu Jintao to all three top posts. Li even told some associates that he would quit his own position on the PBSC and refuse assignment as parliamentary chairman if Jiang stayed on as chairman of the military commission. This would have put additional pressure on Jiang, because Li’s retiring in protest at sixty-eight would have concentrated unfavorable attention on Jiang’s attempts to hold on to office at seventy-six.
In speeches within Party circles that were never made public, Li frequently criticized Jiang’s showy, egoistic leadership style and lack of practical achievements. He advocated opening the Party to greater scrutiny by the people. The relations between the two men grew so cold that they arranged to time their trips out of town so as to avoid attending the same PBSC meetings.
If Jiang had to leave office, he wanted his rival to go too. This was not just a matter of personalities. If the relatively liberal Li won another term, he would be in a position to undermine Jiang’s historical image and to criticize his record. Some in Jiang’s camp suggested the importance of a “complete transition,” meaning that everyone from the Third Generation, including Li, should retire. But the proposal fell flat. Li is popular and healthy, and he is under seventy, younger than the age limit that, as all the leaders know, was proposed as part of a scheme by Jiang to get rid of one of his rivals. Unless Jiang can find a way to destroy Li’s candidacy at the last moment, Li’s grip on another term is secure.
While these issues were being decided during the past two years, the rest of the Politburo’s Standing Committee gradually took shape. Wen Jiabao, Wu Bangguo, Luo Gan, and Zeng Qinghong were given specific slots in the list of candidates, partly because of their qualifications and partly thanks to the sponsorship of outgoing leaders.
Wen Jiabao’s appointment as premier was arranged by the outgoing premier, Zhu Rongji. When he took office as premier in 1998, Zhu gave Wen the most important and also the toughest responsibilities of any of his vice-premiers, including rural affairs, poverty relief, flood control, reforestation, development planning, and financial affairs. This was excellent training for the premiership, in contrast to the frustrating, dead-end responsibilities for running heavy industry and presiding over state enterprise reform that Zhu assigned to Wen’s competitor, Wu Bangguo. In fact Wu had been assigned to Zhu Rongji’s cabinet with the backing of Jiang Zemin. At a Politburo meeting in autumn 2000, Zhu Rongji announced his view that Wen Jiabao was the most capable official to succeed him. No one was in a position to challenge his assessment. Wu Bangguo received the consolation prize of the fourth place on the Standing Committee and chairmanship of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
The hold of Luo Gan, the specialist in security, on the fifth PBSC seat was firm as early as fall 1997. At that time Li Peng, as the second-ranking Party leader, proposed that Luo become secretary of the Party’s Political and Legal Affairs Committee, which coordinates the work of all Party and state security agencies. Since he was already the state official in charge of these agencies, Luo’s control over the security forces, courts, and prison systems of China through both state and Party channels thus became complete. From then on he had no competitor for the position on the PBSC that is concerned with security.
By contrast, the rise to the top of Jiang’s protégé Zeng Qinghong appeared more sudden. But in fact it was as smooth as those of Wen and Luo. The son of a Party elder, Zeng grew up in the inner Party milieu dominated by Mao, and he early developed impressive Machiavellian skills. He came into contact with Jiang by luck, having requested in 1984 a transfer to Shanghai to escape the stultifying politics of Beijing. When Jiang became Party secretary there in 1987 he was impressed by Zeng’s skills. Jiang brought Zeng back to Beijing with him after 1989 because of Zeng’s connections and talent for political intrigue. In three separate purges in the 1990s, which are recounted in dramatic detail in Disidai, Zeng brought about the fall of rivals to Jiang’s authority. Rumors that Jiang kept trying to promote Zeng and failed were not true. Zeng’s failure to rise more swiftly in the hierarchy reflected his preference for quiet power over formal position. In late 2000 as arrangements for the sixteenth Party Congress began to be seriously discussed, Zeng’s name was immediately considered, and his appointment was virtually certain by late 2001.
By the early summer of 2002, the top six positions were settled. Wen and Zeng even appeared at a major Party meeting alongside Hu in June, without any of the outgoing leadership in attendance. This was as clear a sign of consensus as white smoke from the Vatican.
One implication of the documents on which Zong’s book is based is that the authoritarian Chinese political system has proven resilient in the thirteen years since the Tiananmen protests. From the viewpoint of the elite, which is expressed in Zong’s book, the Party has been able to bring to power a cadre of dedicated, competent leaders who have authority over the bureaucracy and present an at least outwardly united front. The top Party leaders have been able to resolve the most difficult problem that faces an authoritarian regime, succession. In that sense, the system worked. But the implications for the regime’s long-term prospects are less clear. Hu Jintao has so far been no more than a careful, competent careerist. Lacking a dominant figure, the new leadership can function effectively only by consensus, while its members are divided by both their ambitions and their policy leanings.
Li Ruihuan helped bring Hu Jintao to power, and is too old to serve another term after 2007. He will not challenge Hu directly; but he wants to see some changes in the way China is governed, including some relaxation of Party control, that Hu may be reluctant to accept. Zeng Qinghong, for his part, has accumulated great influence over the last five years as Jiang Zemin’s chief of political staff, manager of his ideological campaigns, supervisor of the Party’s high-level appointments and promotions, director of the all-knowing Party Central Office, and godfather of the clique of “princelings.” His ambitions have no self-imposed limit. Disidai only hints at his views on political reform. It never pays for Chinese leaders to put themselves on record in such matters before they start to act. But Zong Hairen believes that if Zeng thought it was necessary, either for China’s or for his own interests, he would open the way to a free press and to limited multi-party competition. He would, Zong thinks, be willing to admit that the Party did wrong in suppressing the Tiananmen demonstrations on June 4, 1989. He would combine such measures, however, with a commitment to elite rule and to maintaining social order, and should not be seen as an advocate of Western-style democracy.
Luo Gan, however, is a powerful impediment to any weakening of the authoritarian state. Although an advocate of modern methods of admin- istration, he is politically conservative. His involvement in the Tiananmen repression and his personal loyalty to Li Peng guarantee that he would resist any reversal of the Party’s position justifying its violence on June 4.
The new regime also faces economic and social strains—inefficient state enterprises, stagnant rural incomes, demonstrations by workers and pensioners, devastating damage to the environment. The new leaders discussed all these problems in speeches and other statements that the Organization Department excerpted for their investigation reports. We shall consider their views on these and other questions in a second article.
—August 29, 2002; this is the first of two articles.
See, for example, Eric Eckholm, "China's President May Be Reluctant to Cede His Power," The New York Times, July 13, 2002; Charles Hutzler, "A Twist in China's Succession Script," The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2002; John Pomfret, "Chinese Leader Throws a Curve: Jiang's Reluctance to Retire Could Spark Power Struggle," The Washington Post, July 21, 2002.↩
See, for example, Eric Eckholm, “China’s President May Be Reluctant to Cede His Power,” The New York Times, July 13, 2002; Charles Hutzler, “A Twist in China’s Succession Script,” The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2002; John Pomfret, “Chinese Leader Throws a Curve: Jiang’s Reluctance to Retire Could Spark Power Struggle,” The Washington Post, July 21, 2002.↩