Power struggle: Will Jiang step down?

Posted in China , Asia | 12-Sep-04 | Author: Li YongYan| Source: Asia Times

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
BEIJING - Will he or won't he? Step down, that is. And if he does, when will it be? These questions are voiced aloud, murmured, or they just hang unspoken in the air at dinner tables across Beijing as the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) 16th Congress' fourth plenary session draws nigh. It's scheduled for September 16-19. It could be a showdown between moderate reformist President and CCP chief Hu Jintao and military strongman and former president Jiang Zemin.

The "he" so endlessly discussed by inveterate political gossips is Jiang Zemin, 78. He was China's president and general secretary of the party for 11 years and he still holds the powerful job of chairman of the Central Military Commission. In that post, he is in charge of China's 3.5 million-strong armed forces - and he is not even a member of the Politburo (that's the way it's supposed to be; but why not bend the rules?). Given the communist mantra of the party having absolute control over the gun, and power growing out of the barrel of the gun, the fact that Jiang is still going strong tells you just who controls whom.

For sure, it is nobody's business but their own - the party chieftains. The party makes sure that it stays that way. The public is not allowed to look in from the outside. But President Hu has every reason to worry about dinner gossip that makes him out to be a weak figure overshadowed by Jiang. Seen in television clips and newspapers, Hu physically trails at a seemingly embarrassed distance behind Jiang when the two leaders have to appear for the same photo-op.

All this will change, sooner or later. It won't even be surprising if Jiang exits as early as this month after the closed-door session of the party conference, or as late as whenever he expires. For more than 15 years, Hu has been waiting to exhale after Jiang's exit, and by now he must have acquired Confucian patience. Once the eagerly awaited, hotly debated question of who's really in charge resolves itself in due course, the real issue for Hu then will be how to deal with Jiang's legacy, his political estate - and what an onerous cleanup for Hu:

1) The Tiananmen massacre. This is Jiang's greatest debt and debit. True, Jiang isn't exactly or directly responsible for the tragedy. But he obviously was a beneficiary - he would have retired as an obscure party mandarin in Shanghai had the tanks not rolled into Beijing in 1989. That explains why he has sat on the issue all these 15 years despite mounting pressure from both within and without China and the CCP for what is called a "re-evaluation of June 4". Hu, however, carries no such political baggage. He can continue to brace for the continuous criticism, or win genuine popular support by declaring the incident a mistake and take steps to reconcile the country. Deng Xiaoping rode to the heights of his acclaim by rehabilitating Mao Zedong's victims when he came back to power in 1978. What is so difficult about Hu copying and pasting the example?

2) Corruption. There is no denying the fact that government corruption worsened and spread on Jiang's watch for the past decade. Jiang himself has seen his sons rocketing to stellar positions in and outside the military. His sister, once an ordinary teacher in a provincial, no-name college, is now the head of China's Forestry Academy. What is Hu going to do about it once he waits out Jiang's reign? One thing is for sure, though. Popular resentment will focus on him if he pretends not to hear the angry protests. On the other hand, he stands to gain if he sets out to crack down on corrupt officials. As a bonus, that will also give him an excuse to purge all those within the government who refuse to shift their loyalty. In China, authority is best established on a stack of bones.

3) Taiwan. Under Jiang's policy of "verbal attack and military threat", Taiwan is slipping further away from reunification with the mainland. The authorities in Taipei are taking advantage of Jiang's missteps to sell their independence to the public, who are upset, instead of being endeared, by the huffing and puffing dragon across the strait. The recent cancellation of the large-scale, multi-service military exercises on Dongshan Island causes all sorts of speculations. Whether or not Jiang is losing his grip on the People's Liberation Army and whether or not his hardline approach to Taiwan is losing traction within the Politburo are open to debate. In contrast, Hu has an understated style that advocates substance and efficiency. Accordingly, the 55th National Day is to be observed with "thrift", and the 2008 Summer Olympics are to be organized with "thrift" as well. A "Thrifty Reunification", without the costly exercises that scare no one, also makes sense once Hu gains full control over Taiwan policy and the military.

4) Falungong. Jiang's decision to ban this semi-religious sect has turned into a nightmare for him. The harmless old practitioners of certain breathing exercises have never been a threat to communist rule, but Jiang somehow looks upon them as a challenge to his ego. It is his single biggest personal liability as thousands of Falungong members have been imprisoned and hundreds were reportedly tortured to death. Despite, or probably because of, the iron-fisted crackdown inside China, the sect is growing in strength elsewhere in the world and has fought back with demonstrations and lawsuits wherever possible. Drawing on the lessons of the past, the group is singling out Jiang and certain individual officials as targets instead of taking on the Chinese government as a whole. Again, nothing wins hearts and minds faster than righting an obvious wrong.

5) China-United States relations. This issue is too important to delegate to the foreign minister or ambassadors. Jiang has tried very hard, from releasing the US spy plane to crooning love songs at state banquets to win Washington's recognition of his being a statesman on equal footing. Apparently he failed, judging by passages from former presidential and first lady's memoirs. But Hu can start with a clean slate. Getting invited into the black-tie inauguration party at the White House next January 20, regardless of whether the host is George or John, will be a cool diplomatic coup. Adding one digit to the annual G8 (Group of Eight) summit meetings to induct China into the exclusive club would be a substantive achievement too.

6) Succession. This is Jiang's biggest legacy in absentia. Unlike Deng, who designated Hu as the next in line to the party chairmanship after Jiang, Jiang himself has failed to appoint an heir apparent to Hu, who owes no gratitude or allegiance to Jiang. Therefore Hu has a free hand to change or even undo Jiang's policies as he sees fit, which is usually an effective way to obliterate predecessors' prints and establish one's own legacy. Whenever and however Jiang exits the stage, Hu would do well to get prepared, starting with a stock-taking of Jiang's estate and calculating the estate taxes.

A little reading of tea leaves or entrails may be in order here:
  • China and Taiwan reportedly have canceled military exercises. Jiang has been known to favor a tough, uncompromising and militaristic line on Taiwan.
  • A female singer rumored to be a favorite of Jiang was criticized by Youth Daily (under the supervision of the China Youth League - President Hu's turf) for taking in 420,000 yuan (US$50,800) for appearing in a show and singing all of four songs - not bad for 15 minutes' work. The organizers, a city party committee that ran up a treasury deficit of 150 million yuan last year, took the rumor of Jiang's favorite singer too seriously and paid a political premium for her appearance. A joke making the rounds goes like this: The songstress was speeding and ran a red light. A rookie policeman pulled her over and demanded her license. "You don't know who I am?" The lady asked, incredulous. "I don't care even if you are Jiang ..." Then an old man's voice came from the back of the sedan: "Who is taking my name in vain?!"

    So what does it all mean? We may find out after the momentous party confab.

    At the party meeting, the stated agenda is to discuss "how to enhance the CCP's ruling capabilities" - a good start if they know they can no longer rule the way Mao and Deng did, ie, their policy was always best and dissent was suppressed with an iron hand. But there are signs that the elderly Jiang is bowing out, voluntarily or otherwise. It is significant that the defense minister's Army Day speech on August 1 didn't even mention Jiang as the "guiding light", a common description of the enlightened leader.

    Also, China's propaganda is showing signs of change. That criticism by a Chinese expert of Beijing's North Korea policy would have been banned from publication if President Hu had not gained control over the media, which now are laden with "how the new leadership emphasizes humanity" - a thinly veiled attack on Jiang's policies focusing on money alone, his single-minded emphasis on growth and economic development. Already there are articles in the papers arguing that economic development is not everything - an unprecedented criticism of Deng Xiaoping's motto: Development is the real truth.

    Opposition within the government against Jiang's retaining the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission is growing. Sure, Deng did that too, but Deng had commanded armies before 1949, while Jiang has never even commanded a squad. So President Hu has public opinion behind him while Jiang has the guns. In China's history, guns always speak louder than opinion. But that is slowly changing.

    Speculation is divided: No, Jiang won't quit, because it flies in the face of tradition to surrender one's power, and it is dangerous to lose power since one's enemies will demand a pound of flesh - and Jiang has a lot of enemies. And yes, he will step down, because his followers are beginning to realize that he won't last forever and it is best to start shifting loyalty before it is too late. Why go down with a sinking ship?

    Li YongYan is an analyst of Chinese business, economic, political and social issues.
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