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Date Posted: 14:24 08/10/2005

Unrest in Fantasia

Five-Year Plans and political manoeuvrings in the central government

APART FROM ratifying the draft for the next Five-Year Plan, the meetings of the Chinese Communist Party this weekend are also expected to see the further erosion of the authority of Jiang Zemin's Shanghai Faction and the further consolidation of power by his successor, Hu Jintao. Despite all the dire predictions that Jiang was going to cling on to power for as long as possible, largely through his proxy, Zeng Qinghong, Hu's manoeuvrings have proven to be very effective. No one is now predicting that the CCP General Secretary will be ousted at the earliest moment.

In the first year since Hu replaced Jiang as Party Secretary in 2003, many western press reports were saying that Jiang's influence – along with key Politburo allies such as Huang Ju and Jia Qinglin - was preventing the new leadership from pursuing a more adventurous agenda, and forcing Hu and Wen Jiabao to adopt deeply conservative approaches to issues like Taiwan and Hong Kong. The suggestion that the relatively liberal inclinations of the Hu-Wen leadership were being subverted by the presence of implacable Jiang-supporting die-hards was little more than wishful thinking about the attitudes of the new leadership, and also drew on the customary Manichean good cop-bad cop approach to Chinese politics, where compassionate peace-loving reformers are invariably stymied by evil hate-filled self-servers. In the end, Hu's inclination to reform was certainly exxaggerated, and although the remnants of the Shanghai faction remain in positions of power, it is clear that the authority of Hu Jintao now stands unchallenged.

Zeng Qinghong was regarded as the eminence grise of the current Party leadership. Zeng is said to have formed an alliance with Hu shortly after Jiang Zemin was put out to seed. Zeng, a skilled manipulator, seemed to conclude that Jiang's power network was superficial.

Even when Jiang chose to cling on to the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission, his time had already passed. Well-connected observers pointed out that he remained unpopular with Party veterans, and had failed to have his name written into the constitution alongside his 'theory of the Three Represents'.

The pivotal moments, according to the insider Zong Hairen, occurred during the SARS crisis. Jiang Zemin had fled from Beijing to Shanghai and then tried to manoeuvre to exclude Hu from sensitive border negotiations with George Fernandes, the Indian Defence Minister. Events conspired against him, however. His ally, the Minister of Health Zhang Wenkang, was fired for his role in covering up the spread of SARS. Meanwhile, Jiang Zemin was then forced to respond to the loss of a submarine off the northeastern coast. Hu, for his part, used the incident to further disassociate himself from Jiang and to discredit Jiang's role as CMC chairman. The machinations of Hu and his allies had left Jiang marginalized.

Two years later, how strong is Hu Jintao's position? To some extent, the power struggles are irrelevant. With the government panicked by widespread unrest and capable – it seems - only of draconian response, it is difficult for any of them to consider any effective, long-term solutions to the country's woes. The Five-Year Plan is an outdated Leninist concept in which deluded state committees try to handle and harness the centrifugal pressures of over 1.3 billion people, and usually resorts to aspirations like 'we will maintain stability by developing the economy and building the well-off society'.

Making people better off is always an admirable goal, and may head off at least some of the discontent, but there are no panaceas. The jobs created by new industrial plants will not be enough to cover the massive number of lay-offs at failing state-owned enterprises. Rapid urbanization programmes will as likely as not create further squalour and potential unrest. As well as increasing the level of public expectation, economic growth will put even more pressure on China's resources and environment. Balanced growth is crucial, but with regional equalities already spiralling and the government desperate to build on the impressive gains of the eastern coast by further exploiting the energy and mineral resources of the west, the economic planners resemble nothing so much as Mickey Mouse in the Sorceror's Apprentice, unleashing forces they have no idea how to handle.

So, it might not actually matter who has the stronger hand in the ruling Communist Party, or whether or not Hu Jintao can name his Fifth Generation successor this weekend. After all, the government knows it has far bigger things to worry about, and far more things to lose. As the various policy pronouncements in recent months suggest, the CCP is circling the wagons.

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