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Date Posted: 10:34 19/06/2004

Spoiling the Party

If things don't go as planned, blame the system.

    THE WASHINGTON POST told us recently that there are two camps in Beijing, one of which is the hardline Jiang Zemin faction which is currently pressing for the tougher handling of the Taiwan and the Hong Kong issues, and which is growing increasingly dismayed by what it perceives to be the weakness of Hu Jintao.

Jiang was never expected to go gently into that good night after the handover of power last year. But nor was he expected to cling on to the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. Apparently, he argued that a complete handover would be destabilizing, even though his complete retirement had seemed to be a fait accompli following the 'rules' he had set at the previous Party Congress, when he forced out his rival, Qiao Shi on the promise that he would go himself in 2002.

Philip Pan of the Washington Post cites sources in the government as saying that the new generation of leaders are unable to mollify the CPC's stance on Hong Kong and Taiwan because Jiang is using the issues, and his hard-line stance, as a way of consolidating his hold on power. A game of chicken seems to be being played by the two camps:

'A prolonged struggle for power between Jiang's allies and those who support Hu has created a dynamic in which any senior leader who argues for even a slightly more moderate policy risks being attacked by rivals in the other camp as too weak to govern, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity and said they favor neither faction.'

Last year, the new generation were reportedly using the mishandling of the SARS outbreak as a means of undermining Jiang. Hu Jintao was also promoting the old Maoist slogan, 'Serve the People,' in order to undercut Jiang's 'Three Represents'. Hu and Wen's emphasis on anti-corruption drives was also said to be an attack on some of Jiang's allies.

The power struggles are interminable, of course, and have been going on for decades. Pan also suggests that while Hu and Wen favour the distribution of resources to the struggling west and northeast, Jiang and his faction prefer to give priority to his power base in Shanghai. As is common in such Kremlinology, we are being told of a Manichean battle between good and evil, between development and cronyism, between progress and sclerosis. Battles like these allow us to believe that there are forces for good within the higher echelons of the Party, even if they do not always win. A similar role was played by Premier Zhu Rongji in the last administration.

There is some sign that the Jiang faction views the hardline approach as the sort of lowest common denominator, or as the government default setting. He is reported to have told allies, 'Even if tough policies produce bad results, you won't be blamed, but you can always be blamed for being soft, regardless of the results.'

People have recently been asking Running Dog - fount of all wisdom that we are – why Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao are unable to stand up and denounce the elderly, troublemaking ex-President, who has apparently even been trying to replace President Hu Jintao with his own loyal acolyte, Zeng Qinghong. Running Dog can think of a number of answers, a few of which may even be true. First, the power structures in China are nebulous, protean, and based not so much on official political positions but on clout, loyalty and alliance-building. Thus, Deng Xiaoping still wielded the biggest stick in the late 1980s even though his only official position was the Chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association.

Furthermore, there are no outsiders in Zhongnanhai. The leadership have been groomed for decades. They have, in some cases, been fast-tracked to provincial governorships and Politburo positions in the name of increasing the technological or scientific expertise of the central government, but they are all long-term Party men inculcated with Party culture. The fact that they have climbed so high proves that they know the rules.

And amid all the 'political mistakes' over the last decade, no one is entirely clean. Hu Jintao was the first man to declare martial law in China during the riots in Tibet in 1989. Wen Jiabao was one of the first to 'self-criticize' when the reformists lost out in the summer of the same year, and proceeded to serve Jiang with consummate loyalty.

It is also true to say that while Jiang is not especially popular among the people, he has cultivated the strongest power base of all. Zeng Qinghong (and several others, including Li Changchun) owe their positions to him, and may be anticipating even higher promotions should the Hu-Wen leadership somehow break down.

What we see is an unstable equilibrium between the various factions, all of which are using political events – SARS, Taiwan, corruption, the anniversary of Mao's death late last year, 'constructing youth morality', the anniversary of Deng's birth later this year – to edge the consensus in their direction. We also see a large number of lesser lights, all hoping to move up the political ladder by whatever means, including their unqualified support of Jiang. Ambitious leaders have to hedge their bets.

If this sounds unduly Machiavellian, well, we didn't invent the system. From the outside, it is perfectly fine (and morally correct) to denounce Chairman Mao, but the leadership has to stick to the Chinese Communist Party creation myths, has to organize its thinking around the idea that Good Mao was superceded by Bad Mao only in certain rare moments, that China was liberated in 1949 and has been making steady, inexorable progress ever since (give or take one or two aberrations), and that, in principle, China is still in the Primary Stage of Socialism even though the ruling class has presided over an unprecedented wave of capitalist reforms and created the second most unequal society in the world. Whether the leadership really believes all this is beside the point, because these have become the shibboleths that determine their rise to the top. Many wondered whether Hu Jintao had it in him to become 'China's Gorbachev', but perhaps the real question is whether there is anyone around in the Party capable of being China's Yeltsin by realizing that his political future exists outside the CPC. It seems unlikely.

Nevertheless, the baleful presence of the Old Guard is actually quite good for the new leadership in some respect. After all, it enables them to shift the blame. In all the power struggles over the years, the Party has always set up such dichotomies between beneficient and malevolent leadership, between young Mao Zedong and old Mao Zedong; between Mao and the man who denounced the Great Leap Forward at the Lushan Conference, Peng Dehuai; between Mao the peasant revolutionary and Zhou Enlai, the urbane and cosmopolitan idealist; between the extremist Gang of Four and the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping; between the ruthless Li Peng and the tragic, tearful Zhao Ziyang; or more recently, between the ambitious and self-serving Jiang Zemin and the competent technocrat Zhu Rongji. In reality, one imagines that the lines aren't quite as clear-cut.

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