The open petition to President Hu Jintao from retired provincial officials criticizing Zhou Yongkang, the member of the Politburo who oversees the China’s internal security apparatus, is remarkable. Such public expressions of discontent are rare in the general let alone the specific. That this one has emerged indicates serious discontent among the Party’s grassroots over the course of political reform and an unease with the appeal by some leaders to Maoist nostalgia, itself a proxy for the battle between those who see the Party’s future best assured by continuing economic reform and its consequent political reform, and those who see it best assured by a return to Party discipline and a statist economy enforcing social harmony.
The 16 signatories are all retired officials in their late 70s or 80s, giving them the protection of age that serving officials wouldn’t enjoy. Some gain further moral authority from being Party members since before 1949. As such, they will remember the worst periods of Mao’s rule, including the famines of the Great Leap Forward and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The fall of Bo Xilai, a protege of Zhou’s, has given them an opportunity to speak on behalf of what we suspect are many tens of thousands of younger serving officials who, while growing up in a very different China, share their elders’ feelings but have to be far more circumspect in expressing them.
The petition also serves as a reminder that the sway of the princelings, the elite 400 families who exercise extensive influence over the Party, the economy and the military, may be broad, but is not necessarily deep as far as the Party’s grassroots go. That is where one of the Party’s other main factions, the Communist Youth League, has its base. Princelings dismissively refer to leaders who come up through the league as “sons of shopkeepers.” To what extent that class warfare will make itself apparent in the jockeying for top jobs now underway in the leadership transition remains unclear to outsiders. But if we can’t see through the opaqueness we do hear clearly the occasional creak of an iceberg under stress.