LAST AUGUST, RUMOURS circulated that former but still-powerful President Jiang Zemin, then just turning 89, had been placed ‘under control’ — a measure to restrict his freedom of movement for a while.
Jiang (seen left above) slipped from public view and it was being said that this was a prelude to President Xi Jinping moving against the man who had been instrumental in elevating him to the top leadership positions, but whose desire to rule from retirement remains the greatest constraint on Xi’s political supremacy.
Jiang led the Party from 1989 to 2002, but has remained one of the most politically powerful actors since. Before retiring, he appointed acolytes to key positions and let them establish varying degrees of autonomy from the formal leadership, particularly in the security apparatus.
With Zhou Yongkang, as head of the security services, and Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, in place as vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission, the Party agency that controls the PLA, Jiang had more sway over the military and the security services than the man who succeeded him as Party boss and president, Hu Jintao. And he had enough power in within the Party to promote Xi over Hu’s favoured successor, Li Keqaing, who had to settle for being prime minister.
Once in the top positions, however, Xi showed more determination that Hu to shake free of Jiang’s controlling hand. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was directed against many associated with Jiang’s Shanghai faction. Zhou, like Xu and Guo, three of the biggest ‘big tigers’ snared, were purged and expelled from the Party. One way to view that is as a rooting out of the parallel power network Jiang had established and restoring the leadership’s centralised control.
Rumours are circulating again that Xi may now feel political secure enough to move against the biggest tiger of them all, Jiang himself. This, the word is, would not be another round of control, but a prosecution for corruption.
Xi’s frustration with what he perceives as Jiang’s hinderance of his political control and economic reforms (which Xi sees as critical to the Party’s success in the existential struggle in which he believes it is engaged, but which would financially disadvantage many members of Jiang’s ‘Shanghai’ faction) is well known.
This, rarely, bubbled into public view when an editorial in the People’s Daily referred to former leaders who prevented their successors “rolling up their sleeves and doing bold work” and sniped at leaders who, “being unhappy to retire … do everything they can to extend their power”. Most readers would have quickly parsed the list of ‘former leaders’ to one.
Darker minds talk about conspiracies by Jiang’s supporters to overthrow Xi. Meanwhile, newly published writings by Xi carry a similarly coded warning that even ‘super-emperors’ should not be spared from the anti-corruption campaign.
Prosecuting Jiang would carry enormous risks for Xi. For one, it would sweep away the unwritten promise of immunity for former Party leaders that has allowed a leadership succession every decade.
Xi might then feel he would have to hold onto power beyond the customary ten years. That and the vacuum created by ripping up the old political rules that delivered a steady escalator of professional advancement and personal enrichment could trigger a revolt in a Party where morale at many levels is already fragile.
However, Xi is also time boxed. At the 19th Party Congress next year, the new generation of leaders — Xi’s heirs — could be expected to be nailing down their promotions for the top jobs which are due to rotate in 2022. If Xi is to move openly against Jiang, he will need to have done so — successfully — before then.
The calculation, though, is finely balanced.
The purges and Xi’s reorganisation of the PLA have diminished Jiang’ s influence in the military. That will have choked off some of the ‘pay for promotion’ that has enriched the Shanghai faction, just as the anti-graft probes into the state oil industry have closed off another honeypot. But it persists in the Party, including in the Politburo — which makes the promotions at the next Party Congress so critical. Taking Jiang down now would cement Xi’s absolute grip on power from the Congress on.
However, it would also risk splitting the Party and perhaps fatally damage it at a time when a slowing economy makes it especially vulnerable to social unrest, particularly if the newly affluent middle class starts to feel the effects.
Xi may also reckon that he need not take the risk; that he has taken down enough of Jiang’s inner circle to have undercut Jiang from below, and that Jiang will finally give up the game knowing Xi has the evidence to charge him whenever he chooses. And there is always the alternative of hoping that age and infirmity do the job for him.