Tag Archives: Hu Jintao

Hu Mystery No Closer To Being Solved

MORE FOOTAGE HAS emerged of the unexpected departure of former President Hu Jintao from the podium during the closing session of the recently concluded Party Congress.

However, it does little to clear up the mystery.

Shot by Channel Asia News, a Singapore TV outlet, the clip shows more of the lead-up to Hu being escorted from the podium.

Li Zhanshu, the Politburo member sitting next to Hu, and the former president appear to be talking about the red-bound file in front of Hu. Li slides it away from Hu before a man, assumedly a steward or a security official, arrives on stage, speaks briefly to Xi Jinping and then departs to fetch a second man, who eventually leads Hu away.

The conversations are inaudible, providing no further definitive clue as to an explanation of the event — whether, as the official explanation has it, that Hu was unwell or the speculation that the former president was the victim of a political ploy.

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Hu Done It?

Screengrab of former President Hu Jintao being escorted out of the closing ceremony of 20th Party Congress, October 22, 2022.

THE UNINTENDED TENDS not to happen at Party Congresses. The speeches are perfectly scripted for specific interpretation. The applause is punctual and appropriately prolonged. The seating is a schematic of position and power.

Thus the escorted exit of former President Hu Jintao during the closing session raises more questions than it answers.

Only the final part of Hu’s departure was caught on camera. Who summoned the stewards, when and how is not known. The reaction of those on the podium does not suggest sudden trauma. That does not eliminate a medical explanation, the one being advanced by state media. Hu has looked frail through this Congress, and seemed disoriented when he was ushered out, although still capable of saying something to Xi Jinping that elicited a nod in response.

Whatever the reason, it will be remembered as a symbolic ushering out of Hu-era collective leadership by Xi’s centralization of power with him as the core.

If it was a political ploy, it seems unnecessary, or perhaps more saliently raises the question of its purpose. The election of Xi allies to the new 205-strong Central Committee and the notable absence of economic liberals such as retiring Premier Li Keqiang, a protege of Hu, and Wang Yang mops up any lingering passive resistance to Xi, whose anti-corruption campaign has already taken out the most dangerous enemies.

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Hu Next?

Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua THE CRITICAL PROMOTIONS for China’s next generation of leaders are still a year away when five of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members reach mandatory retirement age, but the jockeying for position will be continuing at the party plenum now being held.

One of the front-runners to be the country’s next president, Hu Chunhua (left), is taking a leaf out of the incumbent Xi Jinping’s playbook for how to become China’s top leader. Hu has been talked of for several years as a likely successor to Xi, but the Guangdong Party boss is maintaining an ultra-low profile, just as Xi did as he eased ahead of the early front-runner to succeed President Hu Jintao, the now prime minister Li Keqiang.

In many ways, Guangdong is the bellwether for China’s economic reform. Hu’s success — or otherwise — in restructuring the provincial economy and sustaining the economic parity of its capital, Guangzhou, with Beijing and Shanghai will be a litmus test of whether he could do the same with whole economy — and whether he could do so while maintaining social stability in a rich, coastal and relatively liberal province that looks more like tomorrow’s China than the under-developed tough-to-govern inland provinces that Hu has previously run.

Hu has pursued cautious economic reform in Guangdong since taking over at the end of 2012 from the sloganeering Wang Yang. He has promoted unglamorous small and medium-sized businesses but also been careful to align with the edicts of central leadership. Hu’s policies for the province have echoed Xi’s line about the “quality and efficiency” of economic growth and in setting lower growth targets. He has promoted the move up the value chain by Guangdong’s manufacturers and into services while moving labour intensive businesses into poor inland districts.

His predecessor Wang’s setbacks — he failed to get promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee at the November 2012 party congress at around the same time as the high-flying Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai was being brought low — will not have been lost on Hu. He has already survived two incidents that could easily have finished a political career.

He was governor of Hebei when the tainted baby formula scandal started there. In his next job, party chief in Inner Mongolia, violent protests broke out against the destruction of traditional Mongol grazing lands by Han-controlled mining interests. Hu cracked down on these and tripled per capita income in his five years but established a dubious record on environmentalism, a factor that now weighs more heavily in political calculations for promotion.

There is no doubt that Hu’s rise has been rapid. A staff position with the Communist Youth League (CYL) in Tibet in 1983 led to governor of Hebei province in 2008, party boss of Inner Mongolia by 2010 and then the same role in a high-profile province, Guangdong, in 2012 along with promotion to the Politburo. In 1996-99, Hu studied for a master’s degree in economics at the Central Party School, where officials marked out for future high office get sent.

Still in his early 50s he is young even by the standards of the prospective sixth generation of leaders. A career in the CYL, where he became a protege of Hu Jintao (no relation), is the bureaucrat’s rather than a princeling’s to power.

Hu has demonstrated both the caution and the orthodoxy of officialdom and his deeper policy beliefs remain somewhat obscure. Both in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, he took a hard line on security and in Guangdong, which has long had a more vibrant local press than most of the rest of China, he has been criticised for tightening censorship.

Hu has also cracked down on Guangdong’s drugs and sex industries and gone after officials who have done well enough out of their offices to be able to keep and support their families abroad. Hu has bought some 800 ‘luoguan’ to book, again moves in line with Xi’s anti-corruption drive.

Bo’s disgrace opened avenues for loyalists, down which Hu has advanced. Whether he completes the journey to the highest offices may turn on the influence that Hu Jintao can wield in the inevitable factional horse-trading. The corruption charges against another Hu Jintao protege, Wan Qingliang, the party boss of Guangzhou, may suggest Xi is constraining his predecessor, even if not as publicly as he is Hu Jintao’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

It will also depend on Hu’s own ability to keep his head down and out of trouble and Guangdong’s economy thriving.

A third factor, unknown at this point, is where Xi will come down. Will he consider Hu’s conservatism and reformist credentials suitable to carry on his policies? Will he back a fellow princeling or acknowledge that the presidency is due to return to Hu Jintao’s CYL faction?

Hu is regarded as a Hu Jintao version two and is familiarly known as ‘Little Hu’. Both men come from humble backgrounds. Hu was the son of a poor farmer in Hubei who made it to the elite Beijing University, where he took a bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and history, by dint of outstanding exam scores. Both were student leaders in their university days, rose through the CYL and cut their political teeth in troublesome provinces with ethnic minority populations, Gansu and Tibet, in the elder Hu’s case, Tibet and Inner Mongolia in the younger Hu’s case. Unusually for a senior Han official, he speaks fluent Tibetan. He also doesn’t die his hair.

Politically, they a both low-key, consensual leaders who advocate policies of social justice and economic equality. Both of those may be in tune with the party’s needs in 2022 when Xi’s successor starts to take over, and some rough edges to China’s economic rebalancing will be in need of smoothing.

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China’s Party Factions Prep For The 2022 Leadership Succession

The Jiang Zemin-led Shanghai faction’s predominance among the members of China’s new Politburo standing committee at the expense of outgoing President Hu Jintao’s has been widely noted, including by this Bystander. It seems a throw back to an earlier generation of Party leadership. In a sense it is. Elite, conservative state capitalists again dominate the inner sanctum of power. But the change is by no means permanent, to our eye. Hu’s faction, rooted in the Communist Youth League, is much more prevalent among the Politburo’s 25 members, a de facto layer below the standing committee, and, a rung of power below that, among the 376 members of the Central Committee, which has also taken on a distinctly younger look.

We count at least nine Politburo members in or aligned with the Hu faction, a number Jiang’s faction cannot muster. The disparity in the Central Committee is even greater. Hu’s  proteges are also well represented on the Party’s Central Military Commission, which oversees the PLA. Such influence is likely to have been the price Hu extracted for giving up the committee’s chairmanship at the same time as he relinquished his Party post. It may also have given him some surety that that would make it more difficult for hardline, dissident elements of the military to move against either the people or the Party in the event of some breakdown of social order.

Hu’s proteges are also more broadly represented in the so-called sixth generation of leaders coming along behind those being ushered in as China’s fifth generation under new Party general secretary and President assumptive Xi Jinping. Five of the seven members of the Politburo standing committee hit retirement age at or around the time of the next Party Congress in five years time. Jiang himself is already 86. Prominent Hu loyalists and proteges such as Li Yuancho, the head of the Party’s organization department and  Wang Yang, the 57-year old Guangdong party boss, both of whom failed to get promoted to the standing committee this time but retained Politburo membership, may feel their time will come again then, especially as the sixth generation of leaders will be starting to stake out their ground then for 2022 leadership transition.

It is early days, but Inner Mongolia party boss Hu Chunhua and Sun Zhengcai, newly appointed as party boss in disgraced Bo Xilai’s old stamping ground, Chongqing, are being marked out to succeed Xi and prime minister assumptive Li Keqiang, respectively, in 2022. Hu Chunhua is a Hu Jintao protege and Sun is allied to outgoing prime minister Wen Jiabao.  To our mind, that means that the factional in-fighting that marked the run-up to the leadership transition now underway will continue, if not as virulently as earlier this year. Factional jockeying for power is part of the warp and weft of China’s elite politics. Xi will need to move decisively to establish his authority, impose unity, and, perhaps, establish his own faction in the vacuum that Jiang’s looks likely to leave.

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China’s New Gang Of Seven

General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Xi Jinping (C) and the other newly-elected members of the Standing Committee of the 18th CPC Central Committee Political Bureau.

Men in Black: Xi Jinping (C), Li Keqiang (3rd R), Zhang Dejiang (3rd L), Yu Zhengsheng (2nd R), Liu Yunshan (2nd L), Wang Qishan (1st R), Zhang Gaoli (1st L).

We now have the names of the seven men who will run China for the next decade, the new Politburo standing committee, arguably, the most powerful septet in the world. Xi Jinping, long the heir assumptive as paramount leader, heads, in order of precedence, Li Keqiang, the presumptive prime minister; Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, the man sent to clean up Chongqing after Bo Xilai’s ousting and who looks set to become head of China’s rubber-stamp parliament; Shanghai party secretary Yu Zhengsheng; propaganda chief Liu Yunshan; Vice Premier Wang Qishan, the economic reformer being shunted off to be the Party’s disciplinarian; and Tianjin party secretary Zhang Gaoli, the most pro-reform member of the standing committee after Wang.

A first reading of the list suggests that the security and propaganda interests have held their ground while the economic reformers have lost some. The important calibration, though, is between the Party’s factions. The list, close to what was expected, bears a heavier than expected stamp of former president  and leader of the Party’s Shanghai faction, Jiang Zemin, at the expense of his successor President Hu Jintao, whose power base lies in the Party’s rank and file organization, the Youth League. Yu Zhengsheng, Shanghai party secretary, makes the final cut, pushing out Li Yuancho, the head of the Party’s organization department and a Hu loyalist. Wang Yang, the 57-year old Guangdong party boss and a Hu protege, also didn’t make the cut, but his promotion had faltered in earlier political horse trading. His losing out may have been the price Hu paid for Bo’s ousting. Both he and Li were identified with political reform.

Most significantly, to this Bystander’s eye, is that Xi takes over the chairmanship of the Party’s military commission, and thus oversight of the armed forces. Hu was expected to hold the post until the end of the leadership transition in 2014 and thus give himself a political base to be a power behind the throne once he yielded his Party and state jobs.

This is a line-up designed to keep a tight lid on China’s development over the next decade. It is not one to to take political or economic risks in a period in which the country will grow less fast than it has for the past three decades and which will face the challenges of dealing with a rebalancing of the economy at home and finding a place for itself in the world abroad. Several of the new leaders have deep roots in state-owned companies and infrastructure investment. The vested interests have circled their wagons.

Jiang’s presidency was marked by a spate of bold economic reforms without any substantive movement towards political reform. China has developed to a point since where a repeat of that formula may just not work. No country has become rich without developing good-quality institutions to support the rule of law, sound governance and political accountability. Without that there is political instability, government inefficiency and the prevalence of corruption. The new leadership has set out its stall in a bet that it can tackle those three challenges without giving up the Party’s monopoly on power. It is a brave bet.

Footnote: Xi and Li are the only two members of the new Standing Committee in their fifties. The other five are all 64 and up. Given that Politburo standing committee members generally retire at 70, it may be only Xi and Li of the fifth-generation leaders who serve two five-year terms.


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Jiang Zemin Redux

The men in the middle that matter: Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin

A vignette of the reemergence of former President Jiang Zemin at the heart of the highest levels of Chinese politics: The opening of the 18th Party Congress was marked by loud–thunderous is the word the headline writers would have used–applause for the arrival of President Hu Jintao, the first top leader to make his entry. Behind Hu was Jiang, now 86, hair dyed what is described as walnut brown, and far from having passed on to that great standing committee in the sky, as had been rumored last year. Then came the rest of the Politburo standing committee. It was plain to see who were the two most important men in Chinese politics.

A man who has been out of office for more than a decade remains not just a Party elder but a power broker. The likely line-up of the new Politburo standing committee to be unveiled, finally, in less than a week bears, as we noted earlier, Jiang’s imprint.  He has a frenemy relationship with Hu. Both men represent powerful factions within the Party, Jiang the Shanghai group and Hu the Youth League (not that those are the only two overlapping and interweaving sets of interests in the Party that straddle its evershifting fault lines). Jiang’s longstanding patronage of paramount leader apparent Xi Jinping was instrumental in Hu changing horses from his original choice for his successor, Li Keqiang, who rose through the Youth League. And Hu doesn’t look to have got all the allies he would like on the final list for the standing committee to help cement his own future power from behind the throne, particularly if  Wang Yang, the reformist 57-year old Guangdong Party boss, is passed over as word has it that he has been.


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Hu Looks To Yesterday For Tomorrow’s Path

President Hu Jintao’s final set-piece speech before handing over as leader of the Party to Xi Jinping boils down to this: China will adhere to state dominance of the economy and one-party rule and will aim to double incomes by 2020. The formula delivered economic growth for the Hu-Wen leadership. It will not do the same for the Xi-Li generation. This Bystander suspects the new leadership full knows it.

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A New Gang Of Seven To Rule China

A list of the seven men who will comprise China’s new inner ruling elite is emerging. Only two of the nine current members of the Politburo standing committee are not retiring in this once in a decade leadership transition. They are Xi Jinping, heir presumptive to President Hu Jintao, and Li Keqiang, who is expected to take over the prime ministership from Wen Jiabao.

Only five of the seven retirees, it seems, are going to be replaced. A smaller Politburo standing committee will make it easier for Xi to assert his sway over a body that rules by consensus. That he needs a smaller group to achieve that indicates the depth of the divisions remaining within the Party. Not that the fact that factions within the Party vie for power and position comes as any surprise. The Bo Xilai scandal bears ample evidence to that, albeit an only too rare example of it breaking into public view.

The list of names now doing the rounds suggests that the jockeying continues. China’s factional infighting is a matrix of constantly waring but shifting alliances. Broadly, on one side, are  those who believe the Party’s future legitimacy to rule depends on delivering rising living standards through the existing mechanisms of state capitalism and maintaining the stability that requires through traditional political and social control. On the other side, are those who believe that China has developed to the point at which delivering ever higher standards of living can only be done by embracing fundamental economic reform, even at the cost of disrupting deeply entrenched vested interests. The vested interests line up as opportunity suits them.

How this scrap plays out is more than an matter of idle political pugilism. As we have noted before (see: The Battle Behind The Birthday For A Billion), this leadership transition takes the Party across a demographic Rubicon. The new leadership’s working political life has only known China transforming itself as a rising political and economic power, even if its members are as pragmatically committed as their predecessors to the Party’s monopoly on power. The split, as noted, is whether the basis for that should be ideological or economic. With China’s economy at a critical moment of transition, how that resolves itself will matter greatly to the rest of the world.

The gang of seven reflects the forces on both sides of that divide, and the outgoing leadership’s attempt to bridge it (harsher critics might say, to paper over the cracks). Most obvious is the apparent omission of Wang Yang, the 57-year old Guangdong party boss who is the most public advocate of political reform, save perhaps for Wen, in the upper echelons of the Party, and the inclusion of Liu Yunshan, the Party’s 65-year old hard-line head of propaganda. Wang’ passing over may be price that has been paid for Bo’s ousting.

Wang Qishan, now a vice-premier, is the leading economic reformer among the seven, with Zhang Goali, the Party boss in Tianjin, in support. The remaining two of the septet, Zhang Dejiang, who was sent to clean up Chongqing after Bo’s ousting, and Li Yuancho, who heads the Party’s organization department, are Hu loyalists. There are to protect his legacy and ensure the stability he sees as vital. They will act as cautious brakes on too rapid reform. How much impetus Xi choses to give to reform will be the deciding factor.

The list bears the imprint of former President Jiang Zemin,  a powerful if increasingly spectral background figure still. It is said to be the work of him, Hu and Xi, a consensus list for a consensus leadership that will be led by a compromise candidate, acceptable to princelings (of which he is one), nationalists, party apparatchiks, generals and reformers alike, all groups, it should be said, that overlap and interweave.

It is also not the final word. It still could face challenges from powerful party elders who fear they or their interests could be attacked or marginalized under the new regime. Reformers could make a bid to get Wang back on the list. There might be a move to include a woman, possibly Liu Yandong, the state councilor responsible for health, education and sport education. The standing committee could yet stay at nine-strong.

The Party plenum starting on November 1st is when the list will be finalized. It will then go to the Party Congress due to start on November 8th to be rubber stamped. Then comes a couple of years of Xi sparring with Hu as the outgoing president successively yields his Party, state and military offices while attempting to cement his legacy and power behind the throne.

It is worth remembering that Hu first championed Li as his successor but threw his support behind Xi when it became clear that Xi was outflanking his competitor. Cunning, calculating and ambitious Xi plays politics like a chameleon playing poker. The new team may be more in his own image than at this point we imagine.


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Mr Kim Goes To Beijing, Or Not

North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, wants to make a state visit to Beijing. He has reportedly asked to be invited around the same time as China will be making its own leadership transition. The world’s youngest head of state is hoping for a halo effect, no doubt. The request was conveyed by  Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in the course of his visit to Beijing last week. This Bystander suspects that Jang didn’t return home bearing a gilt-edged engraved invitation card for his nephew from President Hu Jintao.

The lack of enthusiasm is understandable, even setting aside the question of timing. China wants Kim to pursue economic opening, both as a means to avert an economic collapse of the reclusive and impoverished state, and as a way to access the country’s mineral resources, though that, like the special economic zones that have been jointly set up, are so far more promise than reality. The bigger impediment is Beijing’s displeasure at Kim’s enthusiasm for nuclear  and missile tests. It sees these as an unnecessary international provocation. Nor is it thrilled by the prospect of having a nuclear armed neighbor that has a history of behavior almost as reliable as its missiles. Pyongyang may see its nuclear threat as its only card in the diplomatic game with Washington. China has a better hand and is playing a more complex game.

So far Beijing’s foreign ministry is saying nothing, but then it is the Party not the government that handles relations with Pyongyang. Its young guns don’t see themselves as having much in common with the 20s-something third-generation despot. They are serious players on the world stage, not tin-pot dictators. Nor is their China the China of their grandfathers’ generation, which stood shoulder to shoulder with Kim’s grandfather in the Korean War. If Kim’s North Korea has changed in the ensuing half century and more,  it is, if anything, only for the worse.

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Hu Woos Warily Welcoming Africa

Chinese President Hu Jintao addresses the opening ceremony of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing, capital of China, July 19, 2012. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)

China is giving the triennial two-day ministerial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing the full-court diplomatic press. President Hu Jintao, seen above addressing the gathering against a backdrop of African flags, promised to have doubled China’s credit lines for African governments to $20 billion by the time the meeting reconvenes in 2015. The idea is to reinforce the notion that the Beijing consensus model of development is better for the continent than the Washington one.

Many African leaders have sufficient concern about Western development aid, with its baggage of conditionality and legacy colonial perceptions, to make Beijing a preferred partner on large-scale development projects. But it is a pragmatic choice, not unalloyed affection. Chinese investment is concentrated in natural resources and infrastructure construction (and in a relatively few resource-rich African countries), while cheap Chinese manufactures and workers flood in. That raises concerns among African policymakers that China’s trade and investment doesn’t necessarily boost the continent’s overall capacity and competitiveness or its intra-continental trade. Growing popular unease over Chinese insularity, labour practices and immigration has led to local violence on several occasions from Algeria to Zambia.

Aware that it has an image problem, Beijing is countering these concerns with a diplomatic charm offensive, and, inevitably, a five-point plan. Hu promised to diversify and rebalance China’s Africa trade and investment, and to create more local jobs by supporting African manufacturing. This Bystander, for one, will believe it when he sees it.

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