By Bhaskar Roy*
The Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily (August 10) clearly indicated that President Xi Jinping was preparing to strike at the powerful former President and party Chief Jiang Zemin. The newspaper carried a signed article titled, “Dialectally View the Phenomenon of ‘Tea Turns Cold When People are Away’,” a message that few in China could miss.
The author’s background was not given suggesting it could be a pen-name, and the article carried the views of a powerful person or group having the influence to dictate to the party mouthpiece. The language and context was reminiscent of the Maoist era when a political target was identified through parables or historical characters.
The commentary said that over the years many senior cadres had moved away after retirement and refrained from intervening in the work of the new leadership. It gave examples of Wan Li, Tian Jiyun, Zhu Rongji and Hu Jintao, among others stating such senior leaders and veteran cadres earned everyone’s respect.
Thereafter, the article singled out a “highly positioned cadre” who when in power placed his trusted aides in top positions to manipulate power after his retirement. It went on to say that after years of retirement he is still unwilling to relinquish power and when he is unhappy with something, he laments, “Tea turns cold when people are away”.
This practice undermines the Party’s unity, creates cliques and internal power struggle the article said. It also averred that such “cold tea” is the norm, it should not be heated and brought back to the table.
The metaphor invited a surge of comments on China chat website Sina Weibo, where Jiang Zemin was indirectly identified as the target. Ginger tea is not an uncommon drink in China and ginger is called “jiang” in Chinese.
Jiang Zemin’s lust for power is well known as is his reputation for manipulation and favouritism. Appointed by Deng Xiaoping as Party Chief and then President in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square upheaval, he retired in 2002. But he kept the post of Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) for almost two more years till pressured by the old veterans to stand down and hand over the post to his successor, Hu Jintao.
Jiang realised power of the military early on. The top generals had opposed his talking over the CMC for several years. It was only after some powerful veterans in the army retired that Deng was able to install him as Chairman of the CMC. Even then, Deng had to protect him for some more years in that post till Jiang Zemin could place his trusted officers in important positions. In fact during Jiang’s rule the PLA saw the promotion of the largest number of officers to the generals’ rank.
Jiang also created the powerful Shanghai clique, otherwise known as the Shanghai mafia. In the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) of the Party Central Committee Yu Zhengshen, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Gaoli and Zhang Dejiang are considered to be Jiang’s protégés. But Yu Zhengshen, Wang Qishan and Zhang Dejiang ae also princelings or progeny of senior Long March leaders.
Another powerful protégé of Jiang, Zhou Yongkang, was brought down by Xi in the last two years. Zhou was a member of PBSC, and headed the powerful security apparatus. His writ included the Petroleum faction, who were gradually posted in other influential positions across the country.
Xi began by bringing down Bo Xilai, another princeling and Party Chief of Chongqing municipality. Bo was a protégé of both Jiang and Zhou. He was to be elevated to the PBSC eventually, Bo became too ambitious too early, and reports say he planned to oust Xi Jinping.
But to take action against both Zhou and Bo Xilai, Xi had to take clearance from Jiang.
Xi next moved to cleanse the PLA. First to go was former Vice Chairman of CMC, Xu Caihou, on charges of corruption. Xu, however, died of cancer before he could be sentenced. Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan, former deputy director of the General Logistics Department of the PLA has been sentenced to life imprisonment. A third PLA “Tiger” or senior official to fall was another CMC Vice Chairman Guo Boxiong. There are several others who have been either punished or under investigation.
It was an unwritten understanding that PBSC members would not be targeted. Xi did the unthinkable. His anti-corruption campaign started with the Tigers and “flies” (lower level officials) were targeted subsequently.
Veteran leaders who wanted lifelong tenures were a bane for the People’s Republic of China. After Mao Zedong’s death, when Deng Xiaoping wrested power from the ultra-leftists, he and his colleagues abolished this practice and introduced the age bar system from the president and party general secretary downwards, in 1982.
The next step came after the Tiananmen students’ protest. The Central Advisory Commission (CAC) was abolished. The CAC was a body comprising senior retired cadres, both civil and military. They wielded significant power and influence. Had it not been for the CAC, the crackdown on the students may have been less bloody. The old guards had their entrenched ideas and were very conservative in their outlook. Had the old systems remained, China’s economic liberalization and development would have been doubtful.
At the 19th Congress of the Communist Party in 2017, Xi Jinping is expected to further strengthen himself. Out of the present seven member PBSC only he and Li Keqiang will remain. Li is neither a princeling nor is he from Shanghai clique. He belongs to the Chinese Youth League group of the party. Li has lent his shoulders to Xi’s anti-corruption drive. It is expected that in the next PBSC Xi will place his own people and Li is expected to get a share. But it will be difficult to keep out the Shanghai faction.
Jiang Zemin is not expected to give up without a fight. Corruption is not restricted to Jiang’s Tigers only. There is hardly a senior leader in China who is squeaky clean. There are retired leaders whose children and relatives may not be clean.
Can Xi restrict his anti-corruption drive against Tigers to his political opponents only? Jiang may suffer an ignominious end. Evidence is being collected against him. Xi Jinping is winning the battle but will he be able to win the war? There is a Chinese saying that when a big wave comes it is wise to duck under it. There will be time after that.
*The writer is a New Deli based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail email@example.com