Big Win for China’s Clones and Doppelgangers

With Beijing having announced the dates for the pivotal 17th CCP Congress – which starts on October 15 – the world’s gaze is on the top dogs who will be endorsed at this five-yearly conclave. Foremost on the minds of China watchers is the composition of the ruling Politburo and in particular the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the country’s supreme governing council.

While skullduggery and horse-trading are expected to go on until the eve of the Congress itself, a few credible standing committee name lists have been circulating throughout the Chinese capital. The lineup that has received the most attention consists of three incumbents and four newcomers.

The incumbents are President and General Secretary Hu Jintao; Premier Wen Jiabao; and Vice-President Zeng Qinghong (to become National People’s Congress chairman in early 2008). Fresh PSC inductees are united front work specialist Wang Zhaoguo (set to become Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference); Liaoning Party Secretary Li Keqiang (who will run the party Secretariat); Director of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee Wang Gang (to head the Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection); and Guangdong Party Secretary Zhang Dejiang (to become Executive Vice-Premier).

Superficially, the makeup of the standing committee, now reduced to seven members to facilitate decision-making, seems to strike a good balance between the Hu Faction and the fading but still-important Shanghai Faction that used to be headed by principal Hu foe, ex-president Jiang Zemin. Apart from Zeng, who is Jiang’s former adviser and hatchet man, both Zhang Dejiang and Wang Gang owed their promotion – to respectively Politburo member and Politburo alternate member – at the 16th Congress five years ago to Jiang. As such, Zhang and Wang are often identified as Jiang protégés.

However, both cadres are also what Beijing pundits call affiliates of the “Wind Faction”: that is, they sway with the wind – or the powers-that-be. Indeed, Zhang and in particular Wang, who is in charge of the nerve center of the party, were among the first batch of senior officials to have crossed over to the Hu camp in early 2003.

Wang, 65, who spent a good chunk of his career looking after confidential party archives, has so successfully ingratiated himself with the new supremo that he has become Hu’s doppelganger. From mid-2003 onwards, the low-profile Wang has always been just a few steps behind Hu when the latter makes foreign visits or goes on provincial tours. A Beijing political source said Wang not only functions as Hu’s secretary and gate-keeper but also advises the president on party and other political matters.

Given Wang’s long experience with party dossiers, he seems a good choice for the disciplinary inspection unit, China’s highest-level anti-corruption body. It is likely that Wang will help Hu wield the anti-graft card against cadres who refuse to heed instructions from the center.

Questions about competence, and more significantly, reformist credentials are also being asked about other possible PSC inductees. The ties of Wang Zhaoguo, 67, and Li Keqiang, 52, with the big boss are even closer than those of Wang Gang. All three have been First Secretary of the Communist Youth League, the presidency’s primary power base. Wang Zhaoguo, who was Hu’s immediate predecessor as youth league chief, was talent-scouted in the early 1980s by none other than late patriarch Deng Xiaoping.

The 67-year-old Wang, however, has never demonstrated much reformist zeal during his more than two decades in the party’s top echelons. Li, 52, is often called the “clone” of mentor Hu. The two share the same background, having graduated from top universities with high honors, and then staying on to head the youth league branch of their colleges – and work as full-time political instructors. Despite his lackluster record while serving as party chief of the important provinces of Henan and Liaoning, Li’s status as heir-apparent and “core” of the Fifth-Generation leadership will be confirmed by his PSC accession.

And how about 61-year-old Zhang of Guangdong? The high-profile party apparatchik is often credited with the fast-paced growth of Guangdong. However, the North Korea-educated Zhang was responsible for suppressing news about the SARS virus in late 2002. He has also imposed a regime of repression against journalists and NGOs in his rich province. Zhang’s rumored replacement of the just-deceased Huang Ju as Executive Vice-Premier after the Congress is therefore not exactly good news for market reforms.

Given that this personnel scenario seems to give Hu a lopsided advantage, it is probable that there will be last-minute fine-tuning of the line-up. For example, there is a possibility that to accommodate the lobbying of myriad power blocs in the party, the size of the PSC will stay the same, that is, nine members. In that case, at least one slot will go to the Zeng Qinghong faction.

And current Minister of Public Security Zhou Yongkang, a politburo member and Zeng protégé , will likely make the PSC as the top gun in charge of security and judicial matters.

Since running the police in late 2002, Zhou has cracked down hard on dissidents and NGO activists. He also plays a big role in muzzling the country’s inchoate Net culture.