Drama Hits Beijing Politics

Suddenly, a whiff of drama and suspense has suffused top-level Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politics, which is still run largely along monolithic, Leninist lines. Shanghai Party Secretary Xi Jinping has emerged as a possible successor to General Secretary and President Hu Jintao.

Latest reports from Beijing say that both Xi, 54, and Liaoning party boss Li Keqiang, 52, are tipped to join the elite Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) at the 17th CCP Congress set to open in October 15. However, last-minute changes in the personnel line-up are expected. The nine members of the incumbent PSC, who have a big say in picking their successors, are expected to continue marathon horse-trading sessions through the National Day Golden Week holidays.

Until last week, Li, nicknamed “Hu Jintao’s clone” due to the many similarities between the two, was deemed the only Fifth-Generation cadre (that is, one born in the 1950s) to have secured a ticket to the all-powerful standing committee. However, standing committee members, in particular Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, have argued that given Li’s lack of national stature or an illustrious track record, at least one more Fifth-Generation official should be elevated to the Standing Committee. And, depending on their performance in the coming five years, one of the two will be designated Hu’s successor at the 18th CCP Congress in late 2012.

Zeng, 68, who used to be the hatchet man of Hu’s main political foe, ex-president Jiang Zemin, has also indicated that he is willing to retire if Xi and possibly one more of his protégés are inducted into the PSC. Political sources in Beijing say that the Xi candidacy is still being considered by incumbent PSC members. They say that Hu prefers Li to be the only representative of the younger generation in the post-17th Congress PSC, but the supremo may acquiesce in Xi’s promotion in return for the elevation of a couple more of his close associates.

Xi, who only became Shanghai’s No. 1 in March this year, has risen largely because of his acceptability to the two most important cliques of the CCP: the Hu Jintao, or Communist Youth League, faction, and the Shanghai faction. Considered a “princeling” (he is the son of former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun), Xi had a reputation for being a competent and low-key administrator when he ran the coastal provinces of Zhejiang and Fujian from the early 1990s to early this year.

While being a native of inland Shaanxi Province, he is acceptable to members of the still-powerful Shanghai faction due to his success in spearheading the hi-tech transformation of nearby Zhejiang. Since the spring, cadres in Shanghai – who have become demoralized due to corruption charges leveled against disgraced former party secretary Chen Liangyu and his cronies – have organized several “learning trips” to Zhejiang, whose economy is largely anchored upon tens of thousands of innovative, market-oriented private firms.

Most importantly, Xi is also acceptable to Hu. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a comrade-in-arms of the late party chief Hu Yaobang, who was unceremoniously sacked by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping in January 1987. On that occasion, the elder Xi was one of only a few party elders who spoke out in defense of Hu, who had incurred the ire of conservatives due to his advocacy of political liberalization. While Hu Jintao does not share the elder Hu’s liberal philosophy, he was the latter’s protégé: the younger Hu got his first ministerial-level appointment, as head of the Communist Youth League, in 1984 through the late leader’s recommendation.

Diplomatic analysts in Beijing say the possible induction of Xi should not detract from Hu’s ever-growing clout. In the run-up to the 17th Congress, Hu, as chairman of the Central Military Commission, has masterminded a series of promotions in the People’s Liberation Army. It is a tradition going back to the Yan’an Caves that in the CCP, whoever controls the army controls everything else.

Given the rising tension over the Taiwan Strait – caused by Taipei’s bid to hold a referendum to garner support for the “rejoin-the-United Nations” campaign – Hu has elevated a number of officers with experience in provinces just opposite Taiwan. For instance, the newly named Chief of the General Staff, Gen Chen Bingde, was head of the Nanjing Military Region (MR), which is “responsible” for the Taiwan Strait. Other high-profile alumnae of the Nanjing MR include newly promoted Vice-Chief of the General Staff Gen Wu Shengli and Commandant of the Academy of Military Sciences Gen Ma Xiaotian. And the new Air Force Commander, Xu Qiliang, was once an ace pilot based in Fujian, China’s “frontline” province just opposite the “breakaway island.”

President Hu is expected to deliver a strong warning to the administration of Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian during the 17th Congress. And if the General Secretary and commander-in-chief can secure the loyalty of the PLA top guns, the Fourth-Generation leader will have the wherewithal to nudge his Politburo comrades into line.