Hu Ain’t Going Nowhere

Politics is the art of the possible – much more so for the honcho of the Chinese Communist Party, the largest and most powerful political party in the world. And while attention is focused on the upcoming 17th party congress – which will usher in a new leadership corps for 1.3 billion people – party chief Hu Jintao is already thinking of the 18th Congress five years down the road.

While conventional wisdom even within undemocratic China expects leaders to serve no more than two five-year terms, the Chinese Constitution only stipulates that state and government leaders, such as the president and prime minister, cannot serve more than ten years. The CCP Charter says nothing on the length of tenure for either the party’s general secretary or the chairman of the Central Military Commission, the two most important jobs in the country. Nor is there any specific retirement age for these top posts. By the time the 18th Congress convenes in October 2012, Hu will be only 69, the prime of middle age by Chinese standards.

The question of a third term for Hu, who was born in December 1942, has arisen because the party chief, president and commander-in-chief has not been able to groom a successor among the Fifth Generation, a reference to cadres now in their mid-40s to mid-50s. Despite his growing clout, it is still doubtful whether Hu can elevate a protégé to the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) at the 17th Congress in the second half of October.

The three commonly cited Hu favorites, the party secretaries of Liaoning Province, Jiangsu Province, and Chongqing, respectively Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, lack the requisite national stature and track record to make it to the powerful PSC, China’s governing council. And even if, as is possible, frontrunner Li Keqiang, 52, is inducted into the PSC this autumn, the lackluster party apparatchik may not be able to grow into the job of supreme leader by the time of the 18th Congress in 2012.

The upshot, according to political sources in Beijing close to Hu’s office, is that the president is contemplating a third term as party boss – and that he and his aides are getting ready to sell this to the CCP’s major factions. The sources say Hu’s spin doctors point to the example set by his predecessor, ex-president Jiang Zemin. Jiang (born 1926) served for 13 years as party chief and 14 as chairman of the military commission before reluctantly stepping aside. And by the time Hu would finish a third term as party chief and chairman at the 19th Congress in 2017, he will still be four years younger than Jiang was when he vacated his post as commander-in-chief in 2004.

The sources added that Hu was somewhat disappointed when he heard that his good friend Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a good 10 years younger, would not be seeking a third term when he retires in 2008. However, Hu reportedly told insiders that it was easier for Putin to anoint a successor – and in any case, conditions in the two countries are vastly different.

Diplomatic analysts in Beijing said developments before the 17th Congress would shape Hu’s thinking about what to do in 2012. On the one hand, Hu seems to have further tightened his grip and he continues to rein in the most threatening CCP clique, the so-called Shanghai Faction once led by Jiang.

Police late last month detained on corruption charges Wang Weigong, the one-time personal secretary of Huang Ju, a Jiang protégé, PSC member and prominent Shanghai Faction member who passed away recently due to cancer. Huang, is rumored to have been the “godfather” behind Shanghai’s horrendous web of corruption. The arrest of Wang, who became a businessman several years ago, could pave the way for the demise of more Shanghai Faction stalwarts.

Another indication of Hu’s expanding clout is that Jiang for the first time sang his praises when they put in a joint appearance at ceremonies on August 1 marking the 80th birthday of the People’s Liberation Army. Jiang was quoted by the official media as calling on troops and citizens to “rally behind comrade Hu Jintao as the general secretary of the party.”

Yet at the same time, Hu continues to meet resistance while trying to give his protégés a big buildup. In several internal opinion polls conducted among medium- to senior-ranked party cadres regarding the suitability of a number of relatively young candidates for the Politburo and the PSC, Hu favorites have come in near the bottom of the barrel. Given the fact that Hu himself first raised the banner of “democracy within the party” two years ago, the party chief would be hard put to totally ignore the views of fellow cadres. This has all the more prompted his advisers to ask the boss to consider sticking around.