Hu Jintao Gambles on the West

For Chinese President and Communist Party Chairman Hu Jintao, the run rises in the west. Now in the last 12 months of his first five year term as China’s boss, he is busy elevating loyalists from his own Communist Party factions to top positions, many of them with long service in the outlying western regions of the country.

While the bulk of Hu’s protégés come from the Communist Youth League (CYL), dozens of cadres from Tibet, Xinjiang and Gansu are also leapfrogging up the hierarchy. Given that traditionally Beijing has mostly groomed officials from the rich coastal provinces for top slots, the rise of the so-called Northwestern Faction has become the most controversial aspect of Mr. Hu’s power play.

By the time the 17th CCP Congress convenes later this year, Chairman Hu will have plenty of support from well placed officials who have done their time in the hinterlands.

One of the most eyecatching personnel movements this past winter was the advancement of officials who earned their spurs in the Tibet Autonomous Region, where Hu served as party secretary from 1988 to 1992. For example, Hu Chunhua (not related to President Hu), a former manager of the Tibet Hotel, was last month made party secretary of the Communist Youth League. At only 43, the minister-rank position makes Hu Chunhua a rising star among the fifth-generation cadres born in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Other senior cadres with a Tibet connection include the following: current Tibetan Region Party Secretary Zhang Qingli, who had served in both Xinjiang and Gansu; Vice-Chairman of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission Yang Chuantang; President of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Chen Guiyuan; President of the New China News Agency, Tian Chunming; and former Sichuan Party boss and current Vice-Head of the Internal and Judicial Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress Zhang Xuezhong.

This probably has to do with the fact that Hu Jintao himself owes his meteoric rise in CCP politics to his own tour in the Tibetan Region. It was his suppression of the anti-Beijing riots in Lhasa in March 1989 that convinced the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping in 1992 to promote the then 49-year-old Hu to the Politburo Standing Committee.

Owing to the northwestern provinces’ weak economies and Spartan living conditions, most cadres would have considered an appointment there a virtual demotion. The political fortunes of the Northwest Faction, however, have risen due to the fact that both Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao spent the early parts of their careers in the west. And a key component of the so-called Hu-Wen New Deal, a reference to the fourth-generation leadership’s commitment to spreading the wealth more evenly, is to raise living standards in the backwater provinces and autonomous regions.

At least superficially, the decision to raise the political profile of the Northwestern Faction seems popular. After all, most officials and ordinary Chinese still resent the stranglehold that Shanghai-affiliated cadres had on top slots during the long tenure of ex-president Jiang Zemin. However, party heavyweights and functionaries outside the Hu camp are disturbed by the aggressiveness with which Hu has promoted his protégés from the CYL and the northwestern regions.

The president’s apparent bid to fill the new Central Committee and Politburo, which is to be determined at the 17th Congress, with his cronies goes against the dictum of the late patriarch Deng, namely, that senior officials must hail from “the four lakes and four seas.” This meant top posts should be split fairly evenly among disparate factions and regions.

It is perhaps for this reason that the past week has witnessed reports by both Reuters and the Times of London that Hu is under pressure to give up his position as president, or head of state, to Vice-President and Politburo stalwart Zeng Qinghong, who was once Jiang’s chief adviser. A party source in Beijing said that while Hu’s power has yet to peak, he is susceptible to criticism for showing blatant favoritism towards members of his own factions.

More significant is the accusation that despite the promise of resuscitating the northwestern provinces, the economic gap between western China and the prosperous east coast has widened since 2002. Moreover, the recent flare-up of Uighur separatism in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR) has cast doubt on Hu’s vaunted initiative to pacify the restive region. In a crackdown on heavily armed “terrorist” organizations in Xinjiang earlier this month, People’s Armed Police officers killed 18 separatists and injured 17. Police also announced that they had discovered a large cache of firearms.

Beijing has blamed Al-Qaeda for secretly training up to 1,000 Uighur separatists since 2001. However, both western diplomats and Chinese intellectuals think Hu’s heavy hand over both regions is further alienating Tibetans and Uighurs from the central government. And the international watchdog Human Rights in China had a point when they noted in a just-released report that Beijing had stepped up efforts to stifle freedom of expression – as well as demands for the preservation of Uighur culture – under the pretext of “fighting global terrorism.”

Most underground groups in the region are secular and nonviolent – and they merely want a fairer social and economic order, not independence. Beijing, however, has consistently refused to let Uighurs share the billions of dollars worth of oil and gas being transported eastward to fuel coastal factories.

The outcome of the power struggle between Hu’s factions and those of his rivals – including remnants of the still-powerful Shanghai faction – won’t be known until the 17th CCP Congress. At a time when the Hu-Wen leadership is under international pressure to introduce real political liberalization, however, the president’s single-minded one-upmanship has certainly raised questions about his commitment to reform.