Hu Jintao’s PLA Personality Cult

photo by Dan Kamminga


President Hu Jintao is building a personality cult around himself in the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army so as to consolidate his status as the “core” of the Fourth-Generation leadership. Support by the generals is key to Hu’s power game, given that the 64-year-old Communist Party General Secretary has met fierce resistance in efforts to install his protégés in the Politburo Standing Committee at the crucial 17th Party Congress scheduled for October.

Hu’s game plan has always been to install at least one Fifth-Generation cadre (roughly, one born in the 1950s to early 1960s) at the PSC at the congress, which is held every five years. This is to ensure that when, according to party tradition, the president steps down at the 18th Congress in 2012, his protégé will take over the helm.

But This Year’s Batch Don’t Fly

However, diplomatic analysts in Beijing agree that the rising stars that Hu has been grooming the past few years, including the Communist Party secretaries of Liaoning and Jiangsu Provinces, respectively Li Keqiang and Li Yuanchao, lack the requisite national stature or track record to take the proverbial helicopter ride to the PSC. Liaoning’s Li, 52, a former party secretary of Henan Province, is still haunted by scandals involving thousands of Henanese peasants who caught AIDS through selling blood to unhygienic plasma-collection centers. And the reputation of Jiangsu’s Li, 57, has been dented by the recent outcry over the grossly polluted Lake Tai, which used to be a top scenic attraction in his province.

Part of the opposition to elevating Hu’s trusted lieutenants comes from the still-powerful Shanghai Faction, which is headed by ex-president Jiang Zemin and Vice-President Zeng Qinghong. The Shanghai clique’s power has been gradually diminishing since Jiang was forced in September 2004 to relinquish his last significant post, Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), to Hu. However, both Jiang and Zeng, who also represents the Gang of Princelings – a reference to the sons of party elders – have retained a significant say in personnel matters to be determined at the 17th Congress.

A Beijing source familiar with the thinking of the Hu camp said that Hu had a trump card that could be used to prevail upon the Shanghai Faction, as well as other cliques that might put up obstacles to his plan for succession. Despite his lack of charisma, the president is the only PSC member who has day-to-day control over the PLA, which has always enjoyed a special place in the polity. Since becoming the equivalent of commander-in-chief in 2004, Hu has successfully bought the support of the top brass through granting the forces big budget increases as well as raising officers’ salaries, perks and retirement benefits. In return, the generals seem amenable to helping Hu consolidate his status as undisputed supremo in the party, government and army.

The Generals Applaud Politely

For the past year, the generals have been forthcoming with their praise for the “military acumen” and “far-sighted guidance” of Chairman Hu. His instruction that the PLA “must be able to win information-enabled warfare under new situations in the new era” has become the motto for the 2.4 million strong armed forces. More such dictums and aphorisms by Hu have been circulated by the party and army media in the past month.

The latest Hu saying goes like this: “We must manage well the relationship between preparation for warfare, exercising caution with regard to [possible] warfare, and [the state of] daring to go to war.” Hu has also noted that “while we shall be cautious about warfare, we must secure victory once we have gone into combat.”

CCTV’s prime-time news program last Thursday evening led with a visit paid by Commander-in-chief Hu earlier this year to the “No. 9 Red Brigade” in the Shenyang Military Region. In a pep talk, Hu asked the young soldiers about their knowledge of the party’s latest theoretical breakthroughs. Brigade members all cited “the scientific theory of development” as well as “putting people first,” two of the pet slogans concocted by Hu since he assumed power in late 2002.

Chairman Hu’s Teachings

Both the army and the civilian media have elevated the “teachings of Chairman Hu” to the same level as those of the military pronouncements of Chairman Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. This is despite the fact that unlike Mao and Deng, who played key roles in the “Liberation warfare” of the 1940s, Hu has no practical experience with military matters whatsoever. For President and General Secretary Hu, however, a Mao-style personality cult is precisely what is needed to bolster his authority before a showdown at the 17th Party Congress.