Rivalry Grows Between China's Top Leaders

An intriguing talk by Premier Wen Jiabao in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) has thrown light on Wen's intensifying discord with President and Chinese Communist Party Chief Hu Jintao.

While visiting Shenzhen on Aug. 20 and 21 to mark the 30th anniversary of the zone's establishment, Wen surprised local cadres and Chinese observers by appearing to criticize unnamed CCP officials for dragging their feet on reform.

After making a deep bow to the statue of Deng Xiaoping, the Chief Architect of Reform, Wen pointed out that CCP cadres "must continue to liberate their thinking and make bold explorations" in reform. "We cannot afford to stop," he warned. "More importantly, we must not retrogress." Wen reiterated that without the "guarantee" of political reform – which is seldom mentioned in the official media nowadays – "it will be impossible for the goal of economic reform and modernization to be realized." Then Wen repeated the well-known caveat that Deng had used against the party's conservatives: "If we don't push forward with reform, the only road ahead is perdition."

Who in particular was Wen targeting? An informed party source in Beijing said Wen, the nation's No. 2 leader, was laying into none other than the No. 1, President Hu. In his capacity as CCP General Secretary, Hu is responsible for the party's overall direction, particularly in relation to ideological matters.

In the past two years, Hu, in conjunction with conservative commissars in the Politburo such as Ideology Czar Li Changchun and Director of the Propaganda Department Liu Yunshan, has presided over old-style political campaigns to "Sinicize, modernize and popularize Marxism."

In internal sessions, Li and Liu have also slammed Wen for advocating political liberalization as well as the adoption of "universal values."

That Wen and Hu are not seeing eye to eye on ideological issues has also been indirectly confirmed by the fact that latter failed to show up in Shenzhen for the anniversary festivities.

This was despite the fact that Shenzhen authorities had from beginning this year begun preparations for a visit by Hu – not Wen – to mark the important milestone. Hu's predecessor as president and party chief, Jiang Zemin, was on hand to observe the SEZ's 10th anniversary in 1990 and 2000.

Moreover, Wang Yang, Party Secretary of Guangdong, where Shenzhen is located, is a protégé of President Hu's and a key member of Hu's Communist Youth League Faction.

The Beijing party source said that Wen "strongly volunteered" to go to Shenzhen at a Politburo meeting in early August – and that Hu had let the premier be the representative of the party leadership for the occasion partly because he was not exactly a fan of the laissez-faire, go-go spirit for which the SEZ is famous.

Yet what triggered the apparent parting of the ways between Hu and Wen is something more weighty and immediate than political philosophy.

For the past year, Hu has been putting pressure on Wen to hand over control of the economy to Politburo Standing Committee member Li Keqiang, a Youth League stalwart who has been First Vice-Premier since early 2008.

In talks to his confidantes, Hu has pinned the blame for problems in the economy, particularly the bubble in the property market, on Wen. Hu also reportedly asserted that Wen, who is known for his gentle manners, had failed to impose control over the irresponsible investment activities of regional "warlords."

So far, however, Wen has refused Hu's request to effectively hand over power to Li, 55, a fast-rising member of the CCP's Fifth-Generation leadership who is set to replace Wen as premier soon after the 18th CCP Congress scheduled for late 2012. In fact, Wen has over the past few years given much more economic powers to Vice-Premier Wang Qishan than to First Vice-Premier Li.

Hu and Wen, both born in 1942, are due to retire from the Politburo at the 18th CCP Congress. While Wen will then go into retirement, Hu is expected to hang on to the position of Chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission – the equivalent of commander-in-chief – for up to five years.

Beijing cadres familiar with Wen's thinking say the premier is preoccupied with his "place in the history books," that is, he wants to be remembered as the most reformist leader of his generation. This probably explains Wen's unusually passionate speech in Shenzhen despite the universally acknowledged fact that there is no possibility that the CCP will reignite political reform in the foreseeable future.

Earlier this year, Wen also raised eyebrows by heaping eulogies on the party's liberal icon, former CCP general secretary Hu Yaobang, whose death on April 15, 1989, was the immediate cause of student demonstrations that were crushed by the Tiananmen Square massacre.