Chinese President Hu Jintao and his number two, Premier Wen Jiabao, appear to be waging ferocious skirmishes against factional redoubts in municipal Beijing in the run-up to the all-important 17th CCP Congress this October. Call it the Battle of Beijing.
Unless – and until – Hu has cleared up the corruption mess in the capital, the Communist Party general secretary can’t be said to have imposed his stamp on the country, let alone to prove to Chinese and foreigners alike that he is serious about reform.
What the Chinese media often euphemistically refer to as “economic irregularities” in Beijing are at least on a par with the corruption in Shanghai. That is pretty much an open secret. As in the case of other coastal metropolises, Beijing’s red-hot property and infrastructure sectors are where the money is.
Hu fired the first salvo against the so-called Beijing Faction – shorthand for municipal cadres who do not heed instructions from Hu’s side of the party – in mid-2006, when he personally intervened to have vice-mayor Liu Zhihua arrested on corruption charges related to capital projects for the 2008 Olympics as well as real-estate development. Yet Beijing has proven to be a tough nut to crack.
Hu and allies such as the Secretary of the Central Commission on Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) – China’s highest-level anti-graft body – Wu Guanzheng, have still played a waiting game. It wasn’t until early this month that they nabbed another key Beijing official, Zhou Liangluo, the head of the Haidian District. While Haidian is away from the central business district, it is home to top universities as well as a sizable high-tech park. And Haidian property prices are also going through the roof.
Now all Beijing is waiting for Wu, a politburo standing committee member whose ties with Hu go back to their student days at the elite Tsinghua University, to strike next. Party officials and foreign businessmen alike are asking whether any “tiger,” as the Chinese call big-time graft-takers, will be netted. Last September, the Hu-Wen team showed they would take on formidable power blocs when CCDI agents from Beijing detained Shanghai CCP boss and Politburo member Chen Liangyu, who had enjoyed the protection of ex-president Jiang Zemin. Investigations and arrests related to the Chen-led corruption ring are still going on.
Beijing has proven a tall order because a number of senior municipal cadres enjoy the patronage of Politburo Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin, who is also chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the chat shop for well connected business leaders and politicos. Jia was Beijing Party boss and a politburo member from 1997 to 2002; and while he is not from Shanghai, Jia is a long-standing crony of Jiang.
Ahead of the 16th CCP Congress in late 2002, there was heavy speculation that Jia would be retiring owing to his alleged ties with property developers in Beijing. Instead, Jiang prevailed upon Hu, who became party chief at the same congress, to acquiesce in Jia’s elevation to the standing committee in return for his leaving the Beijing post.
Even after leaving his Beijing post, however, Jia has apparently been able to maintain his influence in the capital via his successor as Beijing Party Secretary Liu Qi, who was Jia’s deputy from 1998 to 2002. Moreover, Qiang Wei, Vice-Party Secretary with the police and anti-corruption portfolio since 1999, is a Jia protégé. It was a measure of the Beijing faction’s tenacity that Hu had to first transfer Qiang out of Beijing before the CCDI’s graft-busters could start work in a big way.
Last March Qiang was moved to faraway Qinghai Province to become party secretary. While it was theoretically a promotion, the fact that Qinghai is a sparsely populated, impoverished province demonstrated the intention of the Hu-Wen leadership. Even more telling was the replacement of Qiang by a Hu protégé, Wang Anshun, a former vice-party secretary of Shanghai. It was partly thanks to Wang’s work that the CCDI was able to collect enough evidence to nail Shanghai’s Chen.
The big question is whether stalwarts as senior as Jia will be caught in the net. It seems unlikely.
The Hu-Wen leadership earlier this year demonstrated their seeming willingness to go the distance in eradicating graft by setting up a Corruption Prevention Bureau along the lines of Hong Kong’s famous Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Political sources in the capital say more arrests of Beijing cadres up to the level of vice-mayor or vice-party secretary are in the pipeline. However, in the interest of preserving what Hu calls “inner-party harmony,” it is doubtful that any more Politburo members would face the axe. In other words, it is probable that both Jia and Party Secretary Liu will be allowed to retire without facing charges at the 17th CCP Congress.
Yet by purging the Beijing municipal party and government apparatus, the Hu-Wen team could at least show they can put their own house in order. Senior Beijing cadres close to the leadership, including Mayor Wang Qishan and Vice-Party Secretary Wang, are candidates to lead the cleaned-up municipality. Five years after ascending the proverbial peacock throne, Hu will finally have made sure that he won’t be straying into hostile territory if he steps out of the Zhongnanhai party headquarters and into the streets of the city.