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Chinese power struggle

Willy LamOctober 25, 2012

Beijing will select new members for its body of power in the November 8 Party Congress. Ahead of the big event, some are saying Xi Jinping, who is expected to be named next party leader, will have limited power.

A Chinese policeman holds a Chinese Communist Party flag to show his supports to the party during the 17th Communist Party Congress in Beijing 15 October 2007. Photo: TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images

Something unusually strange is happening to Chinese elite politics. Former president Jiang Zemin, 86, who left his last official post eight years ago, seems to be playing the role of kingmaker. Despite numerous rumors about the octogenarian's fast-declining health, Jiang has made numerous public appearances in recent weeks.

Less publicly, Jiang has been working behind the scenes in shaping the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) - China's highest ruling council - to be confirmed at the upcoming 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress. He has joined forces with his protégé and next in line for the presidency, Vice President Xi Jinping, to put pressure on President Hu Jintao.

Web of alliances

Named to the PBSC in 2007 with backing from the former president, Xi is a member in the latest committee line-up that includes Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang, Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, Vice Premier Wang Qishan, Director of the Organization Department Li Yuanchao, Director of the Propaganda Department Liu Yunshan, and Party Secretary of Tianjin Zhang Gaoli.

Jiang Zemin headshot, as China President, photo 2003/1/31
Jiang Zemin supports China's next number-oneImage: AP

Except for Xi and Li Keqiang, who will named as the party's next general secretary and premier respectively, the exact portfolios for the other five PBSC members have yet to be finalized. What is certain, however, is that three of the seven - Xi, Zhang Dejiang and Liu Yunshan - are close to Jiang. President Hu can only count on the support of Li Keqiang and Li Yunchao.

Guangdong Party Chief Wang Yang, a Hu crony with a solid reformist reputation, has been excluded from the PBSC lineup. And the promotion of Liu Yunshan, the long-time arch-conservative propaganda chief, could result in a setback for political liberalization.

Ballancing of power

It seems likely, however, that Hu can remain chairman of the Central Military Commission, which is equivalent to commander-in-chief, for at least two years beyond his retirement from the Politburo at the 18th Congress. The 69-year-old's supporters have cited the on-going tense relationships with Japan and the US as well as with Vietnam and the Philippines as reasons why the party requires an experienced leader to handle foreign and security-related policies.

In what some call "the Xi Jinping Era," the big question is whether the inexperienced 59-year-old Xi, the leader of the "gang of princelings" (a reference made to the offspring of party elders), will be able to initiate urgently needed reforms to solve the country's multitudinous problems.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and China's President Hu Jintao shake hands before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing August 30, 2012. Photo: REUTERS/Diego Azubel/Pool
Hu Jintao, right, might remain chairman of the Central Military Commission until 2015Image: Reuters

Xi: limited power with Hu onboard

Xi, many observers argue, was chosen at the 17th Party Congress in 2007 as "crown prince" largely because he was deemed a safe bet - a non-controversial team player who is acceptable to all the factions.

A close examination of Xi's 17 years at the helm of Fujian province and five years as the top cadre of Zhejiang province shows, however, that the future leader of 1.3 billion Chinese people is not a charismatic or visionary figure in the mould of his well-respected father, the late vice premier and liberal leader Xi Zhongxun.

Given that Xi cannot come into his own at least until Hu's expected retirement from the Central Military Commission in 2014 or 2015, it is unclear whether the putative core of the "fifth-generation" leadership can immediately take decisive action to tackle a series of problems.

Many problems to tackle

Domestically, these include finding a new model of economic growth as well as tackling the growing amount of unrest. On the foreign policy front, Beijing faces what it considers to be an exacerbation of an "anti-China containment policy" spearheaded by Washington.

Moreover, the scandal involving the ousted former Politburo member Bo Xilai has exposed deep problems of corruption and factionalism within the CCP. Bo still has a sizeable number of followers among the gang of princelings as well as the People's Liberation Army. And while it is unlikely that the disgraced Bo will ever make a comeback, many in the party are still convinced that the charismatic risk-taker is a better choice as general secretary than the dull, unadventurous Xi.

Guts to tackle problems?

In recent weeks, Xi's supporters have leaked news that after taking over power, the new party chief will roll out a series of institutional reforms including promoting some degree of rule of law as well as cracking down on high-level corruption.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping speaks to Egypt's President Morsi (not pictured) during their meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 29 August 2012. Photo: EPA/HOW HWEE YOUNG/ POOL (c) dpa - Bildfunk
Xi Jinping is considered to be the leader of the 'gang of princelings'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

And it is likely that Bo, who will soon go on trial for a series of felonies including taking bribes worth tens of millions of yuan, will be the first salvo in Xi's "clean government" crusade.

Few people, however, expect Xi to have the courage to tackle corruption cases affecting other major clans within the party's top echelon. And his failure to do so will only contribute to the cynical impression that the 18th Party Congress will be nothing more than a case of old wine in a new bottle.