In the fall of 2011 China’s former president Jiang Zemin was believed to have died. For several months he had not made any public appearances. Black Audis drove up to his residence to pay their last respects to his dead body — or so Chinese microbloggers and social media assumed. A Hong Kong television station prematurely aired the news of Jiang’s death and was therefore fined for the the indiscretion. (for an in-depth analysis of the fine line that Chinese media companies, especially social media companies such as Sina and Tencent, check out my recently published article in International Journal of Communication: http://ijoc.org/ojs/index.php/ijoc/article/view/1643/814
Jiang: the congress manipulator
The 17th party congress of China’s organized leninists in 2007 was supposed to be the show when general secretary and president Hu Jintao would usher in his choice of successor to the throne — Li Keqiang. It was not to be, since Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin wanted Xi Jinping, rather than Li, to become the next man on top. Like Deng Xiapoing, the man who handpicked Jiang to become the new leader after the Tiananmen massacre, Jiang Zemin has pulled backdoor strings, manipulated behind the scenes to get his men to positions of power ahead of both the 17th and 18th party congresses. No wonder pictures and videos from the 18th party congress shows him relishing the official limelight again (when the 86-year old octogenarian does not fall a sleep).
Impact of Jiang’s retaining influence
Jiang Zemin’s spectacular return from the shadow of death raise many questions. As I see it there are two overarching concerns at this junction in the party’s life.
First, institutionalization of processes for selection of successors to the party throne. Obviously, selections and successions are still dependent on scheming behind the scenes and informal rather than formal power, rules regarding age limits, and so called intra-party democracy. For the political system, however, no matter how much party documents speak of collective and consensual decison-making (regarding day-to-day affairs) it raises the specter of personal rule, rule of man, and lack of rule of law yet again. Since the ascension of Hu Jintao to apex of party power in 2002, it was believed that Chinese politics were on the right track of institutionalization. Far away from unstable putsch and coup politics – adapting to a new era it seemed. Nevertheless, the return of Jiang Zemin showcases that backroom bickering and wrangling are still dominating features of Chinese elite politics. For one, it tells us something about how profound the looming economic and social crisis in Chinese society is perceived to be among party insiders. Thus, the need for the stepping in of senior and even paramount leaders such as Jiang Zemin
Second, what does Jiang’s ushering in of his proteges and his proteges’ proteges into the politburo, its standing committee, and the secretariat this week at the 18th party congress say about the prospects for significant and needed economic and political reform? As the new standing committee of the politburo was announced on 15 November in Beijing, it was revealed that the rumors were true. Of the seven males selected for top service, five can be regarded as belonging to the camp of Jiang Zemin. Only Li Keqiang and Liu Yunshan owe their allegiance to the outgoing leader Hu Jintao.
A U-turn for political and economic reform?
Well, it could mean continued paralysis of the political system, and even more inertia making the party and the government even more inept to push for reform. The amorphous princeling faction headed by Xi Jinping, somewhat backed by Jiang Zemin could run into deadlock with other parts of the political system that side with Hu Jintao’s Youth League faction.
OR, to the contrary, the consolidation of power around Xi Jinping — if there now indeed is a strong sense of urgency among Jiang Zemin and other senior party leaders that it is either reform or perish for the party in the coming ten years — could mean that more could actually be done than most observes assume. Especially if Hu Jintao is to resign from his chairmanship of the central military commission and hand over formal reigns of power to Xi Jinping.
However, the continuing influence of Jiang Zemin may mean there will only be reforms reflecting his own reign of power during the 1990s. As he implemented the further liberalization of the Chinese economy but only allowed a brief Spring of more open debate on political reform in 1998, the best bet would be that plans for economic restructuring and attempts at breaking the stranglehold of state companies and banks may be underway — but that political reform is pushed into the background for some more years.