Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Interesting Mr. Zeng

I'm guest-posting at Peking Duck for the next week, so I'll be doing my best to feed the ducklings over there with fresh content – thus the preponderence of China stories here as well.

I make no claim of being a real China historian, but because of my experiences there, back when, I did get interested (well, obsessive) about recent Chinese history, specifically the revolutionary period and the Peoples' Republic pre-Deng.

In a system where there is no official opposition, with the sort of factional and court politics practiced under Mao, you frequently find political figures who are, in a somewhat uncharitable interpretation, the regime's fixers. Their loyalities are fluid, or in some cases, they are able to take a very long view towards the accomplishment of their own goals. In a more positive reading, they are coalition builders, helping to bridge the gaps between bitter rivals and move projects forward. The much revered Zhou Enlai was a figure of this sort, the ultimate survivor, who only advanced his own agenda when he was relatively certain of success and rarely, if ever, went against the high tide, even if what was being proposed went very much against his own instincts and preferences. The Mao/Zhou relationship was complex and fraught with ambiguity. Mao depended on Zhou but never fully trusted him, while Zhou acted the part of the loyal, "good" official until the day he died, even though Mao's more "revolutionary" programs seemed the antithesis of Zhou's innately practical sensibilities.

Which is a long-winded, roundabout introduction to Joseph Kahn's analysis of the ongoing anti-corruption probe that brought down Shanghai party leader Chen Liangyu, among others:
The investigation, the largest of its kind since China first pursued market-style changes to its economy more than a quarter-century ago, was planned and supervised by Zeng Qinghong, China’s vice president and the day-to-day manager of Communist Party affairs, people informed about the operation said.

They said Mr. Zeng had used the investigation to force provincial leaders to heed Beijing’s economic directives, sideline officials loyal to the former top leader, Jiang Zemin, and strengthen Mr. Zeng’s own hand as well as that of his current master, President Hu Jintao.

Aside from frightening officials who have grown accustomed to increasingly conspicuous corruption in recent years, the crackdown could give Mr. Hu greater leeway to carry out his agenda for broader welfare benefits and stronger pollution controls, which may prove popular in China today.

Some critics fear that it may also consolidate greater power in the hands of a leader who has consistently sought to restrict the news media, censor the Web and punish peaceful political dissent...

...Several party officials and well-informed political observers said they believed that the investigation had not yet reached its climax. They say Mr. Zeng hopes to dismiss two fellow members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Jia Qinglin and Huang Ju, who are under pressure to take “political responsibility” for corruption that has occurred in Beijing and Shanghai, their respective areas of influence.

If he succeeds in removing officials who serve on the nine-member Standing Committee, the party’s top leadership, the purge will amount to the biggest political shake-up since 1989, when Deng Xiaoping ousted Zhao Ziyang, then the party’s general secretary, after the crackdown on democracy protests in Beijing.

It would also be likely to seal Mr. Zeng’s reputation as China’s political mastermind, who mixes personal ambition with a nearly legendary ability to deliver results for his superiors. Officially ranked No. 5 in the party hierarchy, he is widely seen as exercising more authority within the party than anyone except Mr. Hu.
Here's where it gets interesting. According to Kahn, until 2004, when Zeng Qinghong joined forces with Hu Jintao to push Jiang Zemin from his last post, Zeng was widely seen as being close to Jiang:
But Mr. Zeng’s campaign to remove some Jiang loyalists may end up strengthening his own hand as well as Mr. Hu’s, some party officials suggested. The reason is that Mr. Zeng has become the standard-bearer for a wide array of political interests.

The son of one of Mao’s first security chiefs, Mr. Zeng maintains close ties to the sons and daughters of Communist China’s founding fathers and has relatives in the military. He has supporters among those who favor deeper capitalist-style changes to the economy and financial system.

Some Chinese intellectuals say he has signaled an openness to political change. Mr. Hu, in contrast, is viewed as cautious and doctrinaire.

Mr. Hu has sought to promote officials he trusts from his days as a provincial official in western China and as the head of the national Communist Youth League in the 1980’s. Though he now has broad authority, his traditional base is considered narrower and less influential than that of Mr. Zeng.

The political dance between the men underlines uncertainties about the political succession scheduled to take place in 2007. At that time the party will hold a congress, as it does every five years, to approve a new lineup of officials for the Politburo as well as other top party, government and provincial positions.

Party officials say that while Mr. Hu and Mr. Zeng have worked together to consolidate their own power, they have not agreed on choices for the Standing Committee or some top provincial posts. That suggests that their alliance possibly temporary and that the country’s politics could remain volatile.

“I think that at this point neither of them has the power to dictate the future,” one party official said. “They need each other, but that does not mean they trust each other.”

((hat tip to Andrew Leonard at salon's How the World Works)

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