Don't Forget About Hu Jintao
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Don't Forget About Hu Jintao

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In watching the new Politburo Standing Committee members walk on stage last week, many China-watchers’ first impression was that Hu Jintao had been routed by former President Jiang Zemin in selecting these men. Far from a PSC that delicately balanced the CCP’s two leading factions—the Shanghai Gang or elitist faction under Jiang, and the Communist Youth League (CYL) or populist faction associated with Hu—no less than five of the seven individuals on the PSC were Jiang protégés. Furthermore, it was announced that Hu would be stepping down from his position as the chairman of the Central Military Commission immediately, instead of continuing on in that role as his predecessors had done.

There is no doubt that Hu Jintao has lost the near-term battle to select China’s current leaders. Nonetheless, the extent of this blow has possibly been exaggerated, and Hu has managed to position himself well for the future.

Given the opaque nature of the CCP apparatus, it’s difficult to know with any degree of certainty the process by which top-level decisions have been made. Because of this, analysts often find it difficult to ascertain the meaning behind these decisions.

Thus, it’s quite possible that Hu was forced to relinquish his chairmanship of the CMC under pressure from Jiang, China’s new leader Xi Jinping, and their allies within the elitist faction. At the same time, another interpretation is equally plausible; namely, that it Hu stepped down on his own accord.

Lending plausibility to this theory is that the CMC was reshuffled just prior to the 18th Party Congress, and two military officers with close ties to Hu were promoted as vice-chairmen, effectively ensuring that Hu will continue to be represented on that body. On the other hand, by stepping down Hu has managed to improve his legacy which is largely devoid of any significant political reform. This stands in contrast to Jiang whose retention of the CMC chairmanship for two years after leaving office was quietly opposed by many Chinese, who saw it as impeding on the People Liberation Army’s growing professionalism and modernization. In fact, there were reports that Jiang actively lobbied Hu to continue on as chairman in order to make his own actions seem less objectionable.

The composition of the PSC is a more obvious blow to Hu at least in the short-term. As noted above, five of the now seven members in the PSC are Jiang protégés, including the first-among-equals Party Secretary Xi Jinping. By contrast, only Premier Li Keqiang and Propaganda Chief Liu Yunshan come from the Hu camp.

Still, the new membership holds out the possibility that Hu will be able to exert significant influence in choosing the 6th generation leadership who, if all goes to plan, will replace Xi and Li in 2022.

This is because all of the five new PSC members (Xi and Li served on the last one) will have reached or exceeded the mandatory retirement age of 68 by the time of the 19th Party Congress in 2017, which is the time in which the top members of the 6th generation leaders will be selected. Given 86-year-old Jiang’s already ripe age, it’s hardly certain that he won’t have passed by then, or at least be too ill to participate in the selection process in any meaningful way. 

If so, Hu will likely find himself in a better position to select the next leadership than he was this year, when he faced the mounting dissatisfaction with his ten years in power, which many Chinese are already calling the “lost decade.” Particularly if Jiang passes away, and Xi’s first five years in power fail to meet the inflated expectations being attached to them, Hu will be in a much stronger bargaining position come 2017.

In this regard, Hu’s post-retired political dealings would not be unlike his predecessor’s. Because Deng Xiaoping had anointed Hu to as the party secretary of the 4th generation leadership, Jiang had to accede to Hu and Wen Jiabao taking power in 2002, despite the fact that both of them were protégés of Hu Yaobang, the liberal-minded former general secretary who was purged in 1987 by many of Jiang’s mentors (Jiang did manage to place many allies on the PSC). Halfway through Hu’s rule, however, Jiang successful stymied Hu’s hand-picked successor, Li Keqiang, and instead installed Xi as China’s leader-in-waiting. With his encore performance this year, Jiang has consolidated control over the current PSC membership body.

Hu was likely taking notes.

Zachary Keck is assistant editor for The Diplomat.

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