China’s coming soft coup: Xi Jinping’s challenge to Jiang Zemin

John Pollock
Sep 3, 2017 · 7 min read

When observing the opaque and often secretive power structures within China ahead of the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, one trend is increasingly clear. Since coming to power 2012, President Xi Jinping has overseen an enormous consolidation of personal power in Beijing.

The true extent of his power won’t be known until after the Communist party has selected its new Politburo but it is increasingly clear that the post-Deng Xiaoping model of government via collective consensus is beginning to fracture. President Xi now dominates the internal mechanics of the CCP, directly chairing major government committees on economic reform and national security and intervening in China’s foreign affairs far more than any other post-1979 leader.

Xi’s most important domestic policy moves arguably has been the ‘Tiger and Flies’ anti-corruption campaign. The fissures this has opened has provided an important insight into the factional infighting now occurring within the very heart of the China’s political establishment. Whilst appearing monolithic to western eyes, the Chinese Communist Party is riven with inter-personal rivalries, each competing for their own unique vision of 21st Century China. These internal rivalries which were once played out behind closed doors are becoming harder to ignore, with the anti-corruption campaign beginning to resemble a soft coup.

One party, many factions

Since Deng Xiaoping sought to bring an end to ‘one-man rule’, the Chinese Communist Party has developed at least two discernible factions, each centred on one of China’s former or current presidents. The first of these intra-party groups is the so-called “populist coalition”, referred to by Cheng Li of the Brookings Institute as the Tuanpai faction, which governed China from 2002 to 2012 under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Individuals within the Tuanpai faction such as former President Hu have modest origins, principally climbing through the ranks in the Communist Youth league to become local party leaders and regional administrators. They are associated with China’s rural interior and poorer provinces. Thus the policy narratives and instincts of the Tuanpai are considered ‘conservative’ in approach, opting for Communist solutions to economic and social challenges.

In a practical policy sense, this saw the elimination of agricultural taxes for China’s 900 million farmers in 2004, and massive infrastructure spending to develop rural cities in the interior, making them competitive with the likes of Shanghai on China’s Pacific east. Under Hu’s deputy, Premier Wen Jiabao, domestic policy was heavily focused on building affordable housing for China’s urban and rural poor. In the closing years of the Hu-Wen administration, the CCP committed $800 million USD to a government program to build 36 million housing units.

The second of these factions is perhaps better known and derives itself from the elitist “Taizidang coalition”, known as “the Princelings”. This coalition was previously headed by former President Jiang Zemin but is now led by Xi Jinping. Its elitist reputation stems from the familial origins of many of the group’s leading figures and the wealth they acquired following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Many figures within the Princelings can attribute their current standing in the CCP to their fathers and grandfathers, who were veteran revolutionaries under Mao and who fought in World War II and later the Civil War.

President Xi Jinping serves as a prime example. In contrast to Hu Jintao, Xi was born into privilege as the son of one of the major families within the CCP. His father Xi Zhongxun remains a highly respected figure within the party hierarchy. Having fought the Japanese in the 1930s he later served as deputy to Mao in the 1960s and was instrumental in the opening of the Shenzhen Economic Zone during the 1980s.

In contrast to the Tuanpai, the Taizidang are viewed as representing China’s burgeoning entrepreneurs and middle class in the major eastern cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin. In terms of policy, the Princelings are much more comfortable with private ownership of property assets as well as placing greater confidence in the private sector and interaction with foreigners. In a China that has opened its gates to globalisation yet retained its Communist political system, the Taizidang represent the ‘economic liberals’ in the CCP.

Five years ago during the 18th Party Congress when the last major the transfer of power occurred, the Congress represented an enormous victory for the Princelings over Hu Jintao’s successors. Six out of seven positions on the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) went to Xi loyalists, with only Li Keiqang representing any continuity from the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao era. Viewed retrospectively, the 18th Party Congress heralded the beginnings of a dramatic centralization of power around Xi Jinping.

The legacy of Jiang Zemin

Within the Taizidang and the wider Chinese state lies a powerful clique of business, military and political interests originally known as the “Shanghai Gang” and centred on Jiang Zemin, who served as Communist Party Secretary and President from 1989 to 2002. As their name implies, figures within the faction have their origins to Jiang’s mayoralty of Shanghai and his time as Party Secretary. The Shanghai Gang rose to prominence in 1989 when then-Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang advocated talks with Tiananmen Square protesters and fell out of favour. As mayor of Shanghai, Jiang supplanted Zhao to become China’s premier, before ordering the use of the PLA to clear the Tiananmen Square protests.

From the period of 1989 until very recently, Jiang Zemin dominated the Chinese Communist Party. This extended beyond his time as Party Secretary, filling the political vacuum left following the decline of Deng Xiaoping’s health and influence. Under Jiang, China saw major economic growth but also a proliferation of corruption and cronyism as he ensured close allies were placed in all major positions of power. Over the course of the decade, this process of cronyism saw the establishment of fiefdoms within the Chinese system, effectively creating a state within a state.

This parallel power structure encompassed China’s security apparatus, under the rule of Luo Gan and then Zhou Yongkang. These Jiang loyalists expanded it into a behemoth with an annual budget of $120 billion USD; larger than the relative budgets of China’s military and paramilitary forces at the time. All this ensured the continuation of Jiang’s key policies, including the massive and systematic campaign of persecution he launched in April 1999 against the Falun Gong spiritual practice.

Following the transition to Hu Jintao’s leadership in 2002, Jiang remained as head of the Central Military Commission (CMC) until 2004–2005, ensuring control of the People’s Liberation Army rested in his hands. When Jiang formally stepped down, he ensured that two loyalist generals, Guo Boxiong and in particular Xu Caihou, were given the roles of vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission. This meant that Hu never had full control of China’s armed forces as many of Jiang’s supporters ran their own private armies and fiefdoms outside the control of the formal CCP leadership.

Xi saw first-hand the fate that befell Hu Jinato, having served in the latter stages of the Hu-Wen administration as vice president just prior to his ascension to the presidency. Thus much of the focus of Xi Jinping’s purge of the Communist Party over the last two and a half years has been on uprooting this political network. By removing those loyal to Jiang Zemin one at a time, Xi seeks to avoid the same fate that befell Hu Jintao.

China’s Coming Coup

Prior to his ascension to power in November 2012, few would have imagined that Xi Jinping would have been able to achieve such a level of power and influence in so short a period. Little in his background as an unremarkable provincial administrator suggested such a radical streak. Indeed a new president launching an anti-corruption campaign is nothing new in China. Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin and Deng Xiaoping all conducted such purges in their first terms in office. In the first year however of Xi’s purge over 266,000 party members were arrested, all of this was prologue to Xi’s first major arrests.

In December 2013, Li Dongsheng, a vice minister of public security with close ties to Zhou Yongkang was reportedly under investigation. Appointed in 2009, with no experience in public security, Li fit every description of a Zhou patron. His fate was sealed however in February 2014 when he was arrested, purged from the CCP and subsequently jailed. Li’s arrest was the first clear sign that President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign was serious in its intent to go after Jiang Zemin.

In June 2014, the next key Jiang lieutenants to fall were also close allies of Zhou and thus Jiang Zemin. Su Rong, a Vice-Chairman of the People’s Political Consultative Conference and Xu Caihou a Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission were both purged ostensibly for corruption. Xu in particular was found to have had literal tonne of cash and precious gems stowed away in his house. Their arrests and that of Guo Boxiong, another senior flag officer in the CMC, closed the noose around Zhou and by default his executor, Jiang Zemin.

In August 2014, Wang Qishan, Xi’s anti-corruption tsar gave a speech to the People’s Political Consultative Conference outlining categories under which CCP officials would be arrested under his anti-graft measures. The categories whilst broad, fit the profile of Zhou’s role as benefactor whilst in Jiang’s government. Then in December, the ground opening up under the former head of Jiang Zemin’s security forces with Zhou Yongkang arrested and expelled from the party in December of that year. The arrest of Zhou sent shockwaves through the Chinese political establishment as he was the most senior official arrested since the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. As a result of his arrest Zhou was stripped of his $14.5 billion in assets and humiliated on state television with his court appearances broadcast for all to see. The fall of Zhou also revealed the extent of the illegal harvesting of Falun Gong member’s organs which were subsequently sold on the international black market under the rubric of Zhou and his allies such as Xu Caihou.

In the years since these key arrests, Xi’s battle with Jiang Zemin has continued. China’s propaganda chief Liu Yunshan is widely viewed as Jiang’s man on the current Politburo Standing Committee and has reported sought to undermine or impede Xi throughout his time in government. Reports of Liu’s own downfall at the hands of Wang Qishan’s anti-graft laws have been circulating since 2016, but as of writing Liu remains in government ahead of the 19th Party Congress.

Is it conceivable that Jiang Zemin himself will be arrested? Such an event has not occurred ever in the tumultuous history of the People’s Republic.

John Pollock

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Digital Comms Manager || @LegatumInst || @ProsperityIndex || Fmr Editor @UoN_ARI || Tweets on China 🇨🇳, India 🇮🇳, East & South Asia || All views are my own.

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