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Power struggle in Beijing: Hu vs Jiang
By Wang Chu

HONG KONG - China watchers, the Zhongnanhai watchers, like Kremlin watchers before them, scrutinize the comings and goings of leaders, their lineup for official photos, changes in their positions and especially their non-appearance. And their changed schedules, too, are scrutinized, like entrails, for what the reconfiguration may or may not mean in terms of the Chinese leadership, who holds power, whose grip is getting stronger and whose is slipping. Slight discrepancies and nuances in protocol open vast horizons of speculation - and so it is today. Transparency doesn't translate well into Chinese.

Some Chinese call it "wrestling", some just call it a struggle in the corridors of power.

On June 28, Chinese President Hu Jintao abruptly canceled his planned attendance at the 28th session of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) held in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou and only addressed the meeting with a written statement. Generally speaking, the host country's head of state usually makes a presentation at major WHC meetings worldwide, as did French President Jacques Chirac at the previous session in Paris the previous June.

In fact, Hu chose to stay in Beijing and entertain the visiting Argentine President Nestor Kirchner. Political commentators point out that the shift in his schedule and protocol is a result of the recently intensified wrestling, or power struggle, between Hu and the former president Jiang Zemin, the country's commander-in-chief and chairman of its highest military body, the Communist Party's Central Military Commission (CMC). Jiang holds significant influence in the corridors of power in Beijing. It seems quite plausible that Hu would change his agenda to meet a friendly state's president, but knowledgeable sources told Asia Times Online that there was "an inside story behind the shift".

It's not easy to unearth the "inside story", but one thing is for sure: Hu is now busy hedging his bets and countering his predecessor's recent moves, in an effort to increase his own influence in Beijing. Maybe it was better politically to remain in Beijing than to visit Suzhou. But being president isn't everything.

According to precedent and tradition, China's president should control the Central Military Commission and be the commander-in-chief. Not now; this is an anomaly, and everyone knows it. The powerful ex-president Jiang controls the military commission, not President Hu.

On June 20, Jiang promoted 15 military officials to full general, including his top bodyguard You Xigui, an unprecedented elevation widely believed to consolidate his control over the military. The upgrade ran counter to relevant regulations, since a serviceman in You's position, director of of the central bodyguards bureau, is seldom elevated to four-star general.

Only three days later, the China National Audit Office published its annual report, exposing corruption-related crimes and breaches of duty in some of former president Jiang's dominions, including the banking and communication sectors. In its June 25 editorial, the party's own official Xinhua News Agency condemned the malpractices found by the report, called for resolution and moves to tackle these problems head-on.

Wrestling for dominance in Beijing
In fact, the Hu-Jiang power struggle began earlier this year. In April, Premier Wen Jiabao, the incumbent president's ally and part of the one-year-old Hu-Wen administration, launched a series of macro-control policies to cool down the country's red-hot economy, to no avail in quarters such as real estate, steel and cement. Some measures encountered powerful resistance, overtly and covertly, by obstinate Jiang officials who preferred massive, showy, high-cost projects while the economy was still rising at an amazing speed. In the first quarter, China's gross domestic product grew at a rate of 9.7% and the investment in fixed assets surged by 43% to 879.9 billion yuan (US$106 billion); the rate in January and February was even higher at 53%.

In view of the administrative flaws revealed by the audit report, President Hu is expected to come up with new, pragmatic reform measures to "enhance the Chinese Communist Party's governance", which surely will compromise the vested interests of the pro-Jiang faction. Presumably, Jiang will not acquiesce to Hu's efforts.

In a few months, public attention will focus on Jiang to determine whether he will relinquish his current position as the country’s commander-in-chief in the party's upcoming plenum scheduled for this autumn.

Judging from his recent military promotions, most political pundits believe Jiang will not make the final but inevitable handover to Hu any time soon.

Andrew Yang, a Taiwanese expert on the Chinese military, echoed that opinion, saying that You's promotion was "a sign Jiang will not leave this year … There is no need to promote him if there are no plans to keep him. It creates unnecessary competition."

The power play within Beijing's top echelon, as always, is expected to go on. Its results will determine the agenda of the party's plenary session and who will become the next boss of the armed forces - and when.

Military: Key factor in Hu-Jiang power play
Concerning the evident power play between Hu and his predecessor Jiang, most analyses focus solely on their conflicts of interests. However, there is still some consensus and accommodation between the two leaders, as Jiang is widely believed to cling to his control over the military, and both leaders nonetheless have no choice but to tolerate each other for some time.

A compromise could be sensed at the promotion ceremony for the military officials held on June 20. Both Jiang and Hu, his deputy on the CMC, attended the ceremony. The official Xinhua news agency emphasized that the elevations were announced jointly by Hu and Jiang, issuing certificates to the new generals in person.

Though the promotion of You is seen as a sweeping victory for Jiang, some of those who advanced to general are considered part of President Hu's camp.

One of Hu's men is Zhu Qi, the commander of the Beijing Military Zone, the most politically important military zone among a total of seven nationwide. According to Chinese military rules, anyone upgraded to four-star general must meet two requirements: holding positions for one or two years in China's major military regions and being lieutenant general for at least four years. Zhu was only made commander of the Beijing Military Zone last year, and so his rise to full general is considered to be thanks to Hu's intervention.

Before ascending to the presidency, Hu was the party chief in the country's far-flung areas of Guizhou and Tibet between the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Zhu began to climb the military ladder in the Chengdu Military Zone covering the two regions. Zhu provided significant help to Hu to rein in the riots ignited by restive Tibetan lamas and those unhappy with Chinese rule. After Hu became the vice chairman of party's CMC in 1999, he stepped up his efforts to extend his influence throughout the military. Now Zhu is reaping his rewards.

Another staunch supporter of President Hu is Ge Zhenfeng, deputy chief of the general staff since 2002; Ge is very close to Chief of General Staff Liang Guanglie, one of Hu's stalwart supporters.

Nonetheless, the former president benefits most from the recent promotions, further strengthening his control over the military. According to some political pundits, Hu is still no match for his predecessor Jiang in terms of military connections, a situation that, some say, is conducive to the stability and balance of the Chinese military.

Yet Hu still holds an ace: his right-hand man Song Defu. In 1985, when Hu left his domain, the Communist Youth League (CYL), a cradle where senior party officials are nurtured, he recommended Song to replace him as the chief of CYL. When Hu finally entered the standing committee of the Politburo in 1992, he soon helped Song take up both of the state and military positions in charge of personnel appointment.

Song's experience as a serviceman for over 28 years is welcome additional political capital for Hu, who actually has few effective connections with the military. So it was a serious loss for Hu when Song took ill last year and had to relinquish his position as the party chief of Fujian, a developed province along China's southeast coast.

Political commentators hold that the power of the pro-Hu camp will be significantly enhanced if Song manages to recover and return to the political arena in Beijing. If so, he presents a formidable deterrence to Jiang's clique. Unfortunately, when and even if he can pull through is still a big question.

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Jul 8, 2004

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