Jockeying intensifies for China's politburo
By Willy Lam
The just-ended plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) central
committee passed a resolution on "the reform of the cultural system" that is
aimed at boosting China's soft power and buttressing the country's "cultural
Given that the central committee usually meets only once a year, all eyes are
on what members of this top party organ might have discussed about the 18th
Party Congress, which will witness the wholesale changing of guard.
The terse plenum communique released by the Xinhua News Agency, however,
revealed very little about what went on during the four-day conclave. It only
noted the congress would be convened in the second half of 2012. "The national
congress is to
be held during a crucial period of the construction of a moderately prosperous
society in an all-round way, the deepening of reform and opening up and the
transformation of the pattern of economic development," the communique said.
The central committee also called on party cadres "to unite and lead all the
Chinese people in building a moderately prosperous society in an all-around way
as well as accelerating the nation's modernization drive".
Despite the dearth of information, it is apparent that jockeying for position
has intensified, particularly among senior cadres who want to make it into the
nine-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the CCP's powerful inner
sanctum where seven members are expected to step down in 2012.
Since the 370-odd full and alternate central committee members rarely meet, a
plenum is a good chance for would-be PBSC members to engage in subtle
campaigning. In the run-up to the central committee conclave, up-and-coming
members of the party's two dominant if fractious cliques - the Communist Youth
League (CYL) faction under President Hu Jintao and the Gang of Princelings (a
reference to the offspring of party elders) - have been actively trying to
enhance their chances for promotion next year.
The most visible example is Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai, who is already
a politburo member. For the past three years, Bo, 62, a charismatic princeling,
has become one of China's most high-profile politicians thanks to his populist
campaign to "sing red songs and to strike at black elements", a reference to
reviving Mao Zedong-era norms and combating organized crime.
Despite the relative enthusiasm with which the chang hong ("singing red
songs") movement has been received in different cities, the central committee
did not give its imprimatur to reviving Maoist culture. The plenum communique
urged all Chinese to "use as motivation [the spirit of] reform and creativity"
so as to create cultural products that are "geared toward modernization and
focused on the world and on the future".
"We must raise the cultural standard of all the people, boost the nation's
cultural soft power, propagate Chinese culture and assiduously build up a
culturally strong socialist country," it said. That no reference whatsoever was
made to "red culture" seems to support the thesis that the country's two top
leaders - President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao - are not fans of Bo's chang hong
Moreover, despite the metropolis' status as one of China's four centrally
administered cities in addition to being the business hub of western China,
neither Hu nor Wen has visited Chongqing since Bo became its party boss in late
Bo's near-desperate efforts to claim credit for the "Chongqing Model" also
suggest his political fortunes may be waning or, at least, under attack. In
early October, Bo invited the younger brother of Deng Xiaoping, Deng Ken, to
write two scrolls of calligraphy for the city: "Never cease to strengthen
oneself" and "Both hands must be equally tough."
This was apparent praise for Chongqing's success in nurturing both material and
spiritual civilization. At about the same time, Chongqing Daily ran a long
interview with the retired cousin of Hu Jintao, Hu Jinxing. Hu, who heads a
charitable organization in Shanghai, eulogized the Bo administration for "doing
good work for the people's livelihood and upholding the path of
Hu added, "Chongqing has provided valuable experience for exploring the road of
socialism with Chinese characteristics." Within the largely conservative
Chinese political tradition, it is uncommon for a politician to promote himself
aggressively by soliciting the help of the relatives of either former or
current party chiefs.
Should Bo fail to make it, fellow princeling Yu Zhengsheng, the party secretary
of Shanghai, is seen as having a good chance of being inducted to the PBSC. Yu,
who is sometimes called the "big brother among the princelings", is as
low-profile as Bo is flamboyant.
By the time the 18th Congress opens, Yu will have reached 67, the maximum age
now acceptable for getting into the PBSC. While Yu's track record as party
secretary of Shanghai - and before this, party boss of Hebei province - is
deemed mediocre, he is acceptable to most factions within the CCP.
Moreover, Yu's status as a representative of the interests of Deng Xiaoping's
family could endear him to cadres who consider themselves disciples of the
"Great Architect of Reform".
Not everything however has been going against Bo. The unexpected appearance of
ex-president Jiang Zemin on October 9 at a Great Hall of the People gathering
marking the centenary of the 1911 revolution is considered to be positive news
for princelings such as Bo.
The 85-year-old former top leader's failure to show up at a July function
celebrating the CCP's 90th birthday had given rise to widespread speculation
that he was close to death. Jiang, who is himself a princeling, was a good
friend of Bo's now-deceased father, party elder Bo Yibo.
At the 17th Party Congress in 2007, Jiang also played a pivotal role in the
selection of Vice President Xi Jinping, another princeling, as Hu's presumptive
successor as party chief and state president. Before he fell sick earlier this
year, Jiang reportedly gave strong backing to Vice Premier Wang Qishan - the
son-in-law of late vice premier Yao Yilin - to replace Wen Jiabao as premier
shortly after the 18th Party Congress.
This was despite the tacit understanding at the 17th Party Congress that
executive vice premier Li Keqiang, a stalwart of the CYL faction and a key
protege of President Hu's, would be given Wen's job.
Developments prior to and after the Sixth Central Committee Plenum, however,
seem to indicate that the political fortune of Li, 56, is on the upswing - and
that he should have no problem becoming Wen's successor as head of government.
This was attested to by the fact that the official media ran several laudatory
articles on Li's achievements when he served in the provinces. For example,
Xinhua news agency earlier this month carried a piece by commentator Gong Wen
praising Li's performance while serving in Henan province from 1998 to 2004.
The article eulogized Li for setting up viable economic links with both the
East and West: "Li attracted technology, funds and talents from developed
countries ... Henan also established ties with East Asia, Central Asia and
The article, which originally appeared in the journal Party Construction, also
lauded Li's track record in agriculture, claiming. "Henan not only manages to
feed its 100 million inhabitants but has provided other provinces with a big
variety of processed foods."
A couple of other state media outlets carried stories about Li as a model youth
who went on a rustication campaign in the Anhui countryside from 1974 to 1977.
The reports praised the young Li's ability to study well into the night despite
having worked hard in the fields during the day.
A spate of high-profile visits both in and out of China suggests the executive
vice premier's star continues to rise. For example, Li represented the State
Council when he visited Hong Kong in August, during which he pledged
preferential economic policies to sustain the economy of the special
In early September, Li officiated at the first China-Eurasia Expo in Urumqi,
Xinjiang. The Expo represented an ambitious effort by the Chinese to boost
economic and other links with countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan,
Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Last Sunday, Li embarked on a week-long
trip to North Korea and South Korea in an apparent effort to revive the
long-stalled six-party talks on denuclearization in the Korean Peninsula.
The plenum also has shed light on the PBSC chances of cadres who are not
aligned with either the CYL faction or the Gang of Princelings. If only because
of the growing importance that the party leadership has attached to issues
relating to culture, ideology and soft power, Liu Yunshan - the politburo
member in charge of propaganda - has a greater chance of securing the PBSC slot
held by Li Changchun next year.
While the 64-year-old ideologue has been criticized by liberal intellectuals as
a conservative commissar, he has endeared himself to different CCP factions by
ably manning the fort of orthodoxy. The former Xinhua journalist also is seen
as having been effective in ensuring that destabilizing and "disharmonious"
voices are kept out of the public discourse.
That the CCP has devoted an entire central committee plenum to culture and
ideology also reflects Liu's ability to draw the party's attention to hitherto
neglected areas such as projecting Chinese soft power and safeguarding the
country's "cultural security".
A key goal of "cultural reform", as stated by the central committee, is that
all Chinese should "strengthen their cultural self-consciousness and cultural
confidence" so as to better "boost the country's cultural soft power".
Since it has long been the party's goal to aggressively propagate the China
model of authoritarian one-party rule both domestically and abroad, it seems
unlikely that "Western-style" political mechanisms will be introduced to the
process of picking the CCP's politburo members.
This is despite pledges made by President Hu and Premier Wen about respectively
expanding "intra-party democracy" and adopting "global norms" such as democracy
and the rule of law. Befitting the party's long tradition of factional
intrigue, the composition of the new politburo and its standing committee will
likely be determined by old-style skullduggery and horse-trading with Chinese
Dr Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He
has worked in senior editorial positions in international media including
Asiaweek newsmagazine, South China Morning Post, and the Asia-Pacific
Headquarters of CNN. He is the author of five books on China, including the
recently published Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders,
New Challenges. Lam is an Adjunct Professor of China studies at Akita
International University, Japan, and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.