A Chinese Power Grab?

There is reason to suspect that China's upcoming leadership transition may not be so smooth.

With the conclusion of China’s mysterious and much-discussed National People’s Congress, all eyes are on the spectacular fall of Bo Xilai. The former Communist Party boss of Chongqing and Politburo member’s spectacular implosion in the wake of the Wang Lijun scandal set the world abuzz with speculation of splits within the upper echelons of China’s Communist Party. Yet the emerging leadership transition brings a much less dramatic and potentially far more destructive dilemma. If not properly managed, it could tear China apart.

Most Americans may know Hu Jintao as the president of China. But in fact, the sphinxlike Hu is a man who wears many hats. Today, in order to reconcile potentially fatal institutional and leadership contradictions, the president of China must also be the general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). This “unitary triumvirate” gives Hu Jintao the undisputed final say within China’s bureaucracy and ensures—in theory—the harmonious functioning of government.

While Xi Jinping is for now comfortably on track to succeed the presidency, it does not automatically follow that Hu Jintao will surrender his other titles so willingly. In fact, it would not even be unprecedented if he decided to stick around a little longer.

Controlling the Gun

The world has long recorded that former president Jiang Zemin bid goodbye to the reins of power when he handed over his position as general secretary of the party and the presidency to Hu Jintao in late 2002 and early 2003, respectively. This, however, is not entirely true. Vaulted from relative obscurity by the ultimate power broker Deng Xiaoping, Jiang was said to have wistfully told President Bush about how much he dreaded his eventual retirement. After Communist China’s first peaceful political transition from Jiang to Hu, the former remained as chairman of the CMC for two more years.

Mao Zedong once said, “The party controls the gun. The gun must never be allowed to control the party.” They were wise words. When Jiang Zemin declined to give up his post as army chief at the time he surrendered his other titles, it created enormous tension within the ranks of leadership, where there cannot be two emperors. The drama now unfolding in the wake of the Bo Xilai scandal should make the need for unity at the top all the more apparent. China’s institutions are still too weak to absolutely guarantee the loyalty of the People’s Liberation Army to the general secretary. As a result, it is critical that the party leader has direct control of “the gun.”

In 2004, under increasing pressure, Jiang Zemin was muscled out as chairman of the CMC, and Hu Jintao finally consolidated his position. Today, in his twilight, Hu’s authority is firm, and that is a good thing. Recently, in an underreported development, the Chinese military was put on alert for a coming “ideological struggle,” the contours of which are mostly shrouded in mystery. But from the outside, it is hard not to see the fingerprints of recent upheavals.

Had Jiang or a Jiang ally (more likely given his ill health) remained in charge of the CMC today, the still-unfolding drama surrounding Bo Xilai might have been much more destabilizing. Jiang Zemin had been close with Bo Xilai’s father, Bo Yibo, and is widely believed to have pushed his ambitious son’s career. Bo’s neo-Maoist faction had numerous supporters in high places, including the public security chief Zhou Yongkang, who also serves on the all-powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee.

Bo Xilai’s ideas and his protests that the party had strayed too far from its communist roots struck a deep chord among many academics and members of the military who bristled at China’s gilded-age inequality. Two months ago, Bo Xilai seemed poised to ascend to the pinnacle of power as a member of the Politburo Standing Committee. Today, it seems he and his wife Gu Kailai, now ensnared in a sordid corruption-cum-murder affair of her own, would be lucky to avoid prison.

Through it all and despite Bo’s deep reservoir of support, the military has been calm—at least so far. Its inaction is telling, a silent acquiescence and reaffirmation of the supremacy of Hu. The necessity of the unitary triumvirate is demonstrated during black-swan moments of uncertainty. Now that the Long March generation has passed from the scene, China’s current political leaders have faced the perpetual dilemma of maintaining credible control over the military. Had a Bo ally and not Hu been in charge of the CMC, the military could have exercised a de facto veto over the party and ushered in what could be termed a “constitutional crisis—with Chinese characteristics.” To put it in an American perspective, it would be the equivalent of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff blocking legislation from Congress with the implicit threat of force.

Will Hu stick around?

A number of factors distinguish the Jiang-Hu succession from the upcoming Hu-Xi handover. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao always had a wary relationship. As with Jiang, Deng Xiaoping also insisted upon fast-tracking Hu’s career. Before his death, Deng ensured that Hu would be on track to replace Jiang, likely to make sure that the precedent of leadership retirement remained intact and to check any ambitions Jiang might have for a permanent tenure. In contrast, it is likely that Hu had a major role in the selection of Xi Jinping for the top job(s). At the very least, their relationship is likely far less fraught than Hu and Jiang’s was said to be.

With China’s newfound clout in the global pecking order, the international community now has almost as much interest in Chinese domestic security as does the Chinese Communist Party. Thanks to Jiang’s precedent, Hu may also decide to retain his perch at the CMC, keeping a watchful eye on his protégé’s job performance—and his own legacy.

As China continues to mature as a nation governed by laws—rather than a nation governed by men—such a move would be both reactionary and dangerous. While drawing out his personal power a little longer, it would ultimately come at the expense of the People’s Republic.

Jonathan Levine is a lecturer of American Studies and English at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group. You can follow him on Twitter at @LevineJonathan.

Image: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr