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Playing Chess: Xi Jinping's Need for Speed

By Jonathan Brookfield

Chinese politics is endlessly fascinating.  No sooner do all the pieces of China’s political puzzle fall into place, then we begin to see reshuffling.  The current case of Jiang Jiemin provides a good illustration.  Some reports have suggested that the recent detention of Jiang – former head of the government body that manages China’s state-owned enterprises and ex-chairman of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) – indicates the seriousness of Xi Jinping’s attitudes toward corruption.  Others see Jiang’s detention as a potential precursor to a move against former Political Standing Committee (PSC) member Zhou Yongkang.  While one should not discount the significance or potential implications of such a move, the action may be more indicative of Xi’s acute political need for speed against his rival, former Party leader Hu Jintao, than a systematic effort to root out corruption or even a focused political power play.

A Series of Misfortunate Events

On September 3, the Xinhua News Agency reported that Jiang Jiemin had been removed from office.  There are multiple ways to understand this.  At one level, the detention of Jiang Jiemin seems like a natural consequence of the Bo Xilai scandal.  Finding himself in a jam, Bo went to Zhou Yongkang, former PSC member and PRC security czar, for help.  While the PRC’s top leaders are sometimes able to insulate themselves from scandals underneath them, Zhou’s relations with Bo appear to have tainted Zhou.  In Chinese politics, a direct attack on a big target typically requires the kind of information that can only be gained by going after subordinates.  With the recent arrest of four senior PetroChina executives (Zhou spent most of his career in the petroleum industry) and now Jiang Jiemin (reportedly a close ally of Zhou Yongkang), the distance between Zhou Yongkang and investigators appears to be narrowing.

As it turns out, however, Bo Xilai is not the only high-level official that has looked to Zhou Yongkang for help.  According to the South China Morning Post, the detention of Jiang as part of a corruption investigation comes after he had already been questioned by party officials in relation to cash payments surrounding the cover up of a car crash in Beijing that claimed the life of the son of Ling Jihua, a top aide to then party general secretary and president Hu Jintao.  It has been reported that, when Ling Jihua’s son lost control of the Ferrari he was driving and died in a car crash in Beijing last year, he was with two young women and all were in various states of undress.  Ling Jihua allegedly tried to cover up the incident, and in doing so he appears to have reached out to Zhou Yongkang.  As part of the cover up process, cash payments seem to have been made to the families of the two girls, with the cash coming from the CNPC. 

If Zhou turns out to be the ultimate target for investigators, the view that the Bo scandal was indeed the driver for current investigations would be strengthened.  To the degree, however, that Xi’s ultimate concern is Hu Jintao’s potential influence on the next PSC, Zhou is ultimately a much less interesting target than Ling.  It is therefore possible to imagine an investigative trail that leads from Jiang Jiemin to Zhou Yongkang and then on to Ling Jihua and perhaps Hu Jintao.

Certainly, the possibility of dangerous secrets being revealed by an investigation that extends from Jiang Jiemin to Zhou Yongkang and beyond seems fairly high.  Jiang Jiemin and Zhou Yongkang have both spent much of their career in China’s oil industry.  Between Ling’s reaching out to Zhou at the time of his son’s car crash and Zhou’s general experience as security czar, Zhou seems like a good person to talk with if one were interested in exhuming political skeletons.  And did I mention, Ling has been one of Hu Jintao’s closest aides. 

Politics and the PSC

Should Xi be concerned about Hu Jintao’s potential influence on the next PSC?  After the 18th Party Congress, many commentators (myself included) noted the surprising lack of Hu supporters on the new Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision making body in the PRC.  The general view seems to be that the Bo Xilai and Ling Jihua scandals (especially the latter) significantly weakened Hu Jintao’s position in the run up to the 18th Party Congress, resulting in a significant degradation of Hu’s power.  Such views, however, may be too strong.  Alternatively, it may be that Hu Jintao is just biding his time, his power more conserved than dissipated, for if things continue on their current trajectory, a majority of members of the next PSC may well be Hu supporters.  Such an outcome would seriously interfere with Xi Jinping’s ability to exert his will as party general secretary.  Thus, it seems incumbent upon Xi to shake things up sufficiently to ensure a substantial rewrite of the current script before the next party congress in 2017.  If not, he may find his position critically weakened, just as the country begins to transition to an entirely new generation of leadership.

The political logic of a shake-up certainly seems to make sense.  The PSC currently has seven members, five of whom are likely to retire in 2017.  With Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang coming from different camps and expected to continue on, the balance of power in the next PSC would seem to depend on identity of its new members.  In recent years, seniority has played a key role in determining PSC membership.  Currently, there are only two individuals on the Poliburo that, when deliberations for the new PSC are held, will have served twice: Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao – and both have strong ties to Hu Jintao.  2017 is also when one might expect representatives of the PRC’s next generation of officials to make an appearance on the PSC.  As far as youth is concerned, the two leading contenders for promotion to the PSC appear to be Hu Chunhua (a Hu supporter) and Sun Zhengcai (a Jiang supporter).  If parity is extended into the 6th generation and the current size of the PSC is maintained, current trends would seem to lead to Hu supporters constituting a majority of the members of the next PSC.     

Of course, current investigations are not the only way for Xi to advance politically.  If the economy, for example, were to face a sudden, sharp setback, Xi might be provided with an opportunity to ditch Li Keqiang, current Premier and Hu supporter, for someone like Zhang Gaoli, current executive vice premier and an individual associated more with Jiang Zemin, Party general secretary from 1989 to 2002 and Hu Jintao’s immediate predecessor, than with Hu Jintao.  To the degree China’s stability is contingent on its economic health, however, any attempt to further a scheme like that on the economic front would be akin to playing with matches in a gasoline refinery.  For Xi Jinping, a successful corruption investigation may be just what is needed.

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Jonathan Brookfield is an Associate Professor of Strategic Management and International Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

[Photo courtesy of Thierry Ehrmann]

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