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China

Changing of the guard in China fuels speculation

Party politics and allegiances are playing a key role as Chinese leaders jockey for power before President Hu Jintao steps down.

In the week or so after charismatic “prince-ling” Bo Xilai lost his job as Party Secretary of Chongqing on March 15, Beijing was hit with rumors about coups and counter-coups. These have turned out to be wild stories. Yet there is nothing fanciful about the fact that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is undergoing an unusually vigorous loyalty drive, the objective of which is to prevent a political crisis from shattering the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) façade of unity.

The campaign to promote “absolute obeisance to the party central authorities and to the Central Military Commission headed by Chairman Hu Jintao” began soon after former police chief of Chongqing Wang Lijun tried on February 6 to seek political asylum at the American Consulate General in nearby Chengdu. Wang, a former “national anti-triad hero” – who was detained by Beijing's state-security agents after leaving the consulate a day later – reportedly told the central leadership about Bo's multifarious plots to undermine the authority of the Hu-led Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC).

Chinese President Hu Jintao delivers his speech during the celebration of the Communist Party's 90th anniversary at the Great Hall of the People

Power struggles are said to be going on behind the scenes

Some of Wang's claims, for example, that Bo had tried to eavesdrop on the conversations of PBSC members through bribing Beijing's super-secret elite bodyguard bureau, cannot be verfied.

However, it is beyond doubt that since moving to Chongqing in late 2007, Bo pulled out all the stops to ingratiate himself with senior officers in the Chengdu Military Region (CMR), which has responsibility for Chongqing as well as the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Tibet. In his capacity as head of the Chongqing municipality, for example, Bo made copious donations to upgrade the equipment and welfare funds in the CMR. Given that Bo's responsibilities do not go beyond civilian areas, efforts by the ambitious regional “warlord” to cement ties with the PLA are interpreted by President Hu and his associates as an egregious instance of one-upmanship.

The military is an important ally

Moreover, even after the Wang scandal, Bo chose to demonstrate his political clout by flagging his PLA credentials. During an inspection trip to Yunnan Province days after the Chengdu consulate incident, Bo paid a visit to the 14th Army, which was founded by his late father, party elder Bo Yibo. The 62-year-old princeling's message to the Hu leadership was clear: do not mess with me because I have ample support within the PLA.

It is little wonder that from mid-February onwards, the PLA General Political Department has waged a campaign entitled “Put emphasis on politics, pay heed to the national situation, and observe discipline.” The gist of this ideological movement is that officers and soldiers must “maintain the utmost unison in thought, politics and action with the party central authorities, the CMC and Chairman Hu.”

Bo Xilai

Bo is believed to be seeking support from key quarters

At the same time, PLA units at the headquarters and regional levels are undergoing a propaganda exercise entitled “We must inherit Lei Feng's gun.”

“Proletariat paragon” Lei Feng was lionized by Mao Zedong in the 1950s for his unquestioning loyalty to the party central authorities. According to CMC Vice-Chairman General Xu Caihou, CMC Chairman Hu has instructed officers “to push forward the Lei Feng spirit with a strong sense of political responsibility and a high degree of self-awareness.”

Apart from General Xu, other members of the CMC have also made speeches underscoring the importance of unwavering loyalty to the party leadership under General Secretary and CMC Chairman Hu.

For example, while on an inspection trip to Shaanxi last week, General Guo Boxiong, another CMC vice-chairman, spoke of the army's role in upholding social and political stability. General Guo noted that military officers must “ensure that the PLA can quickly swing into action and resolutely complete its mission if something unexpected were to happen.”

Army cautious about whom to support

Also significant is a series of hard-hitting commentaries issued by the Liberation Army Daily. In an intriging commentary earlier this week, the paper hinted that a power struggle had taken place in Beijing. After noting that the troops must heed the instructions of the party leadership, the CMC and Chairman Hu “at any time and under any circumstance,” it went on to issue this warning: “If we [officers] fail to adhere tightly to the [correct] political line, we may lose direction in the face of complex political struggles; we may also feel lost over the question of whether to go forward or to retreat.”

Judging by the fact that President Hu has successfully beaten off the challenge posed by Bo, he may have emerged the victor in the on-going jockeying for position in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress. It is understood that Hu wants to ensure the continuation of his Communist Youth League clique as the predominant faction in the CCP.

Political sources in Beijing said it was likely that following in the footsteps of ex-president Jiang Zemin, Hu will remain CMC chairman for at least two years after his retirement from the Politburo at the Congress. This also means that while Vice-President Xi, who is also a princeling, will take over from Hu the post of party general secretary this autumn – and that of state president early next year – the 58-year-old “crown prince” will be unable to assume full control over the PLA until 2014 or 2015.

Author: Willy Lam
Editor: Gregg Benzow

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