Chinese Communist Congress Also Has Its Losers

By Matthew Robertson
Matthew Robertson
Matthew Robertson
Matthew Robertson is the former China news editor for The Epoch Times. He was previously a reporter for the newspaper in Washington, D.C. In 2013 he was awarded the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi award for coverage of the Chinese regime's forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience.
November 21, 2012 Updated: August 14, 2015
Du Qinglin in Beijing, 2005.
Du Qinglin in Beijing, 2005. Du was recently left out the Politburo in what analysts suspect was punishment for his support of ousted Party official Bo Xilai. (Goh Chai Hin/Getty Images)

Behind every somber character that made it onto the Politburo Standing Committee in the Chinese Communist Party’s recent leadership shakeup, there lies a story of intrigue and horse-trading. The Party’s political warfare also creates its share of losers, of course, and each failure too has a telling story behind it. Political compromise between competing factions crushed, or in some cases merely crippled, the ambitions of a number of up-and-coming communist officials.

Casualties were recorded on all sides: The faction associated with former regime leader Jiang Zemin found one of its trusted foot soldiers miss out on a key promotion; the faction associated with the princelings, or sons of revolutionary leaders, failed to attain two powerful military posts; and two of the more reform-oriented officials, associated with the camp of Hu Jintao, the outgoing Party leader, were excluded from the Standing Committee in favor of Jiang’s men.

Spymaster Sidelined

Observers of China’s political system were not exactly surprised when Du Qinglin, the former director of the United Front Department, which along with supposedly building alliances with noncommunist groups also runs an overseas spy network, did not make it onto the Politburo.

Rumors previously leaked to the international Chinese press indicated that Du might be made vice premier and secure a seat on the Politburo, the 25-member committee that sits just underneath the supreme leadership.

Du’s troubles were probably closely tied to his friendly relationship with Bo Xilai, the disgraced Party official, and his alleged role in the coup that Bo was cooking up with former security czar Zhou Yongkang.

Since the 1990s nearly all former directors of the United Front Department have become members of the Politburo at one time or another. Du took the helm at the department in 2007, but he was shunted aside in a surprise move in September, after Ling Jihua, a Hu confidant, was moved from the Secretariat to head the department, replacing Du.

Military Princelings Thwarted

Two prominent members of the red aristocracy were all set to play an important role in formulating the CCP’s military policy going forward, but to their chagrin missed their opportunity to enter the Central Military Commission, the Party organ that controls the military.

Liu Yuan, the son of Mao Zedong’s one-time close collaborator Liu Shaoqi, and Zhang Haiyang, son of former senior People’s Liberation Army Gen. Zhang Zhen, had made clear they had every intention of challenging the current leadership.

“Liu Yuan’s adviser openly blamed the leadership for being too weak and not solving any problems, not being capable or qualified,” said Cheng Xiaonong, a former aide to ousted Party leader Zhao Ziyang. Cheng now lives in the United States.

Their message was, “in other words, it’s our turn.” As the sons of revolutionaries that saw the CCP conquer China, these men saw leadership of the Party as their birthright. “The princelings initiated the fight,” Cheng says.

Liu and Zhang were part of a cabal that was mostly dismantled with the political destruction of Bo Xilai. “Bo was a challenger representing a lot of princelings, the red second generation,” says Cheng.

Instead of following protocol and allowing the new Politburo to select new members of the military commission, Hu Jintao moved first and made two the generals, Xu Qiliang and Fang Changlong, vice chairmen. This was widely seen as being an unusual decision.

“It was a signal to all Party Congress delegates that now the new vice chairmen belong to the new leaders, and it has nothing to do with Liu Yuan and Zhang Haiyang.”

The fact that they were not promoted also “reflects an effort to consolidate professional military officers who are loyal to the Party, not engaged in Chinese internal politics,” according to Jonathan Pollock of the Brookings Institution in Washington, speaking at a recent forum.

The passing over of members of the red aristocracy, however, does not mean that the Chinese Communist Party is now on a path to reform and modernization. Two cadres who have a reputation for being more reform-oriented did not make it onto the Standing Committee, the most powerful body in China.

‘Reformers’ Left Out

Li Yuanchao at the 18th National Party Congress in Beijing
Li Yuanchao at the 18th National Party Congress in Beijing, November. Li Yuanchao was expected by some to enter the Standing Committee in the recent leadership transition; he is thought to have failed in doing so due to factional struggle. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao were aligned with Hu Jintao’s camp, but were left off the Standing Committee apparently due to the influence of former leader Jiang, who saw that a number of his protégés were instead on the committee.

“Everyone is wondering: what is going on with Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang not getting onto the Standing Committee,” said Li Cheng, a scholar of Chinese elite politics at the Brookings Institution, in an interview with BBC Chinese.

“Li Yuanchao represented many social forces, including liberal intellectuals, forces calling for political reform, students returning from overseas study, or university students becoming village cadres,” he said. “This is going to attract a lot of criticism from intellectuals.”

Instead, most of the men who made it onto the Standing Committee have uninspiring, conservative records and are unlikely to pursue policies that do anything to disrupt the status quo.

Wang Yang pushed a number of relatively reform-oriented policies in Guangdong, giving speeches about how the role of the Party should not feature so large in the lives of ordinary people, and cracking down on corrupt officials.

Thus, according to the Hong Kong-based Apple Daily, Wang Yang was out of serious contention for this Standing Committee some time ago, because some of his policies frightened interest groups in the regime. Li Yuanchao, however, was said to have been sacrificed to ensure that Liu Yuan and Zhang Haiyang wouldn’t get onto the Central Military Commission.

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Editor’s Note: When Chongqing’s former top cop, Wang Lijun, fled for his life to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6, he set in motion a political storm that has not subsided. The battle behind the scenes turns on what stance officials take toward the persecution of Falun Gong. The faction with bloody hands—the officials former CCP head Jiang Zemin promoted in order to carry out the persecution—is seeking to avoid accountability for their crimes and to continue the campaign. Other officials are refusing any longer to participate in the persecution. Events present a clear choice to the officials and citizens of China, as well as people around the world: either support or oppose the persecution of Falun Gong. History will record the choice each person makes.

Click to read about the most recent developments in the ongoing crisis within the Chinese communist regime. In this special topic, we provide readers with the necessary context to understand the situation. Get the RSS feed. Who are the Major Players?

Matthew Robertson is the former China news editor for The Epoch Times. He was previously a reporter for the newspaper in Washington, D.C. In 2013 he was awarded the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi award for coverage of the Chinese regime's forced organ harvesting of prisoners of conscience.