Communist Party Mouthpiece Puts Jiang Zemin on Notice

August 10, 2015 Updated: August 12, 2015

People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, has published an editorial issuing a stern warning to former Party leaders who still meddle in the affairs of their successors.

The language used in the Aug. 10 editorial, as well as its timing, political context, and the almost unanimous interpretation of its intent on the Chinese Internet, seems to point to one target: the Communist Party’s previous boss, Jiang Zemin.

In the piece’s opening paragraphs, sharp lines are drawn between good retired leaders and bad ones. “Many of our Party leaders, once they have stepped down from their posts, have correctly treated their change in positions. They do not interfere in the work of the new leadership.”

“However,” it intones, “there are Party leaders who, while they are still in power, name their ‘trusted aides’ to take on key positions for the purpose of extending their influence in the future. What’s more, after these Party leaders have stepped down, they are not willing to give up exerting their influence on major issues …”

Though the article at no point names Jiang Zemin himself, the conclusion seemed irresistible to observers. Party newspapers are famous for making coded allusions to political figures. The violent and manic Cultural Revolution is widely seen to have been kicked off with the People’s Daily publishing a criticism of a play about the sacking of a Ming Dynasty official.

“To those with the eyes to see, it’s clear at a glance that this article is a criticism of Jiang Zemin, without naming him,” wrote Hu Ping, a veteran political commentator who lives in exile in New York, on the website of Radio Free Asia. 

Agence France-Presse, France’s main wire news agency, hinted that Jiang was likely the target.

“Xi’s much-publicized drive against corruption has ensnared a long list of senior and junior officials including the country’s former security czar Zhou Yongkang, who was sentenced to life in jail in June,” AFP wrote. “Zhou is regarded as an ally of former President Jiang Zemin … speculation has circulated over whether Jiang could be targeted by Xi and the party’s internal investigation branch, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).”

The thesis that Jiang Zemin is the ultimate target of Xi Jinping’s campaign to purge the Party under the guise of attacking corruption has been a part of Epoch Times reporting on the Chinese political scene for a number of years. Columnists and reporters at the newspaper have since early 2012 predicted the downfall of Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, and others, before they became official targets. Their judgements were based on their own observations of Chinese political trends, and their frequent contact with high-level sources inside the regime. The newspaper’s general editorial line has held that Jiang’s other top aides, and Jiang himself, will ultimately also be targets.

The People’s Daily editorial uses a slightly obscure analogy to make its point: the idea that “tea goes cool when the person leaves,” a phrase that dates to the Ming Dynasty. The article includes this phrase in its headline, which ran in the opinion section online, and on page 7 in the print edition. The headline enjoined readers to “correctly view” the matter of tea going cold when it ought to—that is, that they should not support a Party official who seeks to maintain power after stepping out of office.

“Theoretically in a work environment, tea going cold once the person leaves is common. Why are there people who insist that the tea remains hot once people leave?”

Under that coded language, there was a sharp point being made: “Being unhappy to retire … they do everything they can to extend their power, not caring what policies are implemented, not caring for the impact on virtuous governance, doing all they can to make sure that ‘tea’ stays hot all the while.”

Jiang Zemin is notorious for having installed a battery of cronies in the Politburo Standing Committee, the Party’s nerve center, as he was leaving office in 2002. Throughout his tenure he also saw the installation of cronies across the Party and state apparatus, granting them the ability to enrich themselves as a way of buying political loyalty, given that Jiang had no established power base in the regime when he unexpectedly came to power in 1989. Before he relinquished his military positions and titles in 2004 and 2005, Jiang also saw to it that his own men—many of whom have now been jailed by the current leader, Xi Jinping—effectively controlled the military.

With this network in place, Jiang exerted great control over the key nodes of Chinese politics for over a decade after he stepped down. This was most apparent in the case of Zhou Yongkang, the former head of the domestic security apparatus, whom Jiang promoted rapidly after Zhou demonstrated his loyalty in the implementation of the violent campaign to persecute and eliminate the Falun Gong spiritual practice, Jiang Zemin’s pet political project. Falun Gong is a traditional qigong discipline that includes slow exercises and the moral principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. It has been persecuted in China since 1999, under Jiang’s direct orders.

Li Hongkuan, a commentator on Chinese politics who for many years ran VIP Reference, the first guerrilla-style electronic newsletter in China, said in an interview with New Tang Dynasty Television that “the purpose of such an article is not to generate discussion … It’s to warn certain people.”

A number of columnists for the Chinese-language edition of the Epoch Times long ago concluded that Jiang Zemin was the major target in Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Over the last three years, these predictions appear to have been increasingly validated by developments, as one Jiang loyalist after another is removed by the Party’s internal secret police agency, subjected to interrogation, then hauled before the Party-controlled court system and sentenced to years, or life, in prison.

In February, Zeng Qinghong, Jiang’s key hatchet man and political mastermind, appeared to have been singled out in a similar manner to the current People’s Daily piece, by the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, through reference to a corrupt prince during the Qing Dynasty. Zeng was never named, but observers of Chinese politics quickly caught on.

The recent People’s Daily article was published under the name of Gu Bochong, identified as an officer with the General Political Department of the People’s Liberation Army.

Chinese Internet users, in comments on Sina Weibo that were not deleted, made numerous remarks identifying the target of the piece as Jiang Zemin, in a typically veiled manner. “Is this talking about the toad,” wrote Night Grass. Identifying Jiang as a toad is a popular meme in Chinese cyberspace, a reference to the former leader’s sometimes rotund appearance, large glasses, and habit of hiking his trousers far above his waistline.

“Big Papa Xi is going to make a move against Ha Ha,” wrote another user, employing a pun by using the first character for the Chinese word for toad (hama).

“I’m rather curious,” said the user yanhing, “Will the toad get online, and learn how much disgust he inspires?”