Communist Party Theoretician Knows Who His Godfather Is

March 29, 2016 Updated: March 30, 2016

A prominent Chinese Communist Party researcher recently spurned a surprise chance to openly declare fealty to the Party chief—a brief moment of intransigence that goes some way to revealing the current state of power politics in China.

When asked by a reporter from Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao Daily on the sidelines of an annual political conclave about what he thought of Chinese leader Xi Jinping as China’s new “core” leader, Shi Zhihong, a deputy director to a top advisory body, and former deputy head of a Communist Party think tank, rebuffed him with: “I’ve already answered that question. Go read that article by me; my opinions are all there.”

As the reporter readied a camera, Shi said “No pictures,” and held out his hand to block a clear shot. The result was a meme-worthy image of a pouting Shi, with what appears to be a food stain on his blazer, in a pose that would impress most Chinese traffic police.

The unwillingness of Shi, sometimes called “Zhongnanhai’s brain trust” in news reports, to openly back the Party chief, highlights a dictum of Chinese politics: when a Party leader demands loyalty and uniformity, it means he doesn’t yet have it. Shi Zhihong’s career trajectory owes much to one of the key Party elders obstructing Xi Jinping’s rule, and his open defiance of the untrammeled leadership of Xi suggests that he still retains high-level backing.

One ‘Core’

Since January, dozens of provincial and senior Communist Party leaders have publicly endorsed Xi Jinping as China’s “core” leader, or “he xin.” Historically, only Party leaders who wielded near total control over the entire Party machinery—Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin—have been hailed as “core” leaders.

But Shi Zhihong has expressed his opposition to the relatively early coronation of Xi Jinping. In the article he claimed to have written—really an interview with Phoenix Television, a pro-Beijing Hong Kong news outlet, on March 3—Shi made three points: The Party is “core” in leading China towards socialism with Chinese characteristics; the Party Central Committee, particularly the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee, is the focal “core” of Party leadership; and the Politburo Standing Committee “collective leadership core” must be “universally acknowledged and satisfactory to the people.”

When Shi Zhihong expressed dissatisfaction towards Xi Jinping, he is conveying the dissatisfaction of his backers, political elders Zeng Qinghong and Jiang Zemin.
— Chen Pokong, Book author and current affairs analyst

Shi’s ideas aren’t new. He appears to be championing “collective leadership,” a system of governance where power is apportioned to a group rather than consolidated in the hands of an individual. Scholars of Chinese politics note that the concept first became part of Party rhetoric under Deng in the late 1970s as he sought to distance the Party from the atrocities committed by Mao, and his personality cult (though Deng himself came to wield power far greater than his supposed peers).

Though state theoreticians, like Hu Angang of Tsinghua University, sometimes claim that the Party has in fact been practicing collective leadership since the late 1920s, genuine collective leadership has often enough been simply a means of concealing who’s really in charge.

Godfather Politics

The Chinese Communist Party is perhaps best visualized as a Mafia type-organization. Regular Party cadres seek political patronage from a handful of powerful Party dons, who in turn aspire to the position of Party godfather. Once a Party don becomes the proverbial capo di tutt’i capi, or “boss of bosses,” as put by Alice Miller, a scholar of Chinese elite politics with the Hoover Institution, he typically controls the political affairs of the day, regardless of who the incumbent Party leader is at the time.

For instance, top Party cadres Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, and Hua Guofeng were all at some point installed as official leader of China, but Mao Zedong pulled the strings until his death in 1976. Similarly, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang took turns as head of state in the 1980s until Deng Xiaoping, the actual paramount leader, replaced them as he saw fit.

The wooden Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping’s direct predecessor, was hamstrung throughout his tenure, having been surrounded by appointees of Jiang Zemin and straitjacketed with a “collective leadership” in which most of the collective was loyal to someone else.

The collective leadership of Jiang Zemin’s political clients has forced Xi to push through his policies through other channels.

In the process of consolidating his position and truly coming into his own, Xi Jinping has been embroiled in what some political commentators are calling a “life and death struggle” with this old guard, most prominently the former godfather, Jiang Zemin, since coming to office in late 2012. Although Xi has secured a strong foothold—many of Jiang’s clients and top lieutenants have been purged in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, and a comprehensive military reform and public tour of state propaganda organs are obvious efforts at power consolidation and signaling—Jiang still appears to wield some clout, judging by the recent comments of Shi Zhihong the Party ideologue.  

Shi rose to prominence in the early 1990s after he wrote several articles for a Shanghai state newspaper backing Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform plan in the early 1990s. He later served as the secretary to Zeng Qinghong, the former vice president of China and Politburo Standing Committee member, and most prominently Jiang Zemin’s long-time consigliere.

Being the secretary, or mishu, of an elite Party cadre is a mark of prestige in the Chinese regime. Handling administrative decisions and cultivating important personal relationships with other Party elite aside, mishu are often earmarked for promotion to the upper echelons of Party leadership—Xi Jinping was a mishu to Geng Biao, a former defense minister, and Zeng Qinghong was once mishu to Jiang Zemin.

Family Warfare

Over the past dozen years, Jiang Zemin continued to exert significant influence from behind the scenes through the efforts of the wily Zeng Qinghong.

Zeng saw that Jiang’s political clients were placed in key positions in the regime, and that they were succeeded by other clients during leadership cycles: Luo Gan, then Zhou Yongkang, controlled the bloated, all-powerful security and legal apparatus; generals Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong ran the military; Liu Yunshan headed the propaganda department and later got promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee; and until he was betrayed by his associate Wang Lijun, former Chongqing boss Bo Xilai was primed for the Standing Committee. Bo appeared to be in the process of inheriting Jiang’s mantle when the tumultuous events of 2012 played out, derailing everything. Bo was purged in 2012 after his deputy, Wang, attempted to defect at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.

Thus, when Shi Zhihong talks about the desirability of a “collective leadership core” that is “universally acknowledged and satisfactory to the people,” he is really referring to Shi’s “peers in the Party, including political elders,” writes Chen Pokong, the author of “Machiavelli in Beijing” and a commentator on current affairs, in his regular column on the Chinese edition of Radio Free Asia.

“When Shi Zhihong expressed dissatisfaction towards Xi Jinping, he is conveying the dissatisfaction of his backers, political elders Zeng Qinghong and Jiang Zemin,” Chen writes.

Although Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has weakened Jiang’s network in recent years, the highest decision-making body in the country is still heavy with his men. “Jiang Zemin played a major role in the shaping of the Standing Committee chosen in 2012,” writes Cheng Li, a director of the John L. Thornton China Center and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institute, in an introductory book on Chinese politics.

Four of seven members in the Politburo Standing Committee are understood to be clients of Jiang, and they are said to have persistently outvoted Xi on major personnel appointments—such as which military officer should be made vice chair of the Central Military Commission, for example.

The collective leadership of Jiang’s clients has forced Xi to push through his policies through other channels—instituting a comprehensive military reform, forming ad hoc “leading small groups” in important areas like Internet control, and personally performing spot checks on the propaganda apparatus.

Xi has also appears to have encountered extensive resistance in his efforts to circumvent the obstructionism inherent in the collective leadership model: recently, several curious censorship decisions and propaganda inconsistencies have tarred Xi’s reputation in recent weeks—the handiwork of Liu Yunshan, according to some analysts.

And Shi Zhihong has refused to bend his knee to Xi, instead throwing his support behind a collective leadership structure.

Shi had last year shown his allegiances in a more public, though bumbling, fashion: Speaking with reporters at the annual political conclave, Shi definitively dismissed the rumors that his former boss Zeng Qinghong was being targeted by the Party’s anti-corruption agency, after its website ran a cryptic article about a wildly corrupt Qing dynasty prince. The question was whether the unusual piece was in fact—as widely supposed—an allusion to Zeng Qinghong, whose Chinese name and political proclivities bear a superficial resemblance. Shi’s stout denial seemed only to confirm the suspicions.