On Aug. 10, People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial that seemed aimed squarely at the former Party leader Jiang Zemin. It didn’t name him, but it seemed that most everyone who follows Chinese politics was clear on what it meant: Jiang should stop meddling in contemporary political affairs.
In the days following that editorial Chinese media were abuzz with interpretations and speculations on just what it meant. Editorials in People’s Daily have often served as important tools for top Party leaders to telegraph their thinking to one another, often in the context of political struggle, and to unify the thinking of Party cadres and the masses behind whatever the latest political line happens to be.
The following is a round-up of how the apparent warning to Jiang Zemin has been interpreted, and the coded references that are made in the press—from parallels with foreign leaders like George W. Bush and Tony Blair, to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “boxing combination moves.”
People’s Daily’s WeChat
People’s Daily followed up its editorial with two articles on WeChat, a popular text and voice messaging service by Internet company Tencent, about how senior Party cadres and foreign leaders retire. The two cases were supposed to be taken as didactic.
The first post recalled former Party boss Deng Xiaoping’s idea that senior Party cadres should make it their “number one priority” to “carefully choose a good successor.”
Should this “revolution” of replacing “old and sick people” with younger ones end, it could lead to the “end of the Party and the nation,” Deng reportedly argued.
The second post listed six foreign leaders—former United States presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, former British prime minister Tony Blair, former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, former Nigeria president Olusegun Obasanjo, and former Japan prime minister Naoto Kan—and their careers post politics.
The Western leaders went into business, joined international organizations, or wrote books, according to People’s Daily. In contrast, Obasanjo and Kan went back into politics, the former more successfully than the latter—Obasanjo, a one-time military ruler, was democratically elected president in 1999, while Kan’s 2014 campaign for the Japan House of Representatives elections outside a train station in Kyoto drew no audience. In no case were any of these leaders identified as having attempted to interfere with the policies of a successor.
Beijing News WeChat
Beijing News, a daily tabloid run by the Beijing municipal government, ran a piece on its WeChat account about former Communist Party leaders who preached or practiced good succession habits, and the influence of “big tigers”—the official label for high ranking Party officials targeted for corruption—while they were in power or after retiring. The survey of officials they chose to highlight seemed pregnant with meaning.
During a talk entitled “Reform at the Party and the Leadership System” at the Aug. 18, 1980 meeting of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, Deng said Party leaders should not “endlessly” hold office.
Deng later raised the notion of “complete retirement”—a cadre relinquishing all positions after leaving office—repeatedly, and said that he would personally “set an example for the retirement system.” (Though he himself declined to do so.)
In an exclusive interview with Beijing News after the recent death of Wan Li, a revolutionary era Party elder who once served as vice premier, Wan Boao, the eldest son of Wan Li, said: “When my father stepped down, he stepped down completely, without interfering with the central authorities’ decisions. My father once told me, ‘after stepping down, you can best support leaders at the central government by not asking questions, not getting involved in anything, and not causing any trouble.’ Therefore, he made three rules for himself—not holding any honorary position, not participating in ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and not inscribing or writing book prefaces.”
After stepping down as from the Chinese premiership in 2003, Zhu said he wouldn’t speak on work-related issues because “those without political office shouldn’t consider policies.” (不在其位，不謀其政)
The recently purged former security czar appointed his trusted aides to different positions at PetroChina, where he worked for 32 years, and in the southern province of Sichuan, where he was provincial Party Secretary from 1999 to 2002.
Jiang, a former high ranking Chinese oil executives and one of Zhou Yongkang’s proteges, helped others to obtain wealth illegally while he was at PetroChina.
On the orders of Zhou Yongkang, Li abused his former offices of mayor and municipal Party secretary of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, to enrich himself and others.
Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political commentator, told overseas Chinese language publication Mingjing News that gerontocracy—governing by a group of elders—has been an issue since Deng Xiaoping was in power.
The People’s Daily piece is “clearly a form of propaganda,” Zhang said. “Such an article wouldn’t be published for no reason. I believe this is one of Xi’s boxing combination moves… a signpost to people that political infighting, which is triggered by the anti-corruption campaign, has not come to an end.”
“As to how this will develop, what I worry about the most is the reaction from the military,” Zhang concluded.
Mingjing regularly carries news of political scandal and rumor, including leaks from inside China, and is understood to be used by factions within the Party to publish information that is in their interest to disclose.
Radio Free Asia
In a commentary piece for Radio Free Asia, current affairs and political analyst Chen Pokong wrote that the People’s Daily editorial against Jiang Zemin in fact belongs in a trio of articles along the same theme, the first two being carried by Chinese news outlets with affiliations to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s faction.
Chinese business magazine Caixin discussed the fall of former military general Guo Boxiong in a July 30 article, and strongly hinted that Guo and Xu Caihou, another purged general, were “Chairman Jiang’s men,” according to Chen.
On Aug. 5, new Chinese news website The Paper featured lengthy essay about the key Party leaders who graced the shores of the Beidaihe, where a key meeting is held yearly to discuss important political issues. The article referred to Jiang not by name but as “the third generation leader,” a gesture which Chen interprets as an attempt to write the former Chinese leader out of the Party’s history, and based on Party literature, marking Jiang as a target to “bring down.”
Caixin is known to be “subordinate” to Wang Qishan, the anti-corruption agency’s boss and Xi’s trusted hatchet man, and often reflects his intent, while The Paper was set up by Xi Jinping and carries his “decrees,” according to Chen Pokong.
Chen also says that the Party’s current in-fighting may not ultimately benefit any faction.
“Once there’s a change in the situation, things may not play out as planned, even if those in charge didn’t intend for it,” he concluded.