The outgoing chief of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is letting slip away an opportunity for the first time in his 10-year-long tenure to do real good for China and make significant changes in the Party. Hu Jintao’s failure to put his mark on the Party may be opening the door for instability.
The attempted defection on Feb. 6 of Chongqing’s former top cop Wang Lijun to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu gave Hu an opportunity to marginalize the political opponents who had restricted his power at every turn.
Wang, the right-hand man of Chongqing’s former Party chief Bo Xilai, is said to have revealed how he had covered up the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Bo’s wife Gu Kailai. Wang also is said to have disclosed issues of much greater importance: a coup planned by Bo and domestic security czar Zhou Yongkang, and Bo and Gu’s involvement in the atrocities of forced organ harvesting and the selling of corpses.
Hu reacted to the revelations by deftly isolating Bo, stripping him of power, and demoting his cronies. The trial of Gu was seen by observers as a proxy for the other, more serious crimes she had committed.
Gu, however, was given a suspended death sentence, which can be commuted to life imprisonment, which can be reduced for good behavior—and Bo’s name was kept out of the trial completely. If Gu’s trial was political in nature, either it missed its obvious target, or it served a completely different purpose. The trial ended up providing a formal rebuke to Gu and Bo that preserved their viability, even if that viability is hanging by a thread.
Another sign of Bo’s soft landing is that he survived the only meeting of the National People’s Congress before the upcoming Party Congress in October without being disqualified as a representative. That means he is still protected from criminal charges.
Hu could have used Wang’s revelations as a weapon for further marginalizing his political opponents. Jiang Zemin’s faction dominated the CCP throughout Hu’s tenure. That faction has been defined by Jiang’s decision to eradicate the spiritual practice of Falun Gong.
Falun Gong involves practicing five gentle, meditative exercises and living according to the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. After it was first publicly taught in 1992, it spread very rapidly to every corner of China. By early 1999, 100 million Chinese had taken up the practice.
Jiang was concerned at the large number of people practicing—greater than the membership of the CCP, and he feared the Chinese people would prefer Falun Gong’s traditional moral teachings to the Party’s ideology.
The harvesting of organs from tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners is the worst of the faction’s crimes. But in addition to this mass slaughter, the faction has tortured and brainwashed millions of Chinese, while stripping tens of millions of all rights. Practitioners have been routinely jailed, robbed, fined, and deprived of jobs and places in school.
In order to make this possible, the faction has presided over the destruction of any movement toward the rule of law in China and the reform of the CCP, while corruption within the Party has exploded.
Yet, Hu has chosen to treat Bo’s criminality—however that is defined—as an isolated case.
Whether Bo was involved in the planning of Heywood’s murder—he had as much reason as Gu to wish the Brit dead—is not known. But eventually the truth will come out about Bo and Gu’s involvement in organ harvesting and the selling of the corpses of Falun Gong practitioners to factories in Dalian that turn the corpses into exhibition pieces.
Hu has apparently chosen the way of least resistance by not settling now the question of Bo’s guilt for crimes against humanity and, through a prosecution of Bo, the guilt of the faction of which Bo was a leading member.
Hu may have feared that a full revelation of Bo’s crimes would have damaged the Party beyond repair. He may have also feared that Bo’s political allies would have taken revenge on him for his handling of Bo or even prevented Hu from acting.
By temporizing, Hu has left the issue of the guilt of Bo and Jiang’s faction as a time bomb that will blow up in the future with unknown repercussions.
Allying with Premier Wen Jiabao, who describes himself as lonely voice for reform, Hu could have discontinued the policies of persecution that have so damaged China’s national life, prevented healthy change from occurring, and stopped China from truly becoming a great power.
Instead, Bo has so far been left with a political career. That career may be on life support, but others have made extraordinary returns from near elimination. Consider Deng Xiaoping. He rose to paramount power after being demoted three times.
As Hu washes his hands of the Jiang faction’s guilt, he also appears to be withdrawing from responsibility altogether. There are rumors that Hu is stepping down from all his posts.
Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin held onto control of the military after giving up the headship of the Party. This practice assured that the former Party leader continued to have real power.
Hu apparently intended to follow in the footsteps of Deng and Jiang. Hu has made every effort to win the loyalty of China’s military leaders in anticipation of continuing as chairman of the Military Committee for two more years.
But now, instead of keeping the chairmanship of the Military Committee, Hu is said to be pushing his favorite, upcoming premier Li Keqiang, to be the vice chair of the Military Committee. Li has no previous ties to the military or any military experience.
If Li gains the post, he will not have any real power, and his possibility of surviving a power struggle down the road is questionable.
The recent demotion of Hu’s former chief of staff increases the impression that Hu is a figure who is rapidly laying down any power he might hold.
Ling Jihua has by all accounts served Hu ably for the past five years, with the reputation of being Hu’s most trusted and sought-after advisor. Ling is the one who did the tough work of bringing down those who served Bo.
Ling is being replaced as chief of staff by Xi’s choice, Li Zhanshu. This is natural, as Xi will want to have his own man in this sensitive post.
Observers had expected Ling to become the next Beijing Party chief. In that position, he would be a sure pick for the Politburo and a candidate in the future for the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the elite body that runs the CCP.
Instead, the Party announced on Aug. 28 that Ling was being shunted to a much less influential post. He will head the United Front Department, the agency that seeks to isolate enemies of the CCP and to form alliances with other organizations, particularly outside China.
China analysts are scrambling to make sense of the marginalization of Ling Jihua. One school thinks Hu made the decision because he is elevating the United Front Department’s importance. The other claims that Hu is facing strong resistance from his opponents and losing control.
Of course, the Chinese regime’s politics occur mostly inside a black box, and without inside information, no one is really sure what is going on.
As the 18th Party Congress approaches and with it the once-in-a-decade installation of the Party’s new, top leadership, the news about Hu suggests a power vacuum at a critical time.
Since the Wang-Bo scandal broke out, military leaders have kept making public appeals demanding the soldiers and officers to be loyal to the Party and to Hu himself. The need to appeal in this way for loyalty suggests the military’s loyalty cannot be counted on.
A news story on Aug. 29 deepens the feeling that things are falling apart in Beijing.
China International Airlines flight CA981 was seven hours into its flight to New York City when it had to turn around and return to Beijing. The rumors are that a high-ranking official was trying to defect or run away. Witnesses saw three people arrested in the Beijing Airport. Another political scandal is yet to be revealed.
Michael Young, a Chinese-American writer based in Washington, D.C., writes on China and the Sino-U.S. relationship.
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