At a Sept. 28 symposium in Beijing, Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a speech on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Admiral Liu Huaqing, who was active in the 1980s and 1990s and served as one of China’s most powerful officers before being deposed in a political struggle. Liu died in 2011, aged 95.
In a commemorative speech that ran about a dozen pages, Xi quoted Liu at length and praised the naval commander for his efforts at strengthening and reforming the Chinese military, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
“There is no way out for the country without reform,” Liu had said, “and the same holds true for the military.”
Xi also highlighted how Liu played in a critical role in 1992, the year he was named to become a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful body in the Chinese Communist Party. The speech is highly significant, and even unusual, for another reason: Liu Huaqing was a rival of Jiang Zemin, the former regime leader whose influence Xi Jinping has fought against since he came to power.
The Chinese leader’s words of acclaim for Liu and reform are likely imbued with more political weight than the birthday of a deceased cadre would otherwise warrant.
Building a Case Against Political Rivals
Jiang was a Party official from Shanghai who rose to prominence following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing. As general secretary of the Communist Party, he was at loggerheads with Liu Huaqing, the final military man to serve on the Politburo Standing Committee, the Party’s powerful nerve center.
A protege of the still-powerful elder Deng Xiaoping, Liu did not submit to Jiang’s political will. But after Deng died in 1997, Jiang and his allies strongarmed Deng’s associates at the 15th Party Congress held later that year, removing the checks on Jiang’s political influence in the regime. Liu Huaqing was one of those targeted in the purge, soft by Communist Party standards, and he retired from his positions the following year.
In the speech, Xi not only made note of Liu’s “contribution to socialism with Chinese characteristics” as Xinhua put it, but also quoted the admiral as saying that “there is no hope for the military if our comrades resort to backdoor deals to attain promotion. This decimates the morale of the military.”
The current Chinese regime administration, led by Xi Jinping, has been active in punishing and removing thousands of Party, state, and military officials, ostensibly for corruption and other disciplinary violations.
Under Jiang Zemin, China saw sustained double-digit economic growth, but also an explosion in state-backed corruption. While Chinese officials have long had a reputation for abusing the privileges conferred by their status, Jiang lavished promotions and key positions upon his allies, who in turn carved out illegal fiefs using the power of the state machine.
Many high-ranking officials, including those in the military who have been purged under Xi, owed their rise to Jiang. Among these was Xu Caihou, a political officer who abused his status as vice-commander of the People’s Liberation Army to extract rents from illicit businesses. When he was investigated, Party disciplinary officials found multiple truckloads of gold and foreign currency at his residency.
Gu Junshan, another disgraced general connected to Jiang Zemin, reportedly owned a solid gold statue of Mao Zedong, which was discovered in one of his luxury villas, along with a gold model boat, crates of expensive liquor, stacks of gold bullion, and piles of cash, according to Chinese media reports.
Hua Po, a political commentator based in Beijing, said that Deng Xiaoping had placed Liu Huaqing, a reformist, on the Politburo Standing Committee to “keep Jiang in check. … Deng was worried that Jiang would abandon the reform agenda.”
According to the Legal Evening News, a state-run publication, Liu had written in his memoirs that he deeply respected and appreciated Deng’s leadership. And Sina, a major Chinese news site, reported that Liu despised Jiang because he had never served in the military yet was chairman of the Central Military Commission.
But while some of the key Chinese officials who rose to prominence under Jiang have been disciplined, Jiang himself, along with a handful of active Politburo allies such as Liu Yunshan and Zhang Dejiang, have yet to be accused directly—only through nuanced hints.
At the end of October, the Communist Party is scheduled to hold an important closed-doors plenary session, at which Xi, his allies, and rivals will determine which officials will be chosen to rise in position or be sent into retirement in 2017, the year of the 19th Communist Party Congress. Several recent purges and signals indicate that Xi is making consistent efforts to sideline the Jiang faction in anticipation of the plenum.