In comparison with their Western counterparts, China’s former leaders have tended to retain a far more significant influence over politics after their departure from office. With a culture that values the wisdom and experience of the elderly, and a political system in which decisions are made behind closed doors, there has been plenty of room for China’s ex-leaders to flex their political muscles long after their formal retirements.
In post-1978 China, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin have both exercised their roles as patrons, elder advisors, and kingmakers in Party politics after officially leaving office. Five out of the six new members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), China’s ruling cabinet of ministers, including the President, are considered to be close to former President Jiang Zemin.
Jiang Zemin (President from 1989 to 2003, although subordinate to Deng Xiaoping until 1995) and Hu Jintao (President from 2003 to 2013) continued to lead China along the path of market-driven economic growth that was set by Deng Xiaoping (‘Paramount Leader’ from 1978 to 1995). Besides that, however, Jiang and Hu are political rivals associated with different factions of the Communist Party, and their administrations prioritized considerably different objectives. Conservative on political questions and neoliberal on economic ones, the emphasis of Jiang’s tenure in power was market-oriented economic reform within the strict bounds of the Party’s political leadership. The crowning achievement of Jiang’s administration was China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization in 2001.
The Hu/Wen administration rejected the Washington consensus and tried to focus on narrowing China’s yawning income gap, a goal that ultimately proved impossible for them. Hu also tried to foment intra-party democracy and develop formal decision-making processes for the CPC, an initiative that met with mixed success. Furthermore, despite the Premier’s lofty words, Hu maintained the political status quo of the post-1989 era, in which the Party’s control over society and politics remains unquestioned.
Today, each man is associated with a faction – Jiang with the politically conservative, elitist faction that includes most members of the current PSC, and Hu with a more populist group composed of cadres who rose up through the Communist Youth League, including current Premier Li Keqiang. The factions are characteristic of the post-Deng Xiaoping political environment, in which the Party is no longer subject to the will of a supreme leader like Deng or Mao, and is instead subject to the influence of many different elite cadres. Members of each faction are very loosely defined by background – the populist group is filled with cadres from poorer families who often held posts in the inland provinces, while the elitist faction is populated by those who grow up middle-class or wealthy, and who took positions in the coastal provinces. Although he now leads the elitist faction, Xi strove to be the compromise candidate during his rise through party ranks, guarding his opinions on critical issues and striving not to alienate the populists.
In recent National Congresses, there has been a general consensus that each faction should be well represented in the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee. Last November, however, six of the appointed PSC members are identified with Jiang’s elitist faction. The former leader, retired from office for the last nine years, appeared to have returned to the political scene as a kingmaker. Xi was long been considered Jiang’s protégé, and appeared eager to press on with the economic reform that many Party cadres felt stalled under Hu.
To many pundits, the defeat of the populist faction in November came at the expense of future reform. Two of the Party’s best and brightest reform-minded members of the populist faction, Wang Yang and Li Yuanchao, were not elevated to the Standing Committee, despite showing obvious talent and meeting the age requirements. Many observers reported that China seems burdened with a very conservative PSC for the next five years (at which point most PSC positions, save that of Xi and Li Keqiang, will be shuffled).
But then, in January of this year, came what many China watchers interpret as a gesture of deference from Jiang to the new leader, and a decision to step out of the limelight, Jiang’s name appeared at the end of a list of important dignitaries who visited a deceased general in a document of commemoration issued by the CPC. Normally, Jiang’s name would be placed third after that of Xi and Jiang’s successor, Hu. Such signs in China are always deliberate. What is unclear is whether Jiang chose to send such a signal, or if other powers, such as Xi or Hu, forced him to do so. Jiang was widely criticized for not giving up the Presidential powers fully in 2002, when he decided to remain Chairman of the Central Military Commission for an additional two years. Perhaps Hu’s swift and total handover of power to Xi, a reflection of his desire to see best practices institutionalized in the CPC, helped nudge Jiang into a full retirement.
Of course, it is also likely that Jiang himself, already at the ripe old age of 86 years old, had planned to install allies in the new PSC and then retire from politics permanently. Regardless, it seems that we will be unlikely to see Jiang directly influencing policy in Zhongnanhai, the elite Party compound in Beijing, in the years to come, as he did under Hu. For his own part, Hu was sidelined by his rival at the 13th National Congress, and probably wouldn’t have had much appetite for further political meddling anyhow. So it seems that the tradition of hanging around after the end of one’s Presidential term is over with the most recent power transition.
That is better for Xi as a leader, and for China in general. Jiang’s new, ‘real’ retirement also bodes well for the future of political reform, as of all the recent Party elites, Jiang was most opposed to opening up China’s politics. While we know that Xi shares, in his own fashion, Jiang’s zeal for reforming China’s economy, we have little idea as yet how Xi will approach the political questions. So far, the administration has focused on taming corruption, a very necessary and non-partisan initiative, as part of its goal of bringing the party closer to the people.
But Xi has many years of rule ahead, and most of his fellow members of the PSC will be replaced in five years’ time. China needs some meaningful reform beyond merely punishing corrupt party members if it is truly to develop a more stable and sustainable economy and society. Moreover, while Hu failed in his goal of addressing the income gap, Xi can hardly afford to: China’s Gini coefficient (a measure of income inequality that ranges between 0 for perfect equality and 1 for total inequality) has risen to over 0.6. America’s Gini coefficient, still very high in global comparison, is under 0.5. A Gini coefficient of above 4.0 is often posited as a sign of future social unrest. Perhaps the fact that Jiang is not going to be around to exert his influence will allow the new President to focus on addressing these issues, rather than worrying about political intrigue.