Who’s the Most Popular Populist?

18 03 2012

Bo’s attempt to outdo populist leaders Hu and Wen at their own game has failed, with the fallout from the factional clashes blowing into Hong Kong

This is a good time to be a China watcher. For a country whose leadership strives to keep conflict and machinations strictly behind the scenes, the rare moments when a tussle bursts out onto centre stage provide triangulation points to deduce what is going on behind the walls of Zhongnanhai (中南海).

Since the last post, shamed Chongqing (重庆) Party Secretary Bo Xilai (薄熙来) has been dismissed, and his future in the Party is uncertain. ‘Grandpa’ Wen Jiabao (温家宝) has spoken out again about the need for political reform. And Henry Tang has accused C Y Leung of calling for a crackdown on anti-Article 23 protestors in 2003. Bo, Wen and Leung have all been described as populists; Leung now joins Bo in being criticised as illiberal. How should we interpret their political stances, and what do their differing fates tell us about the dominant trends in Chinese politics?

It’s all about factions

To tell the story, we need to go back to the end of Jiang Zemin’s (江泽民) term. Jiang represents the elitist faction in Chinese politics, including the Shanghai Gang (mostly Jiang’s protégés) and some Princelings (children of the CCP old guard). At a time of rising inequality in China, the Hu-Wen administration (from the Communist Youth League (CYL) or 团派 tuanpai faction) replaced Jiang in 2003 on a ‘populist’ agenda, promising to address China’s east-west wealth gap and care for the vulnerable in Chinese society.

Under Hu and Wen, things began to implode politically for the Shanghai Gang, with Shanghai Party chief Chen Liangyu fired in 2006 and eventually imprisoned for his part in a major embezzlement scandal. Political analysts saw this as a major coup for the CYL power bloc within the Party. After years of resentment at Shanghai splashing out on endless prestige projects while inland regions struggled to develop, this meant that Hu and Wen entered their second term with relatively high public support, as well as weakened internal opposition.

A new kind of populist

Enter Bo Xilai, stage left. Bo, a princeling allied to the elitist faction, was appointed Chongqing Party Secretary in 2007. Hell-bent on a position in the 2012 Politburo Standing Committee, yet without the patronage of Hu and Wen, Bo chose to redefine ‘populism’ in Chinese politics. With his ‘singing red, fighting black’ (唱红打黑 changhong dahei) campaign, Bo first cracked down hard (and, some say, with scant regard for legal process) on corruption and the mafia, and later led a revival of Maoist nostalgia such as singing ‘red songs‘. This, along with increased public housing provision, appealed in particular to citizens disillusioned by the rampant corruption and inequality that had emerged in the reform era.

However, despite its leftist bent, Bo’s style of populism smacked of that employed by far-right groups in the west, appealing to anti-liberal sections of the population with its jingoist rhetoric and hard-line approach.

A coup for liberal reformers?

This difference between Wen Jiabao and Bo Xilai’s variants of populism became most apparent after Wen began talking more openly about political reform in 2010. While Wen’s commitment to serious political liberalisation is questionable based on his track record, from his speeches this week it is clear that he saw Bo’s Maoist nostalgia and hard-line crackdowns as a backwards step for a China which is committed, in word at least, to developing a law-based society and gradual political reform.

Bo’s fall demonstrates that Hu and Wen are still politically strong enough to eliminate a rival, even one who has won large-scale public support. Yet his replacement is a Jiang Zemin protégé, which shows that the balance of power approach (as described in detail by Cheng Li) goes on. Wen Jiabao can continue to wax lyrical about political reform, while allowing observers to blame conservative elites for lack of progress. The win-win (双赢 shuangying) situation is sustained.

Back to the Fragrant Harbour

So how do Tangtang and CY fit into all this? If Henry Tang is a very obvious elitist from Shanghai, why would Hu and Wen have supported him? If CY is a Bo Xilai-esque populist and hard-line leftist, how could they shift their support to him, as now seems to be happening? The first question comes down to power balancing, and the second to differences of scale between mainland China and Hong Kong.

While Hu and Wen are far from natural allies of Tang, allowing him the top spot would be an acceptable concession to the Shanghai Gang while also keeping the Hong Kong elite on-side. Lately, calculations of pros and cons have changed, so is CY an acceptable alternative?

Let’s assume that Henry was telling the truth about CY suggesting the need for a crackdown on Article 23 protestors. It seems doubtful that this would shock Hu Jintao, famous for overseeing one of the harshest ever crackdowns in Tibet in 1989 and one of the first to express support for the Tiananmen crackdown. More recently, Hu and Wen spent much of 2011 intimidating dissident artists, writers and lawyers to avoid the scent of jasmine wafting into Chinese territory.CY may be hard-line by Hong Kong standards. By Beijing standards, he’s a novice.

Equally, while CY may not be quite as in bed with the arch-capitalists of Hong Kong as Henry, he’s hardly going to kick off a red songs movement in Victoria Park. ‘Leftist’ is one of the most vague labels in use in Hong Kong. In fact, according to commentator Willy Lam, there are rumours that the Communist Youth League faction had secretly favoured CY for some time, and switched their support to him in the aftermath of the Henry disasters.

Xi Who Must Not Be Named

Finally, as an aside, let’s take a look at Xi Jinping. Xi’s light escape in all this is the one remaining façade of unity at the top of the CCP. Remarkably absent from much media coverage of Hong Kong’s quasi-electoral shenanigans has been discussion of Xi’s role, and responsibilities, as head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. This is his turf, there is not even a pretence of impartiality any more, and it’s a shambles.

In a party that has been striving since Deng Xiaoping’s time to make leadership transitions smooth and predictable, the need to protect Xi Jinping’s reputation amid the turmoil may be the one thing the factions still agree on.








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