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.


Voting in the Unvotable

24 02 2012

Did we imagine it? Browsing the People’s Daily (人民日报 Renmin Ribao – the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece) website, Hong Kong’s political turmoil is so conspicuously absent that it starts to feel like it was all some elaborate daydream. Coupled with images in the local media of a smiling Henry Tang officially registering as a Chief Executive candidate on Monday, tycoon supporters in tow, the sense of having toppled down a rabbit hole grows.

In case your head has been firmly in the sand for the last week or so: following a half-baked smear campaign against C Y Leung, Henry Tang’s rival in the Chief Executive (CE) race, the mud came flying back in Tang’s direction with reports of an illegally constructed underground room in one of his houses – now fondly referred to by the media as his ‘underground palace’. Just when he seemed to have hit a low, with indications of deliberate illegal activity on top of previous revelations of extra-marital affairs, Tang stooped lower still by blaming the whole thing on his long-suffering wife.

War horses and Wukan-isation

The commentaries from both sides of the Great Political Divide have been verging on the delusional. First up for the fantasy fiction prize is the Sharp Daily’s To Kit 陶杰 (pinyin: Tao Jie) in a 15 February commentary, ‘Hong Kong’s Grand Minister for Wukan-isation’, gisted below:

Beijing turns its back for a few days to deal with the scandal at the US consulate in Chongqing, and Hong Kong’s two main CE contenders are at each other teeth and claws. The C Y Leung camp’s counter-attack on Henry Tang has led to public calls for Tang to withdraw from the CE race, and the pro-establishment camp are left floundering with no signal as yet on how to vote.

If Henry has to withdraw due to his illegal building works, shouldn’t C Y also withdraw due to the Western Kowloon conflict of interest scandal? In which case, wouldn’t Albert Ho automatically win? Hong Kong has already gone off Beijing’s script, and C Y’s ‘battle for the people’s will’ could lead to a ‘Wukan-isation’ of Hong Kong at any moment, with a ‘democratic village chief’ emerging who Beijing  is forced to recognise. Under this freak outcome, Hong Kong and Wukan would become a pair of ‘war horses’ for bringing about the democratisation of China.

Heading through the next looking glass into the harmonious world of the pro-establishment Wen Wei Po, Wednesday’s headline read ‘Henry Tang: Broad Nomination Base Shows Support From All Sectors.’

“Henry Tang indicated that his nominations from the Election Committee, which were quite broadly representative, showed that he had the full support of society.”

This despite some opinion surveys indicating that over half of Hong Kong people think he should step down. Then again, anyone familiar with Hong Kong politics knows that ‘broad support of society’ is one of the city’s most loosely used terms.

So, unthinkable as it should have been, it looks as though the hapless Mr. Tang could be pushed through regardless. What of the much-touted requirement of acceptability to the Hong Kong people? Perhaps through this particular looking glass, the onus is on the people to find their leader acceptable, not on the leader to make himself so.

Tinker, Tailor, Hero, Traitor?

15 02 2012

Nobody’s sure what the truth behind Chongqing gang-buster Wang Lijun’s (王立军) Beijing ‘vacation’ really is. But whatever the case, it is bad news for Bo Xilai’s (薄熙来) Politburo prospects.

The microblog rumour mill has been in overdrive for the last week, with the intriguing tale of Wang Lijun, former superstar police chief under Chongqing Party boss/professional self-promoter Bo Xilai. Wang took refuge in a US consulate, before being whisked off to Beijing amidst a scuffle between Sichuan police and central authorities. For a good overview of the story so far, see the China Digital Times’ coverage here.

While I enjoy a good scandal as much as the next person, with so little known I am choosing instead to focus on the wider political ramifications of the event. Crucially, this has been a huge loss of face for the populist Bo Xilai, who had hoped to ascend to the shining ranks of the Politburo Standing Committee at this autumn’s Party Congress. Ming Pao 明报 commentator Sun Ka-yip (孫嘉業, pinyin: Sun Jiaye) links Bo Xilai’s woes with recent attacks on Hong Kong Chief Executive hopeful C Y Leung (梁振英, pinyin: Liang Zhenying). In the following article, he interprets both cases as a Party backlash against those who dare to seek promotion based on popular support, rather than (presumably) inner-Party bootlicking. If correct, this offers an interesting insight into how much the CCP values ‘the will of the people’ (民意 minyi): in ascending the ranks, subservience to the Party centre still comes first, popularity a poor second.

CY Leung and Bo Xilai’s Political Troubles (Ming Pao, 14/02/2012)

“CY Leung and Bo Xilai, one a Hong Kong political figure, the other a senior CCP official; one from Shandong, the other Shanxi; CY is year of the Horse, Bo Xilai is year of the Ox. You could say that “the horse and the cow in heat do not look at each other” [风马牛不相及feng ma niu bu xiang ji, i.e. they have nothing in common]; yet the two men do have many similarities. Both are part of the establishment, yet their actions seem to be somewhat at odds with standard establishment behaviour. This year is a key year for both men, but both are currently encountering political difficulties…

C Y Leung broke with the establishment norm of putting forward just one candidate for the Chief Executive election [sic], and deviated from the … [norm] of focusing on winning over the election committee, going instead for the grassroots vote, … raising eyebrows among many businesspeople and government officials, until at last the government revealed a decade-old issue involving integrity in judging a competition in West Kowloon, and his response is looking weak.

When Bo Xilai was sent to take over Chongqing four years ago, it was thought that he had been removed from the centre of power and marginalised, but he surprised us by refusing to be packed off. On the contrary, he went against the iron rule within CCP circles of adopting a low-key, restrained attitude of ‘people should fear fame, as pigs fear fattening’, with his ‘singing red, fighting black’ [唱红打黑 changhong dahei = singing revolutionary ‘red’ songs and fighting the ‘black hand’ of the mafia]. This went on and on, until the ‘Chongqing model’ had attracted a certain popularity in the Mainland, but then suddenly disaster struck, with his beloved general Wang Lijun entering the US consulate. The incident is still playing out, and as for Bo Xilai’s chances of entering the Politburo Standing Committee at the 18th Party Congress, everyone is keenly looking on to see if this cooked duck will be able to fly.

I’m not sure which animal metaphor I enjoyed the most.