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Zeng's chance at China leadership

Zeng Qinghong
While Zeng (r) is a mere alternate, or second-tier member of the Politburo there is no denying that the momentum is going the way of the Jiang protégé and senior member of the Shanghai Faction  

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
CNN Senior China Analyst

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Suddenly, all eyes are on Zeng Qinghong, the main protégé and adviser of President Jiang Zemin.

The Jiang crony, who heads the Communist Party's Organization Department, will be the prime beneficiary if the president were to refuse to hand over the baton to heir-apparent Vice-President Hu Jintao.

Should Jiang, 76, hang on to his post of party General Secretary at the 16th party congress in the autumn, Zeng, 63, would have a good chance of taking over the No. 1 slot from his mentor two or three years down the road.

This is despite the fact that Hu will be awarded a consolidation prize such as the ceremonial state presidency early next year.

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Yet even if, as originally envisaged, Hu becomes party chief -- and Jiang either retires in total or just retain the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) -- Zeng will still be a contender for supreme power.

While Zeng is a mere alternate, or second-tier member of the Politburo -- and Hu has been a member of the elite Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) since 1992 -- there is no denying that the momentum is going the way of the Jiang protégé and senior member of the Shanghai Faction.

Thanks to support from Jiang and his position as personnel chief, Zeng has been able to install a large number of Shanghai Faction affiliates in key positions during thorough-going regional reshuffles from late 2001 to mid-2002.

A Beijing source said a good chunk of the Central Committee members who would be elected at the 16th Congress would feel personally beholden to Zeng for their advancement.

Close ties

And despite Zeng's lack of a military appointment, he has with Jiang's backing been able to build up close ties with numerous generals in the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

By contrast, Hu, who has been a CMC vice-chairman since 1999, has been kept out of the loop by Jiang.

"Three likely inductees to the Politburo at the 16th Congress, Generals Cao Gangchuan, Guo Boxiong, and Xu Caihou, consult with Zeng on a regular basis," the Beijing source said.

"Hu, however, has minimal contact with the generals, who are collectively deemed the party's king-maker."

Equally significantly, the political fortune of Hu and his so-called Communist Youth League Faction seems to be waning.

One example cited by foreign diplomats is the Head of Hu's personal office, Ling Zhihua, who also doubles as a Vice-Director of the General Office of the Central Committee (GOCC), the Communist Party's nerve center.

"Until the spring, Ling was on the receiving end of special attention and even favors because of widespread expectation that after Hu has become party chief, he will be made GOCC Director," said an Asian diplomat.

"However, in the past two months, Ling has been snubbed even by cadres who are not members of the Shanghai Faction."

The big question then, is: If, as is likely, Zeng will be a major player in the post-16th Congress order, will he be a force for reform?

Political sources in Beijing said perhaps reflecting his fast-expanding clout, there had been a "revisionist look" at Zeng's career and thinking.

"There is no question that Zeng is significantly more liberal than Jiang or other members of the Third Generation," said a scholar who had worked in the GOCC.

For example, the academic said, when both Zeng and Jiang were members of the Shanghai party committee in the mid-1980s, Zeng had alerted Jiang, who was major and then party secretary, to new ideas about economic and political reform.

"Zeng and intellectuals in his circle had expressed interest in ideas ranging from instituting checks and balance within the party to the federal model of government," the scholar added.


Since becoming Director of the Organization Department in 1999, Zeng has played a pivotal role in promoting "inner party democracy," or boosting transparency and accountability in the party.

Initiatives taken by Zeng have included introducing cha'e ("competitive") elections to pick local-level party secretaries.

Until this innovation, a provincial party secretary had pretty much full authority in appointing the party bosses of counties and districts.

Zeng has also favored holding public exams to recruit officials of up to the level of vice-heads of departments of ministries and provinces.

The former vice-party secretary of Shanghai is among several key leaders to have pushed forward the idea of "elitist politics."

This means ensuring that members of "new classes" such as private businessmen and returnees from abroad will have a chance of becoming party and government cadres.

Liberal credentials

Despite Zeng's liberal credentials, however, many Beijing observers think his long-term reputation as Jiang's hatchet man may detract from his ability to lead the nation down the road of reform.

Zeng was a mastermind behind Jiang's sometimes ruthless campaigns to get rid of political foes such as former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong, former PSC member Qiao Shi, as well as the PLA's Yang brothers, former military strongman Yang Shangkun and his brother, former chief political commissar General Yang Baibing.

A source close to both the Hu and Zeng camps said Zeng had lately complained to Jiang about the "overweening ways" of Vice-President Hu.

"Zeng has told Jiang that it is Hu, together with some of the president's opponents on the PSC, who has blocked his assumption of full Politburo status the past two years," the source said.

"Zeng cited his own failure to get ahead despite Jiang's patronage as proof that, in his words, 'you [Jiang] are not that powerful after all'."

Indeed, quite a few diplomatic analysts believe that if Jiang was adamant about not retiring, one of his main goals would be to ensure that Zeng and other Shanghai Faction stalwarts would be able to grab enough power as to put a check on Hu and his Communist Youth League Clique.

It is understood that the president is afraid that Hu and other non-Shanghai Faction affiliates such as Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao – the front runner to become premier next spring – might revise the Jiang legacy even before his death.

However, if Zeng has played on the president's fear of the future to angle for his own advancement, the Jiang protégé will be perpetuating the most cynical aspects of dynastic politics -- and casting into doubt not only his commitment to reform but fitness for high office.




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