Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Asia Times Online
Hu brought down to earth
By a Special Correspondent
BEIJING - While most Chinese hearts soared with the launch on Wednesday morning of the spacecraft Shenzhou VI, which took two Chinese "taikonauts" into orbit, China's leader was in no mood to celebrate.
President Hu Jintao was conspicuous by his absence from the launch site to watch the liftoff from the heavily guarded Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert. And it is telling that as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Hu should have missed this important day for China's military.
One of Hu's deputies, Cao Gangchuan, the CMC second vice chairman, was present at the launch, and while Hu did show up at the aerospace office at Beijing, he had a long face before the cameras.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao led the throng of top cadre well-wishers on behalf of everything - the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) central committee, the state council and the CMC.
However, neither Wen nor any of the affiliates of the two principal officials, propaganda chief Li Changchun, and law-and-order chief Luo Gan, hold military office.
China's aerospace program, although it includes civilian participation, is a special task under the command of the General Armament Department of the CMC.
Hu's absence, and presumably his ill-humor, bear out rumors circulating in the higher reaches of power in China: he suffered a major setback at the 5th plenary session of the central committee of the CCP, which ended after four days of closed-door meetings in Beijing on Tuesday.
Hu, the nominal military chief, is believed to be particularly unhappy with his top brass.
None of the political objectives Hu had aimed for before the session were endorsed by the 354-member central committee in its 11th Five-Year Plan (2006 to 2010).
Hu's list had included speeding up political reforms, a pledge by all local authorities to submit to the macro-controls instituted by central CCP officials, and support from all cadres for the state leadership to attain a more prominent role in international affairs.
Instead, the communique issued at the close of the plenary session concentrated on economic reforms. There was no endorsement at all of macro-control nor the enhancement of China's stance on the international stage.
Political reform did get some space in the final plan. It was cited with the qualification of "proactively and stably" and placed among a list of miscellaneous issues, such as building a spiritual civilization, strengthening defense, maintaining the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macau, and the betterment of relations with Taiwan. These issues were all mentioned only briefly, meaning that while they might not be trivial, they were not a focus of the plenary session. This means, therefore, a slap in the face for Hu rather than a face-saving.
The plenary session also served to negate Hu's desire for "building a harmonious society". When Hu threw the idea out in February, he made no bones that it would be a cornerstone of his philosophies. Indeed, it was to replace the "Three Represent" theories of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Now, the notion of "building a harmonious society" has been scaled down to bread-and-butter matters such as medical benefits and food hygiene.
The only mark of Hu that remained intact was his rhetoric, such as "establishing the party for the public and ruling for the general populace". These slogans, as any educated person in China knows, are subject to interpretation, and therefore could mean everything - or nothing.
Throughout the history of the CCP since 1949, plenary sessions have served for the party's central committee to reaffirm its authority over all members and cadres. Well before this session, the major problem between central and local cadres was the issue of macro-control, especially on how to tackle the growing real-estate bubble. The lack of any endorsement of this key policy at the plenary session revealed total disregard by the mainstream of the central committee, which is usually crystallized as the Hu-Wen duo.
With benefit of hindsight, the setback of the Hu-Wen duo was in the cards.
In September, Wen delivered an important message to Shenzhen, saying that the Special Economic Zone adjacent to the financial hub of Hong Kong should develop a special status on the political front. Wen stated unequivocally that Shenzhen was being requested to become a pioneer in political reform. Li Hongzhong, the city's party boss, however, responded to the request by completely ignoring it.
Political observers in Beijing agree that there now appears to be two party centrals in China. On the table, and for the public to see, there is the Hu-Wen combine. Behind the curtains, there is a special "train" in which the "retired" party chief, Jiang, rides, free to roam the country. Only a few top leaders are allowed a special train, and it is a symbol of exclusive personal status.
Hu replaced Jiang as party chief in 2002, state president in 2003, and military chief last year.
Another indication of a schism at the top can be found on the website of the People's Liberation Army Daily, the official organ of the military. Among the list of special topics in the latest archive, half still bear Jiang's name, while Hu is almost invisible. The military paper also devoted little space to promoting the plenary session.
The events at the plenum do not necessarily mean that Hu and Wen will head a lame-duck government. Indeed, most of the central committee members of the current session are not the duo's choice. Whether Hu and Wen will have the upper hand in choosing central committee members for future sessions depends more on the support of retired party elders than serving committee members.
And the loss of face the two have experienced this week may help them gain sympathy from the elders, most of whom are known to support Hu and Wen from behind the scenes.
In this regard, the plenary session may not be as definitive a setback as it would be in a political party in the West.