Mail & Guardian

Do and dye, China's elders hang on

16 Nov 2012 00:00 | Tania Branigan

The late Mao Zedong, who was Communist Party chairperson until his death in 1976. (Reuters)

The late Mao Zedong, who was Communist Party chairperson until his death in 1976. (Reuters)

The melody to a long-forgotten song for the 1930s movie Jungle Princess. A hefty donation to a scholarship fund for poor ­students. Prominent seats at the women’s finals at the China Open.

From such apparently disparate strands, analysts discern a common theme: the re-emergence of China’s former party leaders as incumbents prepare to hand power to younger figures this week.

When the 18th party congress opened on November 8, the three generations took their places at the front of the dais in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. The anointed heir, Xi Jinping, commanded less attention than former general secretary Jiang Zemin, who was seated next to current leader Hu Jintao.

Other elders further down the table were easily identified by their fading locks – although former premier Li Peng, with his startlingly black brows, is clearly still wedded to the dye used by those in office.

The meeting, which concluded in Beijing on Wednesday, demonstrates the Communist Party’s attempts to institutionalise politics and contain the power of individuals. Introducing set terms and age limits was supposed to ensure smooth transitions.

But the enduring role of retired leaders illustrates the limits of that project and the extent to which power in China is still about personalities and patronage. “From Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin, to Hu Jintao, to Xi Jinping, the tradition carries on,” said independent scholar Chen Ziming.

Historical reputation
Although the elders might not challenge the incumbents’ overall stance, said Chen, “they do pay attention to key events, especially political reform, their historical reputation or evaluation, and their children or ­relatives’ career arrangements”.

Last year, 86-year-old Jiang was so low profile that a Hong Kong television station was forced to apologise for wrongly reporting his death, which had been widely rumoured. This year, he has met the Starbucks chief executive, attended a concert and written a verse for his old school.

Both People’s Daily, the official party newspaper, and a state television channel devoted coverage last month to former leader Li Lanqing’s search for the sheet music to Moonlight and Shadows from a Dorothy Lamour film. His patron, Jiang, had been able to write the song’s tune and lyrics from memory, it noted. It was, surmised analysts, a not particularly subtle hint about his continuing vigour and alertness.

Like former premier Li’s three million yuan ($4.8-million) donation to a scholarship fund and the attendance of another elder, Li Ruihuan, at the China Open, such forays into the public eye are intended to signal that retired leaders are still around and active, say analysts.

Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst, said their role reflected the hierarchical nature of Chinese political culture and the tendency to venerate the old – but also, paradoxically, the introduction of hard-and-fast retirement rules. “They don’t jump so much as they are pushed – and they are not reluctant to push back,” he said.

Mutual demands
Feng Chongyi, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Technology in Sydney, said that they mainly influenced personnel choices. Jiang is widely reported to have played a key role in the choice of the new politburo standing committee, the top political body, pushing out candidates favoured by Hu.

“The patronage networks are extremely important for the protection and promotion of senior officials in China. There are strong mutual demands between patrons and ­clients. Jiang and other elders are making desperate efforts to support their protégés,” said Feng.

But Jiang’s re-emergence may say as much about the party as about him. Some analysts think he has taken advantage of a vacuum; others see him as effect as much as cause, stepping in to voice broader frustrations with the current administration.

The sense that reforms have stalled during the past decade “helped Jiang Zemin rally a certain number of people – even leaders who didn’t belong to the Shanghai clique and are not particularly close to him”, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan of Hong Kong Baptist University.

But, he said, the intervention of elders contributed to the paralysis of the whole system as vested interests accumulated.

Xi boasts the advantages of a revered revolutionary family and the backing of Jiang, who is thought to have been critical in his elevation. Yet he will have two predecessors and many more elders in the shadows. “Are they [elders] going to trust Xi Jinping as the new chief executive of China and remain as board members meeting every year or so to evaluate results?” asked Cabestan. “The more retired emperors you have got, the more complicated the game is.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012

View the original online publication here