"Sinocism is the Presidential Daily Brief for China hands"- Evan Osnos, New Yorker Correspondent and National Book Award Winner
21 years ago I was a student at Peking University, studying Chinese in the second semester of my junior year in college. My Chinese was not very good and I was generally quite clueless about China. The death of Hu Yaobang on April 15th initially meant nothing to me.
Yesterday, on the 21st anniversary of Hu Yaobang’s death, People’s Daily ran an essay by Premier Wen Jiabao-再回兴义忆耀邦-reminiscing about a trip he had made with then Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang in 1986 to Xingyi in Guizhou Province (UPDATE3: Hu Jintao was Party Secrectary of Guizhou during Hu Yaobang’s visit). The essay appeared on the top of Page 2 of the April 15 edition of People’s Daily (screenshot of Chinese version in the paper, Chinese version on web page). Chinageeks has a good translation of the entire piece-“Returning to Xingyi, Remembering Hu Yaobang”:
Yaobang has been gone for 21 years. It might console him now to know that the poor southwest he worried constantly about has seen earth-shaking changes. He spared no effort, and used a life’s vigor to fight for the nation following the correct path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and moving forward.
Starting in October of 1985, after I was transferred to the Central Office, I worked by Yaobang’s side for two years. I experience personally his close connection with the people, his concern for the people’s suffering, his excellent way [of being an official] and his unselfishness, his open and above-board-ness, and his moral character. I witness firsthand how completely he threw himself into his work, struggling day and night for the Party’s cause and for the people’s interests. What he taught me in those years is engraved on my heart, and his constant leading by example keeps me from [allowing myself to] be lazy. The way he handled things had a huge influence on my work, studies, and life.
In January of 1987, Hu no longer held the office of the General Secretary of the Communist Party2 , and I often went to his home to visit him. On April 8th, 1989, when Yaobang was sick and there was a struggle to save him, I was always by his side. On the 15th, when he suddenly passed away, I came to the hospital as soon as possible. On December 5, 1990, I took his casket to his burial place in Gongqing, Jiangxi. After his passing, I have visited his home every year for the new (lunar) year, and it is always with a deep feeling of love that I look on his portraits in the living room there. His long gaze and firm expression always give me strength, give me encouragement, and drive me to be more diligent in my work of serving the people.
Returning to Xingyi again to reflect on the past and remember Yaobang, I have written this essay, and placed within it my cherished memories of him.
The essay caused quite a buzz in China and in the western press, with many people speculating on Premier Wen’s real motive in writing this on the anniversary of Hu Yaobang’s death. Observers have floated several theories.
A Wall Street Journal article wrote that:
Jing Huang, a professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said the article signals that Mr. Wen and Chinese President Hu Jintao, who is also Communist Party chief, have “prevailed in a struggle over conservative forces and reached a new consensus” on political reform—albeit gradual reform under the party’s guidance.
Mr. Huang said, for example, that the two leaders want to institutionalize the transition of power to the next generation of top party officials late 2012, and carve out a more substantive role for the country’s legislature, which is now largely ceremonial.
“Hu Yaobang is the perfect person to highlight the importance of political reform as well as the Party’s leadership in the reform,” Mr. Huang said.
Others saw a different motive. “This has nothing to do with political reform,” said an editor at a government-run newspaper. “It’s about Wen’s reputation.”
The New York Times, in Chinese Premier Offers a Tribute to a Reformer, wrote that:
Analysts poring over that and other parts of Mr. Wen’s text were divided over their meaning. Some suggested it was an opening salvo in the political jockeying to choose China’s next generation of leaders, who will take office in 2012. Others saw in the essay a veiled jab at China’s current ruling elite, which has come under increasing fire for economic policies that, in some minds, favor the rich over average people.
The article could also be viewed as a calculated effort by China’s leadership to placate intellectuals, journalists and some retired party officials who still regard Mr. Hu as a reformist unjustly shunted aside by more risk-averse bureaucrats.
“This is an attempt to co-opt those elements of the party and the party leadership who may be discontented with the pace of political reform,” said David Shambaugh, a George Washington University scholar who has written extensively on Chinese politics. “It is not a shot across the bow at anybody.”
Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said that by paying tribute to the well-liked Mr. Hu, the party might hope to enhance its image and “derive some moral resources for itself.”
In a post on the Wall Street Journal’s excellent China Real Time Report Blog, Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst and professor, was less sure of what this essay may or may not actually mean:
So, is Premier Wen speaking for himself, or is he leading a reformist charge? Against whom? Is this simply nostalgia in the period before Wen passes from the political scene, or is this an attempt to kick-start support from a society that has been sometimes reluctant to support the newly indigent, those left behind by economic success? Who precisely does Premier Wen represent when he runs such risks? Is he trying an end-run around the bureaucracy and hardliners bent on deflecting political reform, or is this the sign of a turn in the road toward the sort of transformation in governance that some have been urging?
What makes Wen’s essay and the accompanying rumbles of support for Hu Yaobang extraordinary is that just when some thought that the leadership here had settled itself, the political ground is showing the sorts of cracks that typically portend something is about to break. How much of an earthquake this is for the succession process here in Beijing is still unclear, but the aftershocks need to be monitored very closely.
The issue is why the need to send such an emotional signal.
One possibility is that Hu Jintao is trying to send a strong signal of the CYL’s [Communist Youth League] power in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress. But if that were the case, why not just write such an article himself. I am sure Hu can conjure up many emotional anecdotes of his former mentor.
Finally, we come to the hypothesis that Wen Jiabao himself is in deep trouble and may be under threat of being removed. I find this possibility the most reasonable. In essence, Wen may feel that he is under direct threat of being removed or may implement a policy which puts him in danger of being removed. As either a last ditch effort or an insurance policy, he writes this article to rally HYB [Hu Yaobang] sympathizers on his side in case his enemies move to remove him from power.
In particular, I was struck by the paragraph on Hu YB’s insistence of working despite being ill. We know of course that “illness” has historically been used to sideline or remove top officials in China (Chen Yun, Li Peng…etc.). It seems that Wen is saying through that passage that “as a loyal student of HYB, I would never let illness stop me, so you shouldn’t believe people if they say I am stepping down due to illness.” All this may be related to the possible implementation of the property tax, which may indeed place Wen under the threat of removal by powerful interests.
So what does Wen Jiabao’s public reminiscence mean? I don’t know, but in good China pundit tradition that will not stop me from postulating the following:
1. Wen Jiabao always felt genuine affection, respect and loyalty for Hu Yaobang and is writing from his heart;
2. Wen’s essay is a salvo in the continued jockeying for the makeup of the new leadership at the 18th Party Congress in 2012. Cheng Li, one of the most respected scholars of Chinese politics, has delineated two main factions–the Populists, with officials who rose through the Communist Youth League at its core, and the Elitists:
The Populist Coalition is currently led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. At the core of this faction are the Tuanpai: those leaders who moved up through the Chinese Communist Youth League (Hu Jintao’s power base). This faction (the Red Team) also includes party functionaries (among them, the new left intellectuals) and rural leaders, especially those from China’s inland provinces (we call them China’s Red States).
The Elitist Coalition includes the ‘princelings’ (children of high ranking officials), the ‘Shanghai Mafia’, entrepreneurs and capitalists, returnee’s (foreign educated Chinese nationals, or what the Chinese call the ‘sea turtles’), and urban leaders from China’s coastal region (China’s Blue Team).
(UPDATE1: I have been reminded in the comments that I forgot to caveat the mention of this factional model for elite Chinese politics. I don’t think it is nearly this clean, but it is the best framework I have seen.)
It is worth remembering that Hu Yaobang was the first head of China’s Communist Youth League, leading it as First Secretary from 1957-1978. Hu Yaobang’s family (along with the families of many of the 1st and 2nd generation leaders) is still quite powerful, more than most Western observers tend to realize;
3. Wen, in paying “homage” to Hu Yaobang, is trying to cement not only his legacy and reputation but also solidify power and influence for himself after he officially retires, in large part by winning leadership positions for his “proteges”;
4. Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, whose early career was also aided by Hu Yaobang, understand better than anyone that China’s current state of development is out of balance. I don’t mean in the “exports vs. consumption” way that features in the RMB revaluation debate. I mean that development is far too corrupt and far too skewed towards state-owned enterprises, real estate, urban areas and elites, at the expense of the masses and rural citizens. Hu and Wen understand that without a rebalancing of development priorities and a meaningful reduction in some of the more egregious corruption there could be significant risks to the stability of the government. Harkening back to Hu Yaobang may be a signal that more substantive and muscular policies are coming that will lead China to act a bit more like a Socialist country. UPDATE4: In what may be a concrete example of this supposition, On April 17 the State Council issued new policies designed to cool off the real estate market.
I was totally clueless when I first lived in China 21 years ago. I am still mostly clueless, especially about subjects like elite Chinese politics, but I take solace in the fact that, given the nature of the political system here, most Chinese are just guessing too.