Posted:  Nov. 23, 2012

 

After years of planning and preparation, China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition has been accomplished.  The new team sworn in on November 15 at the conclusion of the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is headed by Xi Jinping  [習近平] in the post of General Secretary and Li Keqiang [李克強].  These two will hold office for five year terms, scheduled for renewal in 2017, if all goes well.  Once their corresponding government positions have been confirmed at the next annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in early 2013, the two men will also be head of state and head of government, or president and premier, respectively.  Xi is replacing Hu Jintao [胡錦濤] currently president and until last week head of the party.  Li will replace Premier Wen Jiabao [溫家寳] who has also just stepped down from his leading party post.  Xi and Li are currently Vice-President and Vice-Premier.

FROZEN IN TIME

          Hong Kong newspapers including even that one-time colonial mainstay, the South China Morning Post, are now covering such events so carefully that they conjure up memories of graduate school days when taking a course in Chinese government and politics meant having to master all those intimidating organization flow charts.  They featured pages of interlocking vertical and horizontal party and government positions extending everywhere from the center downward to the smallest three-person branch in what now seems like some archaic design from an almost forgotten era … forgotten everywhere but here.

Unlike the old days, national party congresses are now held regularly once every five years.  The week-long 18th Party Congress brought together 2,307 delegates selected from among the CCP’s 82 million members.  Delegates were chosen by local leaders in a months-long filtering process earlier this year that extended upward from the branches to committees at county, city, and provincial levels.  Military units, central government bodies, and state enterprises did the same.  Central inspection teams ultimately recommended names from among 42,800 nominees (China Daily, Nov. 17).

Bottom of the lists, number-wise, was the 28-member “Hong Kong and Macau Work Committees and All-China Taiwanese Association” (SCMP, Nov. 10).  Most members of this combined delegation were not named in deference to the party’s still unacknowledged “underground” status in those three “white” regions where it is not yet the sovereign ruling “red” authority.  Among the 16 from Hong Kong, however, about half were reportedly mainlanders working in Beijing’s local Liaison Office and elsewhere who were named.  The locals were not, and one of the Liaison Office officials denied that he was attending in his capacity as a member of the Hong/Macau committee (Apple, Nov. 7; Wen Wei Po, Nov. 8; Ming Pao Daily, Nov. 17).

During this year’s meeting, the 2,000+ delegates selected from among their number a 205-member Central Committee with 171 alternate members.  Much has been made in recent years of proposals for introducing intra-party democracy.  But the election procedures seem like those for Hong Kong’s delegation to the National People’s Congress, with recommended ranked short lists through two rounds of voting when the secretariat’s pre-determined final version is approved … give or take a few members.  For the 18th Central Committee balloting, there were 9% more candidates in the first round of voting than seats to be filled.  These candidates were earlier narrowed down from a list of 700+ nominees with the outgoing top national leaders doing the vetting to produce the names on the ballots. The final round was a rubber-stamp formality for the 205 remaining candidates.  The process was also made easier by the division of candidates into three lots or one each for the leaders of central government ministries and equivalent bodies; provincial military commanders; and their civilian provincial counterparts or party secretaries and governors (Ming Pao Daily, Nov. 15).

Even more opaque were procedures for selecting the next step up, namely, the 25-member Political Bureau or Politburo and its Standing Committee.  The outgoing 17th Central Committee reportedly held a “democratic recommendation” meeting last May to indicate the preferences of those ranking party leaders for their successors.  From there on it was pure factional bargaining and horse-trading all the way.

In fact, wrangling over the succession has been on-going for years and continued almost right up until curtain time with some spectacular scandals, rumor-mongering and salacious gossip heightening uncertainties all around.  According to one report, the old boys ultimately settled on a straw poll to break the deadlock.   The pyramid of power was topped out with a seven-man Politburo Standing Committee headed by Xi and Li.  Both men were ranking members of the outgoing Politburo Standing Committee.

Afterward, the official talking points were all about peace and tranquility.   Balance was achieved, continuity assured, stability, consensus, orderly succession, and so on.  Others called the line-up experienced in economics, politically orthodox, and dead-end conservative.  One of the seven was educated in North Korea, of all places, and is known as an old-style hard-line enforcer of party policies.  Another acquired a similar reputation as head of the party’s propaganda department where he has held sway for the past decade. If this team represents balance and continuity, then prospects for a more enlightened political touch are not very bright.

IMPLICATIONS FOR HONG KONG?

         Key to the wheeling, dealing, and meddling were party elders intent on perpetuating their influence and factional alignments.  Outgoing leader Hu Jintao and his predecessor Jiang Zemin [江澤民] headlined all such rumors and reports and Hong Kong’s fate now seems destined to fall under the latter’s shadow.  Hu Jintao’s power base is the Communist Youth League but he has been upstaged in the struggle for influence and appointments by his own predecessor, the aging Jiang Zemin.  Jiang stepped down in 2002 and seemed to disappear from the political stage only to reemerge as a dominant force in time for this year’s congress.   His power base was originally Shanghai and now includes the famous “princeling” set or descendents of the revolution’s founding fathers.  Jiang himself had been the choice in 1989 of then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and is presumably trying to maintain what he sees as the rightful line of succession.

Reform-minded liberals have been disappointed by the tenure of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao since they seemed to promise what was not delivered.   In contrast, Jiang Zemin’s people (five of the top seven new leaders including Xi but not the Youth League’s Li) evoke no such hopes so reformers think they know what to expect.  And for sure, one thing Hong Kong critics need not expect is the early departure of their newly installed Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying … associated as he is with the Xi Jinping line of descent.

Leung has not had a moment’s peace since his selection was confirmed last March and a few local pundits keep floating the possibility of a speedy re-deployment.  They follow the logic of Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho whose attempt to disqualify CY Leung on grounds he misrepresented himself as a candidate has now been rejected by multiple court judgments.  All such ideas were similarly given short shrift as congress delegates gathered in Beijing  (Wen Wei Po, Standard, Nov. 9; Ming Pao Daily, SCMP, Nov. 10).  Their unexplained reasoning is locked firmly into the victorious leadership line-up there and CY Leung’s ties thereto.

Earlier this year, some observers had tried to make sense of Leung’s candidacy by interpreting the contest between him and already anointed front-runner Henry Tang as an extension of the national level maneuvering between Hu Jintao’s allies and Jiang Zemin’s “Shanghai  gang.”  Speculation about CY Leung’s possible admission to the Youth League in the 1980s gave credence to this idea as did the fact that Henry Tang’s tycoon family hailed originally from Shanghai and had connections with Jiang Zemin.

This speculation ended a few months later with the revelation that Jiang Zemin’s people were in the frame for both Hong Kong candidates.  Besides what was actually going on in Hong Kong (Tang’s mistakes and Leung’s superior campaign), the balance tipped in Leung’s favor thanks to the backing of his old mentor Tung Chee-hwa.  CY Leung had worked with Tung throughout his tenure as Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive (1997-2005).  Tung has recently emerged as a close advisor to Xi Jinping with special reference to Hong Kong and the United States where Tung has long-standing business and political ties (Oct. 9 post).

Additionally, Xi himself has for the past five years headed the party center’s small group on Hong Kong.  This group was set up after the big 2003 demonstrations against Article 23 national political security legislation that shocked Beijing into realizing all was not going smoothly here.  Thereafter, Beijing did not back off  but has instead redoubled its efforts with a more hands-on approach via mainland Liaison Office personnel here and the promotion of multiple cross-border integration projects.  Xi is therefore entirely familiar with the Hong Kong scene and the years of his oversight are those when that approach and emphasis have continued to strengthen.

CY Leung would hardly be removed so soon after being installed with backing from the very highest level of Beijing authority, especially when he has been so forthright both in promoting the integration projects and in his Liaison Office associations.   Nor is he likely to be removed for failing to address Hong Kong’s pro-democracy concerns when neither his old mentor here, nor his mentor’s patron in Beijing, have demonstrated any concern for such reforms on either side of the border.  That Xi Jinping should rely on the advice of Tung, who was regarded by all as being tone-deaf  to local politics, is probably the best indication yet of what Beijing’s priorities will be for Hong Kong under Xi’s leadership.

HARMONIZING DISSENT

Besides reaffirming the security of CY Leung’s tenure, the second message from the Party Congress for Hong Kong is that Beijing is not primarily concerned with Hong Kong but with China’s sovereignty, security, and economic prosperity.  It follows that the endorsement of CY Leung is good only for now.  If Hong Kong on his watch becomes a drag in any of those respects he knows what to expect.  The experience of his mentor, Tung Chee-hwa, is a constant reminder that even backing from the very highest level in Beijing will not be enough to save him if, for example, protesters on the ground in Hong Kong reach the proportions provoked during Tung’s tenure as Chief Executive.

Jiang Zemin was still party leader when Tung was approved for his second term despite widespread local discontent with his administration.  But after its bungled 2003 attempt to force through Article 23 legislation made Hong Kong essentially ungovernable, the center stepped in and removed Tung mid-way through that second term.  CY Leung has thus inherited a difficult balancing act.  He must keep local tensions in check, by whatever standard, while continuing to promote Beijing’s mandate that now includes overt ongoing integration.  The Party Congress tried to show him the way it’s supposed to be done …  by talking peace and good will on the one hand, while reaffirming Beijing’s  goals on the other.  Conversely, there is a message for pro-democracy protesters and activists as well … about the dynamics of dissent and the value of protest.

“Harmony” has become a favorite code-word in recent years but it is only the latest variation on old (frozen-in-time) ways of selling the party line.   Beijing officials adapted the concept to paper over negative events and dissenting opinions.  Internet protesters try to outwit the censors by satirizing the antics of “river crabs” since the characters for harmony sound the same in Chinese but are written differently.

Ignoring the mockery on both sides of the border, officials in Beijing  … and here …  do their best to “harmonize” the growing mood of discontent by adapting the old catch-phrases and formulas.   These include underestimating protest turnouts and attempting to  discredit dissenters by dismissing them as only “a very small minority” of unhappy citizens, while the great silent majority go along with the official intentions.  This approach to dissent goes all the way back to revolutionary class-struggle days so it sounds very odd to hear current and retired Hong Kong officials (like Education Minister Eddy Ng and Professor Emeritus Lau Siu-kai who has just retired after a long stint as chief official  pollster) using identical language to dismiss Hong Kong protesters.  But the old formulas were on clear display as curtain time approached for the Party Congress … with their lessons both for CY Leung and for his pro-democracy detractors.

News reports immediately before and during the Party Congress were filled with such harmonizing platitudes whenever questions about Hong Kong were raised.   Several weeks before, however, two retired Beijing officials, local loyalists, and multiple editorials in the pro-Beijing press had conveyed some highly provocative views on Hong Kong’s new autonomy movement, the use of colonial emblems at demonstrations, opposition to national education, and so on.

The officials, Lu Ping and Chen Zuo’er, are well-known here for their roles in pre-1997 Sino-British preparations for the return to Chinese rule.   Chen, in town to promote his just-published memoirs, said it was “heartbreaking” to see colonial-style flags being carried in protest demonstrations 15 years after reunification.  Yet such sentiments, he said, were “spreading like a virus.”  Lu Ping was angry enough to write a letter to the SCMP calling protesters “sheer morons” and he accused them of agitating for independence.  Later he said they should pack up and leave Hong Kong if they didn’t like being Chinese (SCMP, Oct. 12, 26, 31, Nov. 1).

Loyalist Lew Mon-hung, famous for all kinds of explosive comments, provoked an angry uproar when he told a public forum that the autonomy movement was treasonous for advocating separatism.  He said the Basic Law’s Article 23 (stipulating that legislation be passed against treason, secession, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets, and foreign intervention) should be implemented forthwith in order to ban the expression of such sentiments (Ming Pao Daily, Apple, Oct. 29).

Then suddenly the inflammatory rhetoric ceased.  Another more highly placed loyalist, Rita Fan, came forward to say that Hong Kong enjoyed free speech, guaranteed in another of the Basic Law’s articles, and waving colonial flags was no big deal so no legislation was needed to prevent it (Apple, Oct. 30, Nov. 4).   Although (presumably) not a party member herself, she then lent her voice to the endorsements of CY Leung by congress delegates.  And all local authoritative sources have continued to say that Article 23 legislation is not on the agenda for his first term.  Prof. Lau Siu-kai said that, in any case, only a “very small number” of Hong Kongers entertained separatist sentiments.

Hu Jintao nevertheless reaffirmed, in his “farewell” address to the congress the same direct message he had delivered here in person on July 1 (July 20, 2012 post).  In this harmonized synopsis of that July speech emphasizing integration and patriotism, Hu said:   “The basic goal of the central government’s general and specific policies for Hong Kong and Macau is to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty, security, and development interests while maintaining the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macau.”   He then went on to repeat the usual promises about the “one country, two systems” principle with a high degree of autonomy, mutual support, harmony, and so on.

Next, he noted how the central government is acting and intervening to help the two regions:  by supporting their governments, promoting their economic development, improving people’s livelihood, and advancing the cause of “orderly democracy,” while also increasing economic ties and trade with the mainland, promoting exchanges and cooperation with the mainland in all fields, promoting patriotism, and guarding against the intervention of “foreign forces.”  Finally, he concluded the Hong Kong section of his address by saying that the center is convinced local compatriots have the ability to govern their regions while participating actively in national affairs and “sharing with other ethnic groups in China the dignity and glory of being Chinese” (text: Wen Wei Po, Nov. 9;  English trans., Global Times online, Nov. 18).

CY Leung has been given leave to pursue all his intervention projects … so long as they do not undermine the security and economic interests of the greater whole, which is Beijing’s number one concern.  Meanwhile, pro-democracy advocates have been given a five-year window of opportunity to try and secure basic rights and freedoms before the specter of Article 23 closes in again.  …  Or maybe not.  … Yesterday’s main pro-Beijing newspaper here published a lengthy article by a deputy director of the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing.  He made the now stock-in-trade accusations about foreign forces interfering in Hong Kong.  He also said local people are now expressing themselves in ways that offend against the “one country” principle.  He indicated that such expressions could be prevented if Hong Kong would only do what Macau did, in 2009, and enact the Article 23 legislation (Wen Wei Po, Nov. 22).

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