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Shake-Up Could Be Shanghaied

Expected leadership changes in China's ruling party may pit Jiang's hometown proteges against likely heir's rural supporters.

November 12, 2002|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI — Beijing may be the seat of power for the Chinese Communist Party, but some of the capital's most formidable power brokers hail from Shanghai, China's financial center.

President Jiang Zemin has stacked the upper echelons of government with so many former comrades from his days as party boss of this coastal metropolis that they are collectively known in Beijing as the "Shanghai gang."

Many observers believe Jiang wants to maintain his influence after he steps down as party chief at the end of the 16th Communist Party congress, which is ongoing. Whether he will be able to do so depends largely on how many of his Shanghai associates he can shove through his powerful patronage mill.

Jiang's interests could collide with those of his heir apparent. Vice President Hu Jintao's power base derives from the poverty-stricken Chinese interior, where he spent most of his political career. Many of Hu's potential supporters come from provinces resentful of the perceived favoritism lavished on wealthy Shanghai.

A coastal-inland division could be a source of tension within the new administration, as well as a cause for optimism.

"Everyone is concerned about factional networks, but everyone tries to deny it," said Cheng Li, a China expert at Hamilton College in New York state. "The next step is to legitimize factional politics.... People can find representatives to voice their concerns. This is the biggest step toward more accountable government."

Genuine political reform is probably still years away. So far, the entire selection process for the leaders of the world's most populous nation has been shrouded in secrecy and defined by speculation.

In all likelihood, Jiang will pass the baton to Hu but also try to keep some power through his Shanghai proteges. But no one will know for sure until a new lineup is paraded before the cameras after the congress.

At the very top of the anticipated new lineup, perhaps second only to Hu, could be Jiang's right-hand man, Zeng Qinghong. He was Jiang's chief of staff in Shanghai, followed him to Beijing in 1989 and headed the party's powerful organization department, where he promoted Shanghai loyalists and pushed aside rivals.

Politburo members Wu Bangguo and Huang Ju, both Jiang proteges from Shanghai, are leading candidates to move up to the most powerful, seven-member Politburo standing committee. Chen Liangyu, who just replaced Huang as Shanghai party boss, is likely to be promoted to the Politburo.

Before Jiang became president in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre 13 years ago, Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping ruled China with absolute power, aided by the sheer force of their personalities. But the days of strongman politics are gone and the criteria for leadership have changed to administrative and regional expertise.

Jiang, who was trained as an engineer, turned to Shanghai to fortify his power base.

Shanghai, once a decadent colonial outpost, was also the founding place 81 years ago of the Chinese Communist Party. During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the fanatical Gang of Four, led by Mao's wife Jiang Qing, used the city as a headquarters.

As a result, Shanghai was cast aside and left to wilt in the early days of Deng's economic reforms. Jiang served quietly as the city's leader until the tumult following the Tiananmen Square anti-democracy crackdown in Beijing inadvertently gave Shanghai a new lease on life.

The Shanghai political express also launched the national political career of Shanghai Mayor Zhu Rongji. Zhu is expected to step down this week from the Politburo standing committee, and in March from the post of prime minister.

The biggest beneficiary of the pipeline has been the city of Shanghai itself. Until the era of the Shanghai gang, the fabled city once known as the Paris of the East had deteriorated into an industrial backwater.

After Jiang consolidated his power in Beijing in the 1990s, he showered his hometown with investment and favorable policies, and Shanghai blossomed again.

Jiang is rumored to want to retire in Shanghai. Back in Beijing, his supporters would make sure he retains influence.

It is still too early to know exactly who Hu's proteges are. His political viability so far seems to have depended on his ability to reveal as little of himself as possible. But he has cultivated some natural allies by working his way up the ranks through some of the country's most impoverished inland provinces, including Tibet and Guizhou.

Analysts say Hu knows better than to ignore the welfare of Shanghai, China's economic growth engine and showcase.

"A smart leader will use Shanghai to work for him rather than against him," said Hu Wei, a political scientist at Shanghai's Jiaotong University, Jiang's alma mater. Hu Wei is no relation to Hu Jintao.

These competing regional interests have the potential to balance each other as the two factions learn to tackle the country's mounting social problems. That would have been impossible under an all-powerful single leader such as Mao, who simply crushed any and all possible dissent.

"Hu and Zeng will learn to share their power," said Hu Wei. "It's a sign of progress."

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