22 October 2016
Jiang Zemin (wearing black glasses) is flanked by Xi Jinping (right) and Hu Jintao (left). After retirement, Jiang continued to exert influence throughout Hu's tenure. Photo: Weibo
Jiang Zemin (wearing black glasses) is flanked by Xi Jinping (right) and Hu Jintao (left). After retirement, Jiang continued to exert influence throughout Hu's tenure. Photo: Weibo

What’s behind Xi Jinping’s revenge purges

Infighting within the Communist Party is nearing a climax, mainly involving supporters of Xi Jinping and forces loyal to former president Jiang Zemin known as the “Shanghai Clique”.

Xi has been purging Jiang’s allies in a withering anti-corruption campaign but people know his motive is to dismantle his predecessor’s remaining influence and supplant it with his own.

At the core of their differences is a web of political interests but what does this power struggle tell us?

To begin with, it has a long history.

Since he became party chief in 2012, Xi has been trying to regain control of the party apparatus by pushing out Jiang and his allies.

Jiang came into his own in 1989 when he was tapped by an increasingly isolated Deng Xiaoping after the paramount leader agreed to the use of force on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.

Less than three weeks after the bloody crackdown, Jiang was handpicked by Deng to be party secretary.

Compared to Xi, Jiang lacks a true communist pedigree.  

He was not born into a communist family and only joined the party after Shanghai fell to the People’s Liberation Army in 1949.

Xi, on the other hand, has “red” party credentials as a new-generation communist “princeling”. He is the second son of Xi Zhongxun, former chairman of the National People’s Congress and a founder of the People’s Republic.      

When Jiang rose to the top as an outsider, he was resented by those whose fathers had fought in the communist revolution and suffered the political purges that followed.      

Jiang was wary of this antagonism and never took any of the princelings into his confidence. They had no part in his reign.

Now that Jiang is retired, his trusted lieutenants have been falling by the wayside.

The most prominent is former security tsar Zhou Yongkang who was sentenced to life imprisonment last week.

Former Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu was removed from office in 2006. Central Military Committee vice chairman Xu Caihou died in March while awaiting trial and ex-railway chief Liu Zhijun was sacked in 2011.

All were of modest origins, except Zeng Qinghong, a close Jiang ally who was vice president from 2003 to 2008. Zeng’s father, Zeng Shan, was a former interior minister.

There is a list on Wikipedia’s Chinese webpage of disgraced senior communist officials since Xi took power. No one from the so-called “second-generation reds” has been jailed or disciplined.

Jiang was in power for 13 years until his retirement in 2004, second only to Mao Zedong who was party chief from 1945 to 1976.

Through his well entrenched cronies, Jiang continued to exert influence behind the scenes throughout the tenure of Hu Jintao who held power from 2002 to 2012.

It is said that before assuming office, Xi had visited second-generation reds to get their backing.

His allies are immune to the anti-graft crackdown and frugality campaign with the exception of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, son of former vice premier Bo Yibo.

But Bo Xilai was done in by his ambitions to be China’s supreme leader and by his brash, confrontational approach.

But why does Xi need all these “revenge” purges?

It all goes back to 1949-1966, a golden period for the second generation.

They were all poised to inherit power from their fathers but the Cultural Revolution changed everything.

During the decade-long turmoil, many of them died or were sent to labor camps. Some of the survivors were later vindicated and their political rehabilitation began.

When China launched reform and opening-up policies in the 1980s, they were ready again to come to power.

But with the Tiananmen crackdown and Deng’s appointment of Jiang as general secretary in 1989, they suffered another setback.

They had waited 20 years until Xi came along.

They have one thing in common — they want a closed, pure ruling elite made up of their own kind.

Politically, they want the party to return to its pre-Cultural Revolution roots. Economically, they won’t tolerate rival groups and diplomatically, they want a China-Russia alliance to counter US dominance and change the world order.

What Xi has done over the past few years — from a Chinese version of Washington consensus to curbs on political issues and civil society and reversal of Deng’s low-profile diplomacy, as well as initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the “One Road, One Belt” strategy — fits those objectives.

Hong Kong people should brace themselves for more thinly veiled interference from Beijing in the Xi era.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 11.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Xi Jinping (right) and Zhou Yongkang attend a party meeting. Zhou, China’s former security chief, is a Jiang Zemin loyalist. Photo: China Digital Times

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

EJI Weekly Newsletter