By Chris Johnson
The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party announced on September 1 that political highflier Ling Jihua had been reassigned from director of the CCP General Office to head of the party’s United Front Work Department. He was succeeded at the General Office by former Guizhou Provincial CCP secretary Li Zhanshu. Although nominally a lateral transfer, Ling’s move is effectively a step down in the CCP’s political pecking order. With the political wrangling related to the 18th Party Congress at a fever pitch, the changeover at the General Office—the nerve center of the CCP—has analysts searching for the move’s implications ahead of this fall’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Adding to the buzz are what appear to be highly authoritative leaks to Western and overseas Chinese media that Ling’s transfer was the result of a tragic and embarrassing scandal involving his son, which the senior leadership simply could not countenance in the wake of the fiasco that led to the ouster earlier this year of former Politburo member Bo Xilai.
As President Hu Jintao’s most trusted lieutenant and a key member of his inner circle, Ling Jihua has been a virtual extension of the president. Hu had hoped to promote Ling to the Politburo Standing Committee—China’s highest decision making body—at the Party Congress. Although always a long shot, Ling’s apparent downgrading makes that a virtual impossibility now. So how does Ling’s fall affect the balance of power among the key players in the succession?
Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin is probably the most immediate beneficiary. His early support for Bo Xilai risked putting him on his back foot in the succession sweepstakes. But Jiang seems to have seized on the Ling affair to come roaring back. He reportedly criticized Ling for seeking to cover up the crash and even held back a key investigative report for several months to maximize its political impact. If the press leaks are accurate, Jiang’s adroit manipulation of the incident is a political masterstroke on the eve of the handover, in what has become his signature move ahead of the last several Party Congresses. Assuming the fresh rumors positing that Jiang’s allies will easily outnumber Hu’s on the new Politburo Standing Committee hold, it will be a testament to the lingering influence of a leader who has nominally been retired for nearly a decade.
Vice president and heir apparent Xi Jinping also seems to have gained ground. The appointment of Li Zhanshu, a longtime Xi confidant, to head the General Office will give Xi a tremendous leg up when he succeeds Hu as party chief. By contrast, Hu was forced to accept a Jiang crony in the position for the first half of his tenure. The Ling scandal may also loosen Hu’s grip on the chairmanship of the CCP Central Military Commission, helping Xi avoid a staggered succession like the one from Jiang to Hu, where Jiang held on to the Military Commission chair for two more years before finally stepping aside for Hu.
Hu Jintao appears to have the weakest hand at this critical juncture in the leadership wrangling. Some media accounts have noted that Li Zhanshu’s ascendance through the Communist Youth League, Hu’s power base, suggests that Li’s appointment is a net neutral for the president, but the relevance of the CYL connection often is overstated, and Li’s ties to Xi probably are paramount. More importantly, the Ling scandal may have tarnished Hu’s chief asset—his reputation for honesty, transparency, and intolerance for corruption. If, however, Hu has sacrificed Ling to pursue other succession priorities, the impact on his political standing would be mitigated. Hu will need a strong showing at the Party Congress, such as Standing Committee seats for allies other than just virtual shoo-in Li Keqiang, to dispel the mounting doubts about his power and influence.
Mr. Christopher K. Johnson holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. To learn more you can read his CSIS Critical Questions on this topic here.
Christopher K. Johnson is a senior adviser and holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Prior to joining CSIS, Mr. Johnson worked as a senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.