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Who Is the Current Target of What Deng Xiaoping Said 20 Years Ago?

February 6, 2012

18th Party Congress Watch (2)

Gao Wenqian, HRIC Senior Policy Advisor

A Chinese new year is just beginning, and the undercurrents in Chinese politics are already surging up. The countdown to the 18th Party Congress has started, and various factions within the Party are now in hand-to-hand combat, resorting to all sorts of weapons to try to overpower their opponents and get the upper-hand in the power transition.

Recently, mainland Chinese media used the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 southern tour to again bring out the late Party leader who died many years back. They used two things that Deng said during the southern tour to hint at what is happening now. It seems that there is more to it than meets the eye, and it has attracted a good deal of interest.

According to an article in Southern Daily, a journalist who had covered the 1992 tour said that what he “regretted most” about his reporting was that he left out two things that Deng said on the tour. The first was, “Don’t make political movements, and don’t engage in formalism; leaders have to be clear-headed and not let these things affect our work.” The other was, “When you get old, you need to know when to step down, otherwise you can make mistakes. . . . We old-timers should step down and devote ourselves to helping the young people take the stage.”

Just who are meant to be the targets of these two lines, hurled out at a time when the power struggle in advance of the 18th Party Congress is becoming red-hot? There are various ways to read this. My view is that Deng’s words are a double-edged sword that can smash others as well as hurt oneself—there can be no winner. Regardless of which Party faction it was that brought out these words, I am afraid the repercussion may go far beyond what was intended. Just who will be hurt by Deng’s words in the end is still too early to tell.

It is generally believed that it is Hu Jintao who is using Deng's words to strike at Jiang Zemin (General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, 1989-2003)—the “old man meddling in politics,” who was just recently “hovering between life and death”—because the retired Jiang is interfering in the power transition.

This is not an unreasonable interpretation because Deng Xiaoping’s speeches during his southern tour were directed at Jiang and Li Peng (Premier, 1987-1998), who were the central leaders at the time. Deng was extremely unhappy with Jiang and Li for shelving reform following the June Fourth crackdown, and because of their “anti-peaceful evolution” approach. Deng even said bluntly, “Who doesn’t pursue reform should step down.” It was only because Jiang, seeing that things were not going in the right direction, changed his tune quickly that Deng gave up his intention to change reins. And the reason for not making those utterances—about the need for clear-headedness and for old leaders to step down—public at the time was to not embarrass Jiang too much.

Yet, how can Deng’s criticism—“Don’t make political movements, and don’t engage in formalism”—not also be aimed at Hu Jintao? Hu’s lack of accomplishments since coming to office, his “empty talk,” his iron-fisted style of “security maintenance,” and his ten years of idling have caused China’s social conflict to worsen to a breaking point. Because of this, the Chinese people have given him the sobriquet of “Hu Tight Trap” (Hú Jǐntào, the characters for “tight trap” [紧套 ] being near homophones of his name), and the Party princelings have denounced him for “playing pass-the-parcel with a time bomb.” Deng Xiaoping’s “…old-timers should step down and devote ourselves to helping the young people take the stage” talk is also artillery for the Jiang faction to force Hu to relinquish all his positions during the 18th Party Congress and support Xi Jinping’s rise to power, leaving Hu in a bind.

As I see it, what is even more noteworthy than who is using Deng’s words to attack whom is what the attack implies about the political fight behind the scenes. That is, the infighting surrounding the power transition is so fierce and hard to settle that one could only use “the dead to crush the living”—use what remains of Deng Xiaoping's cachet to suppress one’s opponents. There have been “leaks” from the overseas media friendly with the Chinese authorities that the outcome of the 18th Party Congress is a “foregone conclusion,” but this is not so. Apart from the general consensus that Xi Jinping will become General Secretary of the CPC, everything else remains uncertain. It is precisely because there are so many uncertain factors that the authorities—deviating from conventional practice—announced that the 18th Party Congress will be convened “in the second half of the year,” as opposed to the more precise timeframe of autumn, so as to allow for more time for the various factions to settle.

To prevent internal power struggles from getting out of control, causing an explosion of social conflicts, and affecting the convening of the 18th Party Congress, the authorities have recently severely cracked down on civil society activists, subjecting dissidents to heavy sentences, detentions, and questioning, in an effort to “clean house” in advance of the 18th Party Congress.  

The dissident writer Yu Jie, who recently came to the United States in self-imposed exile, revealed the “bury alive” talk among the security forces: that is, if the authorities believe that their rule is in crisis, they can round up the 200 influential anti-Party intellectuals in mainland China and “arrest them all and bury them alive” overnight. These two words—“bury alive”—laying bare the sense of constant anxiety of those in power facing the end of their reign, have become the hottest buzzwords on the Chinese Internet in the New Year. If the conscience of the Chinese society is made to bear the consequences of these internal Party struggles, then should this kind of party-state system not be abolished?

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