With China’s latest round of promotions, we have a chance to get an updated perspective on what is valued by the CPC, instead of relying on the claims from state media that the Party is looking to improve reforms and protect human rights.
Within the top 7 it is clear that as long as you are a Han male, in your late 50’s or early 60’s, (and have suspiciously dark black hair), there is no single path to power. Xi Jinping was well connected through his family and developed ties in the military before moving unobtrusively through the Party ranks, Li Keqiang found ties to Hu Jintao in the Communist Youth League (CYL), Zhang Dejiang established himself by outlining how to work with North Korea, Yu Zhengsheng hitched his career to Deng Xiaoping’s family, Liu Yunshan spent 30 years honing his prowess at propaganda, Wang Qishan built a reputation as a clever economic reformer and honest leader, and Zhang Gaoli quietly worked his way up the Party ladder by focusing on economic development in high-tech industries.
Most of them have been heralded for their success in economic development, but within a country that has seen some of the most rapid economic development in the world, it would seem that these are not the only 7 men with this on their resumes. It seems that for many of them being relatives of former high ranking officials or connections to recent leaders have been essential to their rise.
Of the seven, 5 of them were sent down to the countryside as “educated youth,” which was the start of their careers. Yu Zhengsheng seems to have avoided this because he was working on ballistic missile controls (and later radios), and Zhang Gaoli was involved with the CYL and petroleum. For many of them this was a time of “eating bitterness,” yet not a single one of them has spoken out about the period, in fact some have gone as far as saying that it was this point in their life that taught them to love the Party.
Which brings us to one of the most essential characteristics of rising to the top – an unquestioning loyalty to the Party. Their troubling records when it comes to human rights seem to suggest that there is no political fall out for abuses committed under their watch.
Xi Jinping cracked down on labor rights activists and house church members (Li Jianfeng received a sentence heftier than Liu Xiabo’s). Li Keqiang ignored the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in Henan province while he was the head, and had AIDS researchers and whistle blowers arrested. Zhang Dejiang, perhaps the individual with the worst record, covered up SARS as it was becoming an epidemic, had journalists arrested and publications closed, and approved a massive land grab that led to brutal force being used against peasants (over 20 were killed), his early fame came for limiting the number of North Korean immigrants into China. Liu Yunshan has been an ardent advocate of stricter controls over the media and the Internet. Yu Zhengsheng was a vocal opponent of democratic reforms, insisting that independent candidates be blocked from running at the local level. Zhang Gaoli was the head of Shandong province during the initial trial of Chen Guangcheng (Eric from Sinostand said that his promotion would be a sign that China is headed in a more conservative direction). It seems there is no injustice that would impede a Party member’s rise, as long as stability is maintained.
Wang Qishan seems to be the one bright spot among the standing committee as in the past he has promoted more transparent leadership that takes responsibility for its mistakes (although he has never asked the Party to take responsibility). His position within the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection seems to hold some promise for reform in an otherwise depressing line up.
Meanwhile pro-reform minded candidates Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, both failed to reach the highest level of government. While it is very difficult to know on what basis the other 7 were selected above the others, they all seem to lack any measure of dissent. Li Yuanchao was known for cracking down on polluters, handling mass incidents in a softer way, and worked to limit corruption in Jiangsu province. Li also came out strongly after Bo Xilai’s downfall, proclaiming that the era for ignoring human rights in the name of striking black (cracking down on illegal activity and organized crime) was over. Wang Yang has also been seen as taking a softer approach to handling unrest, and has been cultivating a reputation as a reformer (by Chinese standards). This seems to have been one factor precluding them from the promotion. Yet, Yu Zhengsheng’s co-operation in shielding Deng Xiaoping’s son from investigation for corruption did not hinder his career as much as his brother’s defection.
So despite repeated claims from People’s Daily that reform continues and that people’s rights are being protected, there is a strong signal from the top that economic growth is more important than political reforms, that blood lines and building guanxi are more important than one’s interest in serving the people, and that protecting human rights matters far less than protecting the Party’s interests. Until the Party excludes individuals with such spotty pasts from promotion, China’s local leaders will continue to emulate the human rights abuses and cover ups that are undermining its authority.