The Power Struggle in China: Military Strongman Jiang Zemin vs. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao

by | Sep 14, 2004 | Asia, Military, POLITICS

The power struggle in Beijing between China’s military strongman, Jiang Zemin, and the country’s two reformist government leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, is of momentous importance to the United States and East Asia. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prepares for its Fourth Plenum this month, reportedly on September 15, the world […]

The power struggle in Beijing between China’s military strongman, Jiang Zemin, and the country’s two reformist government leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, is of momentous importance to the United States and East Asia. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prepares for its Fourth Plenum this month, reportedly on September 15, the world will get a clearer idea of which way Asia’s most populous, and arguably its most powerful, state is headed.

To put it in simple terms, Jiang’s faction represents an ideology of nationalism with a stress on the primacy of the military’s needs to ensure a prosperous and strong nation. [1] Hu and Wen represent moderation and reform in society and politics, balanced and sustainable economic development across all geographic and demographic strata, and international cooperation and global coordination without the constant stress on “using force to resolve the Taiwan question”.

To be honest, the political maneuverings in Beijing aren’t exactly a “power struggle”. President Hu and Premier Wen are vastly outmatched in the political structure by Jiang Zemin, who chairs the Communist Party’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), and his conservative cohort collectively known as the “Shanghai Faction”. Chairman Mao Zedong’s dictum was “All power flows from the barrel of a gun,” and thus, as CMC chairman, Jiang is commander-in-chief of the military – which ultimately trumps Hu’s titles as national president and party general secretary. Consequently, any “struggling” undertaken by Hu and Wen is constrained within the context of a power structure already dominated by Jiang.

But Hu and Wen almost gained the upper hand during last year’s severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic when Jiang’s cronies were seen throughout the country as having covered up the extent of the contagion and the military hospitals in Beijing kept secret the hundreds of cases they had treated in the months before the SARS outbreaks came to light. [2] Demonstrating minimal courage, Jiang and his top lieutenants actually evacuated Beijing in April 2003 and ordered Hu and Wen to stay behind to handle the crisis. [3]

And they handled it well. Moreover, they used their free hands in Beijing to loosen the propaganda fetters on the nation’s media and encouraged timely, truthful and penetrating reportage, not only about SARS but also about corruption, the environment, crime – and political reform. President Hu’s people spread the word among Western reporters in Beijing that he would try to push reform of local elections, strive for more transparency in party and government functions, and broaden inner-party debate. [4] And when a heroic military surgeon went on the record with foreign reporters about the SARS cover-up, Hu approved a press campaign praising the whistleblower, whose face appeared on the cover of several Chinese magazines with the caption “the people’s interest is supreme above all”. [5]

In another bold stroke, President Hu (also general secretary of the CCP) canceled a key party meeting at the seaside resort town of Beidaihe. It was praised as a “populist move for good government”, but observers also saw it as an effort to avoid a showdown with the Jiang Zemin faction before he had consolidated his own gains. [6]

Jiang stifles talk of political reform

But it was not to be. By late summer 2003, Jiang et al had returned to Beijing, and the wraps were thrown back on talk of “political reform”, the media were lashed down, and the pro-Jiang propaganda minister warned senior editors and media executives that “some people have used SARS to advocate for … independent media and the West’s so-called democracy and separation of powers”. [7] Duly cowed, the media returned meekly to the control of the Jiang faction, and remain there to this day.

But media freedom and political reform aren’t the only areas where President Hu and Premier Wen have displayed their reformist credentials against the Shanghai faction’s hard line. The Hu-Wen line on national security and foreign policy is moderate, peaceful and progressive. The Jiang line, crafted by his top political strategist Zeng Qinghong (also the country’s vice president), stresses a rapid military buildup, stamping out democracy in Hong Kong and the use of force against Taiwan. During the July 2003 political crisis in Hong Kong over efforts to pass draconian anti-treason legislation that would have subjected Hong Kong’s media to vague Chinese laws on revealing “state secrets”, President Hu’s faction told Hong Kong politicians that they had “no views about the content or the timing of the legislation”, while Jiang’s propaganda czar demanded that the laws be passed “on time and as written”. [8] To avoid further missed signals to the Hong Kong body politic, Zeng was put firmly in charge of Hong Kong policy, [9] and thenceforth democrats in Hong Kong were labeled “traitors”. [10]

Political discourse in Hong Kong has been considerably chilled in the intervening year. Media commentators have been threatened, democratic activists have been threatened with death, pro-democracy politicians are denied visas to China (or, if they get them, they are “discovered” consorting with mainland prostitutes and thrown in jail). [11] Comparing the “two lines” on Hong Kong, one can see a bright line separating the moderates on the Hu-Wen side from the totalitarians on the Jiang-Zeng side.

Nowhere is this clearer than the ongoing debate about what is called “China’s peaceful rise”. Last November, President Hu’s senior foreign-policy idea man, Zheng Bijian, delivered a speech to an international gathering in Bo’ao, Hainan, in which he outlined a vision of China and Asia “rising together” in peace and prosperity in an era of economic globalization. [12] Zheng had headed the Central Party School when Hu was still China’s vice president (and the ex-officio president of the Party School), but he now heads a think-tank associated with Hu called the “Reform and Opening Forum”.

Premier Wen Jiabao introduced US audiences to the concept of China’s “peaceful rise” at Harvard University last December 10. [13] The premier explained that China “must more fully and more consciously depend on our own structural innovation, on constantly expanding the domestic market, on converting the huge savings of our citizens into investment, and on improving the quality of the population and scientific and technological progress to solve the problems of resources and the environment”. This wholly economic focus of China’s development strategy, he said, was “the essence of China’s relative peaceful rise and development”.

‘Peaceful rise’ first championed by Hu

President Hu took the phrase as his own in a speech marking Chairman Mao’s 110th birthday last December, and again in February at a “collective study session” held for the CCP’s Politburo. In April, another pro-Hu scholar published a lengthy theoretical discourse on “China’s Choice of a Peaceful Rise and its Strategic Conceptualization”. [14] Ironically, the article filled a page in Shanghai’s Liberation Daily newspaper and outlined a dramatic vision of a China that cooperates with its neighbors in Asia and the world on environmental, health, resource and energy matters, and would coordinate its own rapid economic growth with the needs of its neighbors to avoid drastic dislocations. A focus on making China’s economy interdependent with its neighbors, rather than eclipsing them, was the centerpiece of this “Strategic Concept”. And it even advocated the revaluation of China’s currency to make imports from neighboring countries more attractive in China’s domestic markets.

More startling was the article’s caution against military adventurism. It looked back to the rise of pre-World War II Japan and Germany and to the Cold War Soviet Union and said China’s neighbors saw similar developments in China. “To be frank,” the writer added, “these kinds of concerns are not wholly unreasonable.” He cautioned that “with military moves, one can be victorious for a time, but they cannot bring an extended period of security”. Nowhere in the lengthy commentary was the word “Taiwan” ever used.

But this was too much for the Jiang Zemin faction. From that point on, “peaceful rise” was a phrase the faction could not abide. Chinese officials have told this writer that Jiang himself gave orders in mid-May that “peaceful rise” was either to be redefined or simply dropped altogether.

But by that time, “peaceful rise” had become so embedded in the CCP’s lexicon that the only option was to redefine it. Through July and August, President Hu’s “strategic concept” of a “peaceful rise” was gutted, and its innards were replaced with distinctly warlike rhetoric. Not surprisingly, military commentators explained that no country can have peace without a strong military. [15]

This view was finally ordained as policy in an article last Wednesday that appeared in the official organ of the Central Party School, now under the control of Vice President Zeng Qinghong, Jiang’s ally. In a provocative commentary titled “Is China’s peaceful rise possible?” the authors begin by saying, “There are two arguments against the idea: one is the Taiwan question, and the other is relations with the United States.” [16] No one should think, it said, that “peaceful rise” means China cannot “take the matter of China’s resolution of the Taiwan Question by force as a last resort”, because “to carry out the unification of Taiwan by force of arms is a legitimate right” and a “sacred mission”. The authors continued, “Even less can you confound black and white, and say something like China is threatening the ‘security’ of some people, challenging some people’s ‘peace’.”

Further, the article said, if foreign countries (read: the United States) challenge “China’s unification” and its “one China” principle, “then those strong nations will be interfering in China’s internal affairs, and destroying China’s peaceful rise, and this absolutely is not a question of whether China is rising peacefully or not”.

For Jiang, Taiwan a big exception to ‘peaceful rise’

The Central Party School commentary concludes that it is fortunate “Americans regard getting involved in wars … especially getting involved in foreign wars that are unjust, all as something that [should] be done very carefully”, because this is a “basic restraint on the American government’s decisions to go to war”. For the Jiang faction, Taiwan is a very big exception to “peaceful rise”. Americans see democratic Taiwan as a part of communist China in the same way that Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation, and hence understand China’s legitimate (indeed “sacred”) right to invade it, the commentary argued. The American people will oppose their government’s efforts to engage in such an “unjust” war against China, it said. This truly is a dangerous assumption.

Japan, it seems, is another big exception to the “peaceful rise” concept. At the end of June, Georgetown University Professor Robert Sutter wrote that “Chinese officials and specialists also admit that Japan poses a special problem for China’s peaceful and moderate approach to Asia”. [17] And given China’s renewed historical claims on the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo, it doesn’t seem that “peaceful rise” is necessarily a key component of Beijing’s relations with Seoul. [18]

Despite the harsh and persistent propaganda attacks on the United States and its support for Taiwan, some Western reporters persist in the fiction that Jiang emphasizes “the relatively cordial relationship he built with the United States in the late 1990s”, as opposed to President Hu’s supposed Europhilia. [19] Quite the opposite is true. As the Central Party School article shows, in inner councils Jiang’s attacks on the US are a staple of his new “army first” policy that sets military modernization as the key to a paramount task of “unifying the motherland”.

If anything, Jiang argues that his hardline stance on Taiwan has intimidated Washington, and hence that his US policy has been successful. At the highest levels of China’s leadership, Jiang has won the debate over China’s “peaceful rise”, and it is an ominous sign for the United States and its friends and allies in East Asia.


1. For an insightful analysis of the new primacy of military needs, see Peng Zhiping, Qiang bing zai fu guo? Zhonggong tiaozheng jianjun fangzhen (Strengthen the army and then enrich the nation? The Chinese communists adjust their army building guidelines), Taipei, China Times, July 26. Peng, however, attributes this new policy direction to Hu Jintao. Arthur Waldron and I see it as Jiang Zemin’s. See Arthur Waldron and John J Tkacik Jr, China’s power struggle, Asian Wall Street Journal, August 13, p A-11.

2. Willy Lam, Crises chisel at the PLA’s credibility, Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, Volume 3, Issue 10, May 20, 2003.

3. Surprisingly, as of last Saturday, this news still appeared on the People’s Daily website as Beijing SARS baofaxing manyan, shimin bei yanli xianzhi li jing, Jiang Zemin Huang Ju tiaowang Shanghai (Beijing SARS epidemic slows, urban residents strictly limited in departing city, Jiang Zemin and Huang Ju flee to Shanghai), People’s Daily, April 26, 2003. See also Tang Qing, Jiang Zemin ‘flees to Shanghai’: Internetters bombard Jiang and his cast for being ‘ignominious’, Association for Asian Research (AFAR), May 4, 2003. Tang cites e-mails on the Beijing university students Internet news page. However, I have not been able to locate these postings on the Beijing University site. Also see praise for Premier Wen Jiabao and Vice Premier Wu Yi for their solidarity with students during the SARS crisis.

4. Several foreign correspondents in Beijing reported this; for example, see John Pomfret, Outbreak gave China’s Hu an opening, president responded to pressure inside and outside country on SARS, Washington Post, May 13, 2003, p A01. See also James Kynge, “China sets up secret review of constitution”, London, Financial Times. June 12, 2003, p A-3. But they were disappointed when Hu was unable to deliver. See Joseph Kahn, China’s leader gives no sign of changes to come, New York Times, July 2, 2003, p A3.

5. Li Qing, Jiang Yanyong: Renmin liyi gao yu yiqie (Jiang Yanyong: The interests of the people is supreme over all), Beijing, Shenghuo Zhoukan (Lifeweek magazine), July 29, 2003.

6. For a full discussion, see John Tkacik, China’s power struggle by the sea, Asia Times Online, August 20.

7. Charles Hutzler, Beijing strives to match changing nation’s pace, Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2003.

8. See Zheng Hanliang, 23 tiao zenma xiu, zhongyang liangtiao luxian? (How to revise Article 23, are there two lines at the center?), Taipei China Times Online, July 7, 2003. One report said that pro-China Executive Council member James Tien met with United Front Work Department chief Liu Yandong, “a known protege of President Hu Jintao” (see Wong Kwok Wah, HK leader loses the mandate of heaven, Asia Times Online, July 9, 2003). “Mr Tien flew back to Hong Kong from Beijing saying two senior Chinese officials had told him that Hong Kong was free to decide the timetable and content of the security legislation on its own” (see Keith Bradsher, Hong Kong delays security bill after cabinet member quits, New York Times, July 7, p A-2).

9. Cannix Yau, “Zeng Qinghong in charge of HK affairs, Beijing leaders appear united”, Hong Kong, The Standard, March 22. See also War of words over Martin Lee’s trip to US intensifying, Taipei Times, March 9, p 5.

10. The term “traitor” was used universally by China’s allies in Hong Kong against democracy activists, leaving the impression that the term is officially sanctioned by Beijing. See Crowd harasses HK opposition lawmaker, calls her traitor, Associated Press, July 12; Alexandra Harney and Mure Dickie, “HK democracy leader shows faith in China”, Financial Times, March 8; HK braces for march attacking China’s stance on democracy, Associated Press, June 30. China was far from embarrassed at this, and in fact began to charge that democracy activists were “virtually accusing” Hong Kong businessmen “of being traitors ready to sell out Hong Kong’s future in exchange for investment interests on the mainland”. See You Nuo, “Clamour of radical politicians a disservice to SAR”, China Daily, May 17.

11. See, among others, Albert Cheng, “Dwindling freedom of speech”, South China Morning Post, May 17; Revealed: How the radio hosts were intimidated, Hong Kong Spike, July 9-15, pp 6-7; Keith Bradsher, Democracy supporters march in Hong Kong, New York Times, May 31; Keith Bradsher, 3rd radio host quits, citing China pressure, New York Times, May 20.

12. Lai Jinhong, “Dalu xin zhanlue, heping jueqi, xiaomi Zhongguo weixielun, Hu Jintao xialing qian zhongyang dangxiao fuxiaozhang Zheng Bijian dialing Banzi quanli ‘da zao'” (PRC’s new strategy, peaceful rise, antidote to the China threat theory, Hu Jintao orders former Central Party School vice president Zheng Bijiang to lead group to craft theory), New York, World Journal (in Chinese), December 16, 2003, p 2. See also Peaceful rise: Even when China is trying hard to be conciliatory, it scares its neighbours, London, The Economist, June 24.

13. See text of speech by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at Harvard University, Remarks of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, ‘Turning your eyes to China’ Harvard University, December 10, 2003.

14. Huang Renwei, Zhongguo heping jueqide daolu xuanze he zhanlue guannian, Shanghai Jiefang Ribao (Liberation Daily), April 26, posted on at the People’s Daily Internet site.

15. PLA Senior Colonel Zhang Yusheng posits that a strong military is a prerequisite to a “peaceful rise” – the stronger the better. “Ever since ancient times, human society exhibited only a single phenomenon, and that is that when the army is stronger, warfighting is less. ‘Building an Army’ not only ‘wins wars’ but it can ‘stop wars’. In an era of globalization, informationization, pluralization, this postulate is only more relevant. As such, insofar as a major country that seeks a ‘peaceful rise’ is concerned, training and army or not, whether the army is trained more or less, the conclusion is self-evident.” His and other commentaries by senior PLA generals were posted on the People’s Daily website on the eve of the August 1, Army Day.

16. Chen Xiankui and Xin Xiangyang, Zhongguo heping jueqi shifo keneng? (Is China’s peaceful rise possible, or not?), Beijing, Xuexi Shibao (Study Times), posted September 2.

17. Robert Sutter, China’s peaceful rise and US interests in Asia – status and outlook, CSIS Pacific Forum, PacNet 27, June 24.

18. China’s Propaganda Ministry shut down two Chinese-language Korean websites that reported the lack of Chinese media coverage to Politburo member Jia Qinglin’s verbal commitments to the South Korean government on the Koguryo controversy. See Bitan Gaojuli, Liang Hanguo Wangzhan Guanbi (Ban on talk of Koguryo: Two South Korean websites closed), Taipei China Times, August 30.

19. See, among others, Joseph Kahn, China’s 2 top leaders square off in contest to run policy, New York Times, September 2, p 3.

John J Tkacik Jr is a research fellow in Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He is a retired officer in the US Foreign Service who served in Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou and was chief of the China Division in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

First appeared in The Asia Times

A 23-year veteran of the U.S. State Department, John Tkacik joined the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation in 2001. As a research fellow in the foundation's Asian Studies Center, Tkacik (pronounced TASS-ick) analyzes policies and events concerning China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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