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China has new chief, but power may lie elsewhere

Hu Jintao took party helm this weekend. But Zeng Qinghong may be the man to watch.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 18, 2002


China's nine new leaders briefly stepped forward for the world press when introduced by Hu Jintao, China's new Communist Party chief, last week. But one man, Zeng Qinghong, seemed to linger in the spotlight. With four members of the all-powerful Standing Committee shoulder to shoulder on either side of him, Mr. Zeng was literally the man in the middle.

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Zeng's central spot is a triumph for outgoing president Jiang Zemin, pleased to have his savvy chief aide rise so high. But Zeng also represents a real challenge to new top leader, Mr. Hu.

Hu, fresh-faced and accomplished, but hamstrung by Chinese protocol as a former No. 2, was unable to appoint many allies. Indeed, China has a sweeping set of young leaders, but in the intrigues of Beijing, the wholesale turnover at the top appears more a ratification of Mr. Jiang's 13-year hold on power. Jiang, who retains a crucial military post that figures strongly in foreign affairs, is more influential now than when he stepped down last Thursday, some analysts say. No single figure symbolizes this more than the colorful Zeng.

A former missile technician whose ethnic Hakka parents were prominent Mao revolutionaries, Zeng is a power-broker par excellence. As Jiang's right-hand man in Shanghai, he kept that city quiet during the 1989 Tiananmen upheavals - one reason Jiang ascended to the throne. For years, Zeng has battled Jiang's enemies behind the scenes and accepted experiments like village elections and allowing entrepreneurs to join the party. A year ago, Jiang could not get Zeng onto the Politburo. Now, one of the nine, and in charge of the influential Secretariat, Zeng is at the center of Jiang's continuing rule here.

Zeng travels in a fabulously rare slipstream of Chinese power politics, moving adroitly, seemingly unconstrained by protocol. Though he holds no official foreign- policy brief, he made key trips to the US and North Korea, and dealt with Taiwan. He engineered research reports - on subjects like flagging party loyalty among the masses, the Uighur Muslims in the northwest, and poverty - that would have ended the careers of others. He was seen with Jiang at plant openings, cultural events, and major speeches. Zeng also helped establish a new party discourse called "Three Represents" - a move that made a shift from Marxist rhetoric toward free enterprise acceptable in party circles.

In 1997, as US relations ebbed after China sent missiles into the Taiwan Strait, Zeng went to Washington for special talks as Jiang's "chief of staff," a higher status than co-envoy Qian Qichen. A Clinton administration official remembers: "It was winter, and we sat by the fire in a Virginia country mansion, talked for five hours or more, and reshaped US-China relations. Clinton went to China later that summer. We didn't know Zeng before the trip. He wasn't what we expected. He was modern, talkative, relaxed. Afterwards we all said, 'He is a man to watch.' "

"The successful 16th Congress is Zeng's contribution," says a Beijing magazine editor. "He was the main planner and organizer. He is lively, laughs a lot, but is known for getting the job done."

For Zeng, the leadership transition is a boon. Six of the seven previous Standing Committee members are gone, including stalwarts like Zhu Rongji and Li Peng. The new men will continue China's economic reforms but won't pursue political reforms that could test China's stability and cut into party authority.

The first meeting of the new Politburo stressed unity. Each Standing Committee member made state media appearances in different venues, shaking hands with a peasant, meeting a factory worker, holding a baby, making a pitch for clean environment, and greeting a foreign dignitary.