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Early Analysis of Jiang Zemin’s Death and Implications for CCP Factional Struggle

The Jiang faction could exploit Jiang Zemin’s death to undermine the Xi leadership by stirring up strong “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” sentiments in China and overseas.

◎ The following analysis was first published in the November 1, 2022 edition of our subscriber-only SinoWeekly Plus newsletter. Subscribe to SinoInsider to view past analyses in our newsletter archive.


Former CCP general secretary Jiang Zemin died at age 96 from leukemia and multiple organ failure in Shanghai at 12:13 p.m. Beijing time on Nov. 30, according to state mouthpiece Xinhua in an announcement at 4:34 p.m. Official mainland media and government websites later grayed out their respective websites in tribute to Jiang’s passing. 

Xinhua published a nearly 5,000-character obituary of Jiang. The obituary gave the former Party boss a very high political evaluation, writing that Jiang was “an outstanding leader with high prestige; a great Marxist; a great proletarian revolutionist, statesman, military strategist, and diplomat; a proven communist fighter; an outstanding leader of the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics; the core of the Party’s third generation leadership collective; and the main creator of the important political theory of the ‘three represents.’”

In recollecting Jiang’s life and career, the obituary left out certain problematic details such as his attending university under Wang Jingwei’s puppet regime and later serving as a Japanese collaborator during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The obituary noted Jiang’s “clear-cut stance” on the “severe political disturbance” that took place in China in 1989 (student protests at Tiananmen and elsewhere), but omitted his persecution of Falun Gong and the Party’s historical evaluation of the campaign. Jiang’s tenure was summarized as follows: “Under the collective leadership of the Party’s third-generation leadership with Comrade Jiang Zemin at the core, we calmly responded to a series of international emergencies related to our country’s sovereignty and security, overcame difficulties and risks arising in the political, economic, and natural worlds, and guaranteed that the ship of reform and opening up and socialist modernization always advances in the right direction.” 

The obituary cast Jiang’s controversial transfer of power to Hu Jintao in a positive light. Jiang was said to have proposed handing over the reins to Hu at the 16th Party Congress “for the long-term development” and “stability” of the “Party and the country,” but retained the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) to “fully support Hu Jintao” after considering the “complex and changing international situation and the arduous tasks of national defense and military building at the time.”

The obituary further praised Jiang’s contribution to the regime in building the military and Party theory, adding that his death was an “immeasurable loss” to the CCP. The obituary added that Party Central urged the “whole Party, whole military, and the people of all ethnic groups in the country to turn their grief into strength and carry on the legacy of Comrade Jiang Zemin,” as well as express their condolences with practical actions. Party members and cadres were also called on to “more consciously unite around Party Central with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core,” as well as continue adhering to the Party’s leadership and theories, including the “three represents.” 

Xinhua also announced the establishment of a funeral committee for Jiang Zemin’s wake and the list of comrades who belong to the committee. Xi Jinping is chairman of “Comrade Jiang Zemin’s Funeral Committee,” along with 687 other active and retired senior Party, government and military officials. The CCP further announced official activities to mourn Jiang at home and abroad. 

***

On Nov. 30, the National Radio and Television Administration’s network audio-visual department issued a series of instructions on commemorating Jiang Zemin’s death to various media, social media, and internet platforms, according to leaks obtained by Chinese netizens. 

The instructions include: 

  • Jiang Zemin’s memorial service will be held on Dec. 6. Platforms are to observe “mourning period” taboos from Nov. 30 to Dec. 7. 
  • Home pages and client terminals of websites and webpages are to use a monochrome palette during the mourning period. However, the monochrome palette is not to be used for content related to Xi Jinping and 20th Party Congress topics.
  • During the mourning period, new online entertainment content should not be put up, current entertainment content should be removed from homepages and suspended in popups, and “like” functions should be halted. 
  • All media presenters are to refrain from using “auspicious” (開門紅) sayings or red backdrops during broadcasting during the mourning period. Presenters and stage managers are also forbidden from mentioning the names of CCP leaders or discussing political information.  

***

Initial reaction to Jiang Zemin’s death in China appeared to be weighted towards his unpopularity and negative legacies. According to a Radio Free Asia report, some commented that his passing was real “this time,” a reference to past misinformed reports that Jiang had died, notably those by overseas Chinese language media outlets in July 2011. Others called for people to latch on to the momentum of the “blank sheet revolution” and take to the streets to mark Jiang’s death. Still others recalled that Jiang “turned the whole country corrupt,” promoted corrupt officials, clung on to the CMC chairmanship for two extra years, was a “great strategist” with women (Jiang was a notorious womanizer), turned the Party away from morals, and brought the regime to the brink of collapse. Yet some others remarked that the “head of the persecution of Falun Gong” had died and offered consolation to “all persecuted Falun Gong practitioners.” Meanwhile, many netizens “liked” the news of Jiang’s death when it was reported on major Chinese social media platforms, a sign that they disapproved of him. 

Jiang Zemin was remembered much more fondly in the West. Many Western scholars, journalists, and China watchers recalled Jiang as being “fun,” “open,” “liberal,” and even reform-minded. Obituaries of Jiang in Western media outlets tended to praise him and condemn Xi Jinping. Some observed that the glowing reminiscences of Jiang in China are partly due to people disliking Xi. A handful of regime critics and Western human rights activists called attention to Jiang’s role in promoting the CCP’s authoritarianism at home and abroad, including “internet censorship, religious persecution, and transnational repression,” according to Sarah Cook, Freedom House’s Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. 

 

OUR TAKE  

1. The mixed reaction to Jiang Zemin’s death in mainland China and in the West reflects how different parties benefited or suffered during the Jiang faction’s era of dominance (1997 to 2012). 

Members of the PRC elite, including Party cadres, businessmen, investors, and executives, who made fortunes and accrued interests during Jiang’s rule and when the Jiang faction dominated the Hu-Wen leadership tend to remember him fondly and downplay his authoritarianism. The PRC elite who benefited under Jiang and the Jiang faction also tend to frown upon the Xi leadership for restricting their opportunities to “make a fortune while keeping a low profile” (悶聲發大財) and purging many of their fellows for corruption. China’s youths who grew up during the more prosperous Jiang-Hu years and who are finding their future prospects dimmed under Xi also have reason to be “nostalgic” about Jiang. Likewise, those in the West who gained from the PRC “opening up” during the Jiang faction’s era of dominance but who saw their interests reduced or harmed under Xi tend to apply rose-tinted lenses in commemorating Jiang’s passing and gloss over his gross human rights abuses and authoritarian streak when reviewing his legacy.

Meanwhile, the mainland Chinese who suffered from Jiang “ruling the country through corruption” (以貪治國), particularly the poorer classes, remember him as being very corrupt, clownish, and even traitorous (Jiang signed away Chinese land in settling a border dispute with Russia in 2001 and was a Japanese collaborator in his youth). They recall his rule as causing them hardships and mainly favoring those who were already at the top. Human rights activists in China (including rights defense lawyers) and abroad who closely tracked abuses under Jiang found them to be no less egregious than under Xi. 

We previously noted (see here and here) that Jiang Zemin and the Jiang faction are responsible for laying the foundation for the PRC’s techno-totalitarian control over China (“Golden Shield,” “Golden Tax,” “Great Firewall of China,” etc.), beginning the PRC’s military build-up; brutally persecuting Falun Gong practitioners and forcibly harvesting their organs and those of other prisoners of conscience; using the 2009 Urumqi riots to launch the persecution campaign against Uyghur Muslims; perpetuating the CCP’s longtime persecution of Tibetan Buddhists, House Christians, and other religious believers; as well as covering up the outbreak of SARS in 2003. We also observed that “so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘moderate’ Party leaders like Deng and Jiang never untethered themselves from communist ideology and also worked to advance the Party’s domination agenda, albeit through the strategy of ‘hiding strength, biding time’ (韜光養晦).”  

2. Obituaries for CCP leaders are sensitive and highly political documents that seek to glorify the Party on the one hand and enshrine the political legacy of the deceased on the other. This means that the Party elite have to carry out political bargaining and arrive at a “consensus” on what to include in such documents before they are published. Influential factions have a say on how they want their apex patron to be remembered, and the incumbent Party leader is also allowed to weigh in on the finer points of the obituary. 

The very high political evaluation granted to Jiang Zemin reflects several points: 

  • The Jiang faction still retains considerable influence in the CCP regime and has leveraged that influence to extract a glowing obituary for their figurehead. 
  • Xi Jinping’s political strength and “quan wei” (prestige and authority) in the regime are still established on propaganda and his firm adherence to Party orthodoxy. As such, Xi cannot denounce Jiang or his political theory without undermining his own basis of power, but instead has to mostly “acknowledge” the legacy of his chief rival as being part of the CCP’s “glorious” history. 
  • Xi’s present political strength is about at the level that we previously assessed (greater than five years ago, but nowhere near totally dominant; see here and here). While Xi has implicitly criticized the “prominent issues and problems” of Jiang Zemin’s rule (including the Hu era) in his “historical resolution” and 20th Party Congress work report, he is not strong enough to denounce Jiang and his “incorrect political line” outright. Moreover, Xi has undercut his own “quan wei” somewhat by heading the “Jiang Zemin Funeral Committee” and sanctioning the very positive obituary for Jiang. 

Some China watchers believe that the obituary’s positive spin on Jiang’s handover of power to Hu Jintao was meant by Xi’s rivals to deliberately contrast the two leaders and make Xi come off worse. It is possible that Jiang faction elements who gave their input in the writing of the obituary were looking to highlight Jiang Zemin’s “compliance” with leadership tenure norms established under Deng Xiaoping with the intention of indirectly criticizing Xi’s flouting of the norms. However, Xi probably felt that he could live with this positive spin of Jiang’s handover to Hu because it was also mentioned that Jiang broke leadership tenure norms (staying on as CMC chairman for two more years until 2004) for the “long-term development” and “stability” of the regime, which obliquely “justifies” Xi’s own norm-breaking third term. Moreover, Xi could have granted the Jiang faction a “win” on the succession issue in exchange for them going along with his suggestions on how Jiang should be remembered in other parts of the obituary. 

One obituary subject that Xi almost certainly got his say in was Jiang Zemin’s persecution of Falun Gong. If the Jiang faction had their way, they would declare that their figurehead had victoriously “crushed” Falun Gong in the early 2000s and defended the regime from “turmoil” or other descriptions along those lines. The complete absence of the anti-Falun Gong campaign from Jiang’s obituary, however, indicates that Xi does not think that it was a worthy political achievement and that it deserves to be part of the CCP’s “glorious” historical legacy. Like the delaying of Article 23’s passage in Hong Kong before the 20th Party Congress, the omission of the Falun Gong persecution campaign from Jiang’s official obituary suggests that Xi has, at least for the moment, refrained from clearly stating the CCP regime’s stance on Jiang’s political legacy and keeping the “Falun Gong card” in play against the Jiang faction. 

3. The Jiang faction could exploit Jiang Zemin’s death to undermine the Xi leadership by stirring up strong “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” sentiments in China and overseas. They could also look to latch on to “nostalgia” for a more “liberal” PRC under Jiang to fuel and direct the “blank paper revolution” in a markedly “anti-Xi” direction. Finally, the Jiang faction could be hoping for or looking to provoke potentially destabilizing countrywide displays of public mourning over Jiang Zemin (the 1976 and 1989 Tiananmen incidents occurred after the death of Zhou Enlai and Hu Yaobang respectively), which could lead to savage crackdowns that bloody Xi Jinping’s hands and discredit his leadership.

In all of the aforementioned scenarios, the Jiang faction would likely be hoping for or looking to provoke the Xi leadership into ordering or being viewed as responsible for a “Tiananmen-like” event in China. Another bloody and very public massacre of Han Chinese will likely trigger massive societal outrage and give “anti-Xi” forces in the regime a solid reason to cast him as a “sinner of history” (歷史罪人) and convene special “expanded” meetings of the top leadership to marginalize Xi and “bring order out of chaos” (撥亂反正). 

Xi’s rivals appeared to be behind efforts to provoke Beijing into ordering Tiananmen-style crackdowns in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement and the anti-extradition bill protests; Xi’s imposition of a national security regime in Hong Kong seems to be at least partly aimed at ensuring that his factional enemies can no longer exploit popular protests in the city that compels Beijing to move in with the People’s Liberation Army for tough action that ultimately undermines the Xi leadership. 

Rumors of Jiang’s impending death have been circulating since at least August 2022 and became more prominent around mid-November. This suggests that the Jiang faction was likely aware that their figurehead was on his last legs for some time and would have been on the lookout for opportunities to cause or worsen trouble for Xi around the estimated period of Jiang’s demise. For instance, while the “blank paper revolution” appeared to have sparked organically, it was fanned in part by protesters being able to record live broadcasts and an odd lack of social media censorship when demonstrations were ongoing. While it is possible that the censorship “gap” was caused by disgruntled individual officials who wanted to support the anti-lockdown protests in their own way, foul play by lingering Jiang faction officials in the propaganda and security apparatuses also cannot be ruled out. After all, two of the seven members of the Jiang faction-associated “Sun Lijun political gang” (Deng Huilin and Liu Xinyun) were former directors of cyber operations at the Ministry of Public Security, and they could have left behind lackeys who are in positions to create a censorship “gap” when the “blank paper revolution” was ongoing. 

Xi ally Wang Xiaohong may be finally in charge of the public security ministry, but he will need time to weed out the remaining Jiang faction loyalists in the ranks and truly bring the Party’s “knife handle” under Xi’s control. Until then, the Jiang faction remnants in the regime are still capable of causing outsized trouble for the Xi leadership when factional conflicts come to a head. 

4. If leaks about the National Radio and Television Administration’s instructions to various media, social media, and internet platforms on how to commemorate Jiang’s death are accurate, then they indicate that Xi Jinping remains disapproving in his attitude towards the deceased leader and does not wish to give Jiang too much “limelight.” 

We believe that while the Xi camp and Jiang faction may be in a “truce” during the mourning period, Xi will likely seek to re-establish his “quan wei” afterward and resume or even step up efforts to “rectify” the regime of Jiang faction influence. With Jiang dead, Jiang faction number two Zeng Qinghong and those associated with him (including the intelligence apparatus) naturally become the next targets. 

Given the “you die, I live” and volatile nature of factional struggle, Xi could very well find himself in a very disadvantageous position (such as in the aftermath of a bloody crackdown on protesters) even though the balance of the struggle is currently in his favor. This could force Xi to play the “Falun Gong card” and attempt other “nuclear options” to hold the remnants of the Jiang faction broadly accountable for the regime’s evils and excesses. The Jiang faction without its titular head will look to do likewise to Xi. This could even extend to playing its own version of the “Falun Gong card” by subtly attempting to get overseas Chinese and foreign media, as well as popular online personalities in the overseas Chinese community, to inadvertently “shift blame” for the campaign to Xi’s leadership, along with the CCP regime’s many other ills. This approach could make use of the fact that in public perception, Xi and the CCP are often seen as synonymous. Should they see the need, Jiang faction remnants and their associates could suddenly bill themselves as anti-Xi and anti-CCP “defenders of democracy” as the clique prepares to become “a cicada shedding its skin” (金蟬脫殼) per the ancient Chinese military strategy. Regardless of how the CCP factional struggle plays out in the wake of Jiang’s death, the likely escalation of tensions within Zhongnanhai will sharply raise the probability of political Black Swans emerging in China.  

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