China’s politically powerful vice president stepped down today in a reshuffling of the Communist Party leadership, removing from office a rival to President Hu Jintao.
Closing a week-long party congress, delegates selected a new Central Committee, a body that approves leadership positions and sets broad policy goals, with vice president Zeng Qinghong not among those selected, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.
Zeng’s absence means he cannot be in the Politburo or its Standing Committee, the powerful grouping that runs China, whose members the Central Committee will approve tomorrow.
Aside from Zeng, Xinhua said two other Standing Committee members also stepped aside – Wu Guanzheng, who has run the party’s internal corruption watchdog, and Luo Gan, who oversees law enforcement.
No reason was given but all three were either over or near the party’s preferred, but not mandatory, retirement age.
Their departure from the leadership, especially that of Zeng, appears to be a boost for Hu, who was reappointed to the Central Committee and is all but certain to be given a second five-year term as party leader.
Yet it also raises questions about what deals Hu and his allies had to strike to win Zeng’s retirement and whether those arrangements may constrain Hu.
The months leading up to the congress, held once every five years to reallocate leadership posts, have brought fractious back-room bargaining among the party elite.
The result of the tussle will determine how strong or divided the leadership is as it tries to ease tensions over a wide rich-poor gap at home and manage China’s rising clout abroad so as not to anger the US and other world powers.
At stake for Hu is the chance to pack leading party bodies with allies, including a potential successor, thereby giving himself a freer hand to shape policies.
Aside from selecting the Central Committee, the congress is expected to appoint the members of anti-corruption agency, the Central Discipline Inspection Committee, and adopt a revision to the party’s charter endorsing a reference to Hu’s pet policy initiative – “the scientific outlook on development”.
The programme, a hallmark of Hu’s first five years, has called for increased social spending to help farmers and urban workers whose living standards have not risen as fast as many other Chinese under capitalist economic reforms.
With three members of the senior leadership stepping down and another having died earlier this year, four spaces are available on the Politburo Standing Committee, should it be kept to its current size of nine members.
Of all leadership members, none other than Zeng have rivalled Hu in terms of political influence.
A skilled political insider, Zeng rose to power as an aide to Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin, helping him shove aside rivals. Though Zeng also helped Hu engineer the removal of rivals, Zeng also was seen as a leading protector of Jiang’s legacy and influence within the party.
The more-than 2,200 delegates to the congress praised Zeng and the other retiring leaders for their “breadth of their political vision and sterling integrity”, Xinhua said.
In a sign of Jiang’s continued political clout, another of his allies, Jia Qinglin, was reappointed to the Central Committee today and will thus probably retain his Politburo seat, despite being tainted by his association with a major smuggling and corruption scandal.
Though congress and Central Committee delegates have some influence over leadership decisions, most of the line-up is decided among a core group of the most powerful party members and elders.