With the purging of 55 ‘Big Tigers,’ the political network of former leader Jiang Zemin has been dismantled
For the last two years, Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has been working relentlessly to dismantle the political network that had previously controlled China. That group’s power is now effectively broken—though observers are still waiting for the final nails in the coffin.
The fruits of this cleansing of the ranks were trumpeted by Xinhua after the Communist Party’s fourth plenary session in October. The state news mouthpiece published a list of “55 ‘Big Tigers’ That Have Been Purged.” For observers of Chinese communist politics, it was no surprise that a large chunk of those men shared the same political patron: Jiang Zemin.
Jiang was the leader of the Chinese Communist Party from June 1989 to—well, that depends on whom you ask. Jiang relinquished his role as general secretary of the CCP in 2002, but didn’t relinquish control of the military for another year. For many years after that he kept a well-appointed office in military headquarters.
But during his reign and afterward, he spun a spider web of personal ties and client relations across China that carried well into the tenure of his successor, the bland leader Hu Jintao.
One of the most memorable and explicit demonstrations of Jiang’s enduring presence took place in October of 2009, for the celebration of the People’s Republic of China’s national day, a full seven years after he had completed his tenure as Party leader. He appeared on China Central Television just beside Hu Jintao, the Party boss, on the Tiananmen Square rostrum, while the rest of Politburo Standing Committee trailed behind. The following day People’s Daily, the state mouthpiece, published equally large photos of the two men.
In a political system where the appearance of top Chinese leaders is carefully controlled and circumscribed, with camera and face time strictly apportioned according to rank, the 2009 incident showed clearly who was still the Party godfather.
Jiang gained this power in part through his Machiavellian handling of the 2002 leadership handover to Hu, and again in 2007—and to a lesser degree, even in 2012—when he made sure in the leadership transitions to stuff his own men into top spots. In 2007 he even went to the trouble of expanding by two seats the size of the Standing Committee, the Party’s nerve center, where the crucial decisions are made, and helpfully seating his own loyalists in them.
Prominent figures in this political constellation included: Zhou Yongkang, the former security boss; Li Dongsheng, head of the 610 Office secret police force; Xu Caihou, top military brass; and Jiang Jiemin, who controlled energy interests. These are 4 of the 55 top officials Xinhua announced as being taken down. These men—and many others loyal to Jiang—exercised their influence in almost every corner of China’s state, Party, and economy.
The extraordinary, lingering, and baleful influence of the Jiang political network is only now being rooted out of China, and has been one of the key focuses of Xi Jinping’s much vaunted anti-corruption campaign.
But the group that Xi Jinping is deleting from Chinese politics is notable other reasons that make the current power shift potentially so much more significant: the group being purged was corrupt in the extreme, and, even by Chinese communist standards, highly violent.
Former Chinese Communist Party head Jiang Zemin (R) walks by Xi Jinping (L) after the closing of the 18th Communist Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 14, 2012. At this Party Congress Xi was formally appointed to head the CCP. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)
As the investigations against key members of this group are carried out, and accounts leaked to select media outlets in China, observers have also been given an idea of the wealth they accumulated.
“I just can’t understand the kind of corruption that we have seen in China in recent years,” writes Zheng Yongnian, a Chinese scholar whose writings align with many establishment views. “If you are corrupt and steal hundreds of thousands or millions of renminbi, I can understand. You can use that money to live a better life. But stealing billions, tens of billions or even hundreds of billions—that I can’t understand. You won’t be able to spend all that money in a lifetime.”
It was precisely this level of logic-defying corruption that was often found around Jiang’s cadres. Analysts for years have said that corruption, and connivance at it among those loyal to him, was a key way for Jiang to secure the loyalty and obedience of so many.
Unlike Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping before him, Jiang enjoyed none of the credibility or prestige of a revolutionary past. He had the Party leadership given to him quite unexpectedly by Deng Xiaoping, at the height of the political crisis surrounding the Tiananmen Square student movement. Jiang had shown as the Party secretary of Shanghai a willingness to suppress the students. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, Jiang as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party hunted down the student dissidents.
With the Tiananmen crisis past, many thought Jiang would be swapped out again by Deng within a few years. Not until Deng fell ill, in 1995, and then died, in 1997, did Jiang’s own political machinations really begin.
Jiang’s consolidation of power was helped by Zeng Qinghong, a backroom operator who got rich off the oil sector and already held significant power in his own right. He helped Jiang dole out positions in exchange for political backing—working to ensure that Jiang’s power would remain in the regime long after they both left their official posts.
This was done, for example, by carving up parts of key industries and allowing family groups to control them and extract economic rents. Zhou Yongkang and his family were in petroleum, Li Peng, an ally, had a hand in the electricity utilities, one of Jiang Zemin’s sons enjoyed a role in telecommunications, and so on.
The extreme levels of corruption that were allowed under the watch of Jiang has astonished and infuriated the Chinese public, as the details have been revealed during Xi Jinping’s campaign.
Xu Caihou, a former second-in-command of the Chinese military, for example, was found to have banknotes weighing a whole ton in the basement of his 2000-square-acre estate that was raided in March. Chinese media did not even give an estimate of the amount of money it represented. The haul also included jades, antiques, and gold. Gu Junshan, one of Xu’s own protégé’s, was found to have a pure gold statue of Mao Zedong when one of his villas was raided.
Corruption has also led to gross misrule. On Jiang’s watch officials giving a free pass to industry have led to massive levels of environmental pollution unseen elsewhere in the world: skyrocketing cancer rates, the poisoning of China’s soil and water, and cities with unbreathable air.
The use of Jiang’s beefed up security apparatus has also been a key part of land and home seizures and demolitions across the country, as corrupt local officials collude with developers to evict people and then suppress the mass protests that result.
The state has stopped releasing information on the number of mass incidents—protests or riots involving more than 50 people—that occur each year. In 2010 Beijing University professor Sun Liping—Xi Jinping’s thesis adviser—estimated 180,000 mass incidents occurred. That number is believed to be climbing, as China’s people grow more restless each year.
That restlessness is in part a widely held feeling that under Jiang Zemin something fundamental went wrong in China’s society. In online chat rooms, people complain about a society in which people only care about individual gain and morality and caring for others seem to have disappeared.
Jiang often used corruption to reward members of his faction who enthusiastically implemented his signature political campaign, the persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual practice. This security mobilization relied on mass abductions, arbitrary imprisonments, and the torture—often in startlingly cruel ways—of millions of ordinary Chinese people.
(L to R) Chinese Communist Party Head Xi Jinping and his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin on Sept. 30, 2014 in Beijing, China. Since taking power in November 2012, Xi has worked to dismantle the faction headed by Jiang Zemin. (Feng Li/Getty Images)
The old fashioned political campaign is a fundamental operating principle of the Chinese Communist Party, and the history of the regime is often understood in relation to the execution and aftermath of such campaigns. The purges of the 1950s, for example, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, were all signature campaigns of Mao Zedong, and his reign was focused obsessively on carrying out such movements.
Deng Xiaoping led a period of economic reform, which was driven by its own hard political logic as much as was any other mobilization. He also presided over the massacre of students in Beijing on June 4, 1989. This campaign, and its fallout, define his era.
But analysts of Chinese elite politics have frequently overlooked the role of the persecution of Falun Gong in defining Jiang’s political career.
The fateful decision to eliminate Falun Gong was made during April and May in 1999, and became public on July 20 of the same year. Official statistics put the number of Falun Gong practitioners at 70 million, while Falun Gong sources say over 100 million Chinese had taken up the practice by 1999. In any case, the persecution targeted a massive portion of the population.
The campaign against Falun Gong is based on abducting adherents and attempting to force them to undergo ideological transformation—what in the 1950s the Communists called “thought reform,” or simply brainwashing. Thousands of deaths due to torture have been documented, although due to the difficulty of getting information out of China, the number documented is believed to be several times short of the actual number of deaths.
Researchers into the harvesting of organs from detained practitioners to supply China’s burgeoning transplantation industry have estimated that approximately 62,000 were killed in the years 2000–2008. The harvesting of practitioner organs is believed to be ongoing, and so the death toll continues to climb.
Observers at the time saw the political movement instigated by Jiang as a chance for him to force Party members to pledge allegiance to him personally and to build up his own power—despite there being little enthusiasm at the top of the Party for launching the violent persecution.
Security authorities around China, under the orders of Jiang Zemin, devised all manner of physical and mental tortures, and applied them against Falun Gong practitioners in an attempt to force them to renounce their beliefs.
These methods include burning, shocking, hanging, sleep deprivation, and more, according to Minghui.org, a website that carries firsthand accounts of persecution from China. Guards developed special names for torture techniques, like “hell trap,” “death board,” “corpse stretch,” and “roasting a whole sheep,” which involves tying the hands and feet of a victim to a rail high above the ground, so they are hung like an animal on a spit. The victim in that position is then often beaten. Minghui documents hundreds of detailed, cruel methods of torture deployed against Falun Gong.
Jiang Zemin’s people have been so deeply invested in this violent political campaign that they stood behind an attempt to wrest back the leadership of the Party from the waiting hands of Xi Jinping.
Bo Xilai, the fallen Politburo member who was a key ally and protégé of Jiang Zemin and the former security czar Zhou Yongkang, was at one point told “You must show your toughness in handling Falun Gong … it will be your political capital,” according to the veteran China journalist Jiang Weiping.
He was quickly promoted through the ranks and all the while groomed by political masters Jiang and the grim-faced Zhou Yongkang. Zhou operated China’s entire security apparatus, growing it to a behemoth with a budget greater than the military, with no oversight.
Bo was intended to become the heir of the Jiang dynasty, and unseat Xi Jinping from the leadership post, according to the political conspiracy hatched prior to the leadership transition in later 2012. People in the inner circles of the Party, who spoke to the Epoch Times in 2012, said the entire scheme was hatched as a way to ensure that the campaign against Falun Gong would continue, and that those who launched it would never be held accountable for the crimes committed in seeking to eliminate the practice.
That plot came to light in early 2012, and led to the purge of Bo in March by Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao. After Xi took the reins in November of that year, he began working to dismantle Jiang’s faction root and branch.
Xi Jinping’s need to respond to this attempt to destroy him has driven the extraordinary purge of high-ranking officials, according to political analysts. In normal circumstances, new leaders do not resort to such thorough punishments of factional opponents—but Xi was forced to respond decisively to an attempt to unseat him, lest he lose all standing in the fierce world of Chinese communist political power.
Xinhua’s helpful breakdown in October of the individuals purged and the posts they held was an announcement to the Party and the country at large that Xi Jinping’s campaign has succeeded. He is now firmly in control, and the Jiang faction has been displaced.
The officials in central level agencies listed by Xinhua are overwhelmingly aligned with the Jiang factional network, and those in provincial areas heavily feature members of the extended family, too.
While Xi has been eliminating the key parts of the Jiang network around the country, Chinese media has carried reports about other members of the old guard expressing support for Xi Jinping.
A recent report by People’s Daily is titled “Xi Jinping Values the ‘Old Cadres.’” The report contains a speech by Xi addressing retired Party cadres and leaders. He called retired cadres “precious treasures,” and congratulated many on their service to the Party. Of course, no one was surprised at the complete absence of one old Party leader from the event—Jiang Zemin.
While Jiang’s political network enjoyed a wide geographic spread, its base was always known to be Shanghai. With the announcement this July that Shanghai would face a thorough corruption investigation, and the felling of 11 officials there in September, Xi may be doing to Jiang Zemin what he did before to Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou: investigate and remove those close to the target, before moving in for the final blow.