Aug 24, 2015 02:23 PM

The Party Has Its Tea, but Deserves No Sympathy

A cup of tea brims with significance after the drinker departs. Absent refills, the brew cools off. The cooling tea becomes a metaphor for neglect and irrelevance. Chinese leaders, who are used to being treated like gods, gird themselves for the day they leave the table by putting their cronies in key positions to keep the tea warm.

This musing on manipulative old cadres in the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, has sparked a flurry of speculation on the intentions of a thinly veiled reference to a certain retired comrade. In many people's minds, former president Jiang Zemin fits the bill. In power for 13 years as head of the party and president of the republic, he clung to the top post in the military commission for two extra years before relinquishing the title in 2004. In retirement, he allegedly continues to control some military, propaganda and finance matters through his protégés.

The commentary goes on to lament the harmful effects of shadow leadership on a hamstrung incumbent, resulting in factionalism that saps the morale of the organization.

"Let the tea cool," the People's Daily intones. "It should be the normal way things are done."

The article, penned by an obscure writer named Gu Bochong, appears to be insinuating that someone has an appetite for intrigue. Since some seemingly outlandish rumors over the past few years have turned out to be harbingers of true-life political dramas, the readers of the tea leaves cannot ignore these portents.

Retired leaders meddling in politics from behind the scenes is an established tradition in the Communist Party. Deng Xiaoping abolished the life tenure for top leaders and instituted mandatory retirement for cadres reaching age 65, but he himself continued to wield enormous power long after he stepped down from his official posts. Western media outlets refer to him as the "paramount leader" for good reason. The tea was kept warm as long as he was alive.

Living up to his image as a "game changer," President Xi Jinping, a blue-blooded princeling, has more political capital than his docile predecessor, Hu Jintao, to challenge the presumptive shadow leader and his cohorts.

As long as the succession is determined from the top down, elders will have a say in who rises. "Rule by elders" is an easy target for attack by frustrated bureaucrats, but that is not the real issue. It is really just an intramural power struggle by another name. The retired may fade away, but the cronies they have placed in their network will continue to defend their turf.

Xi may get what he wants, becoming more powerful when the last check on power within the party is eliminated. Hu futilely promoted "intraparty democracy" to counter the weight of the old guard. Back then, there was some optimism that democracy practiced within the party would one day spread to the nation. Xi will have no use for such a sham once he has consolidated power. But party rivalries will not die; his tenure will be marked by more hunting of tigers he perceives as a threat to his authority.

"A political party without factions strains one's imagination,"(dang nei wu pai, qian qi bai guai) lamented Mao Zedong in 1966, when all hell broke loose amid the Cultural Revolution he unleashed. In fact, he was merely quoting Chen Duxiu, co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, who uttered these prophetic words in 1922.

Nailene Chou Wiest is a visiting professor at the School of Communication and Design of Sun Yat-sen University

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