Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to investigate his predecessor’s top aide for corruption marks the downfall of the remaining “tiger” in a group that Communist Party cadres termed the “New Gang of Four.”
Ling Jihua, former chief of staff to retired president Hu Jintao, was the last member of the quartet who had long been in Xi’s sights, analysts said. The group -- which also included the former security chief, a rising Politburo member and a top general -- bears little similarity to the original Gang of Four who were convicted for treason after the death of Mao Zedong, yet they were considered impediments to Xi’s command.
Removing Ling, whose political star fell after a failed attempt to cover up a Ferrari crash that killed his son in 2012, emphasizes Xi’s iron grip on the party just two years after he became its chief, and may further strengthen his ability to mold the next generation of leaders.
“Ling Jihua’s investigation suggests that it is likely we will see changes in the anticipated leadership lineup,” at the next party congress in 2017, said Joseph Fewsmith, a political science professor at Boston University who specializes in China’s elite politics. “Xi is indeed emerging as the strongest leader in China since at least Deng Xiaoping.”
When the party convenes for the congress in 2017, five out of the seven current Politburo Standing Committee members are expected to step down, having reached the unwritten retirement age for top leaders of 68.
Wang Qishan, who heads the party’s anti-graft agency, might be “deemed too important to retire” even though he will be 69, said Fewsmith. “More intriguing,” Fewsmith said, is that the man seen as most likely to succeed Xi as the party chief in 2022 -- Hu Chunhua, a protege of Hu Jintao -- now seems less likely to be heir apparent.
China's President Xi Jinping, top right, his predecessors Hu Jintao, top left, and former chief of staff Ling Jihua, below, applaud during the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing's Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on March 3, 2013.
The probe of Ling signals that Xi is pressing ahead with the anti-graft campaign against “tigers and flies” -- senior and low-level Communist Party cadres -- after he warned that corruption risks undermining the party’s legitimacy. Ling, 58, a vice chairman of China’s top political advisory body, was put under investigation on Dec. 22 for alleged disciplinary breaches by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the anti-graft agency led by Wang.
The other three tigers snared in the the anti-corruption drive are Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing party chief who was sentenced to life imprisonment last August for corruption and abuse of power; Xu Caihou, once vice-chairman of the military’s top decision-making body and who awaits trial; and Zhou Yongkang, the country’s ex-security chief who was expelled from the party earlier this month while being investigated for graft and leaking state secrets. Both Bo and Xu sat on the party’s ruling Politburo, while Zhou was a member of the Standing Committee.
Ling was considered a top candidate for the Politburo before his ascent of party ranks ended after accusations that he tried to cover up details of the crash of a Ferrari that killed his son in March 2012, the South China Morning Post (583) reported in September of that year.
Gu Su, a law professor at Nanjing University, said the “New Gang of Four” term is popularly used by party members to describe the loose grouping, even though the extent of ties between them aren’t clear. The name is borrowed from the infamous gang, including Mao’s wife, who held immense power in the Cultural Revolution.
The state-owned Global Times Dec. 6 described the case of Zhou alone as the “biggest, gravest since the Chinese Communist Party uprooted the Gang of Four.”
“The so-called New Gang of Four represented a very strong political group that covered every aspect of power from military to the party,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian who previously worked at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. They could have posed a challenge to the current leadership’s hold to power and claim to legitimacy if left unchecked, Zhang said.
The purge of the four men has placed Xi in an almost invincible position to shape the party’s future leadership. Xi’s “autocratic management style” and “disregard for conventional rules” would likely see him make drastic changes at the 19th congress in 2017, Zhang said.
Hu Chunhua, known as “little Hu,” is the second-youngest member of the Politburo at 51, and party boss of Guangdong, the province with the biggest economy. Like Ling, he is a leading figure of the Communist Youth League faction, ex-President Hu’s power base and known as Tuanpai in Chinese.
Ling’s case is only now being dealt with because former security chief Zhou’s investigation is already under way, according to Steve Tsang, head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.
Xi has already promoted former associates to key positions. Most recently, Shu Guozeng, who worked under Xi in Zhejiang province, was made deputy director of the office of the leading work group on financial and economic affairs, the official Xinhua News Agency reported in November. Two other former Zhejiang officials have also been moved up the ranks.
The hunt for “tigers” will continue and Xi is likely to maintain the anti-graft drive as long as reducing corruption serves the purpose of strengthening the capacity of party control, for which Xi himself has “overall control,” Tsang said.
“The test will come if Xi appears to make a series of major policy mistakes and thus appears wounded or weak,” he said. “At the moment he is strong and confident; Xi comes across as a risk taker.”