Old Man's Sad Wave Tells the Nation of Change





The first the Chinese knew of the scale of change in their country's ruling elite came when television viewers turned on their sets to watch the evening news last Thursday and saw a depressed-looking Qiao Shi slumped in his chair, his head hung low.

To the right of Qiao, who earlier in the day had been ousted from the powerful standing committee of the politburo, sat a smiling Li Peng, the prime minister, and Jiang Zemin, the president. Both men seemed to be gloating at their victory over their 72-year-old colleague.

Before moving out of the camera's field of vision, Qiao made a quick wave goodbye. The full significance of this gesture became clear the following day when it was announced that his position as the country's third most senior politician had been taken by Zhu Rongji, the vice-premier. Zhu, 69, is expected to replace Li next year as premier.

Qiao's fall from grace is being interpreted by western political analysts as a sign of a split within the upper ranks of the Communist party and a setback for efforts to bring about legal reform in China. Qiao had won admiration among foreign diplomats and businessmen for his attempts to turn the largely rubber-stamp National People's Congress into a force to be reckoned with.

Qiao's downfall was prompted by apparent attempts to challenge Jiang. Beijing has been alive with rumours in recent weeks about Qiao's slights of the president. According to one story he failed to offer sufficient praise to Jiang in a speech. Another had it that Qiao had openly attacked Jiang.

Some observers believe Qiao may have been behind an open letter, critical of the party, that was allegedly penned by Zhao Ziyang, the disgraced general secretary who has been sidelined since the 1989 crackdown on the democracy movement. It is also said that Qiao criticised Jiang's efforts to build up a personality cult and the elevation of too many of his acolytes to top political jobs.

News reports in Hong Kong suggested Qiao was the victim of a plot, orchestrated by Jiang with the support of some veterans, that was hatched during the party congress. Jiang, 71, is said to have offered to retire, saying the political leadership needed rejuvenation. The veterans present, led by Bo Yibo, former vice-premier, rejected this on the grounds that stability in the party was essential. Qiao was given little choice but to imitate his rival and proffer his own resignation.

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney