With downfall of Chen, the Jiang Zemin era is over

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2006, 12:00am

Sackings of two party bosses bookend Shanghai Gang's rise and fall

The dismissal of Shanghai's top leader yesterday marked the end of an era that saw a group of politicians known as the Shanghai Gang, led by former president Jiang Zemin, rise from the mainland's prime economic hub to dominate Chinese politics.

The downfall of Chen Liangyu, Shanghai's Communist Party secretary and a member of the party's powerful Politburo, also suggests the new national leadership headed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao has consolidated its grip on power, four years after coming to office.

Mr Chen is the highest-ranking official to be felled by a graft probe since Mr Hu succeeded Mr Jiang as party chief in 2002.

'The downfall of Chen Liangyu marks the end of the Jiang Zemin era, suggesting the former leader is now in no position to protect his political prestige and in no position to influence Chinese politics,' said Joseph Cheng Yu-shek of City University of Hong Kong.

During Mr Jiang's 15 years in power, the so-called Shanghai Gang spread its roots throughout the central government, supported by its connections to Mr Jiang, who served as mayor of Shanghai before going to Beijing.

Many observers view the Shanghai clique as a competing faction to the current Hu-Wen leadership.

Shanghai officials said that in the months before the Shanghai social security fund scandal broke, there were behind-the-scenes clashes between Mr Hu and Mr Chen, an ally of Mr Jiang, in the Politburo.

City officials were formally told of Mr Chen's removal from office yesterday morning at a meeting hosted by mayor Han Zheng , acting as party secretary.

The head of the party's Organisation Department, He Guoqiang, said the central government still had 'trust' in Shanghai. Mr Han said Shanghai had entered a 'critical period' and urged that efforts continue to develop the economy, local television reported.

Mr Chen continued to work up until the last moment, giving an appearance of normality to the end, but the Shanghai government has already removed his photo and biography from its official website.

On Saturday night, Mr Chen watched hurdler Liu Xiang race to victory at an international athletics meet. Mr Chen also appeared at a meeting of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation on Thursday, though he did not speak and appeared gaunt and tired.

Analysts have noted that Beijing's decisive handling of the latest scandal is in stark contrast to its tepid reaction to the last big corruption case in Shanghai, in 2003.

At that time, the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection also sent more than 100 agents to investigate charges that local officials had taken huge bribes to grant land to property developer Chau Ching-ngai. However, no officials were punished and Chau got off with a light jail sentence.

'The latest development suggests that the Hu-Wen leadership is now in total control of Chinese politics,' Professor Cheng said.

Analysts said Shanghai had offered a prominent symbol of the strength of local party machines even in the face of heavy pressure from the Beijing leadership, and yesterday's high-profile announcement would send a warning to local cadres who refused to toe the central government's line.

Liu Junning , a Beijing-based political scientist, said that although few such senior cadres had been purged for their involvement in graft scandals, the move was not without precedent. He said Mr Chen's removal bore a striking resemblance to the fall of former Beijing party secretary Chen Xitong 11 years ago.

'Both Chen Liangyu and Chen Xitong were Politburo members. Both of them had been seen by top leaders as obstacles in their consolidation of power,' Professor Liu said. 'And both were sacked in the name of anti-corruption campaigns. Both cases are fine examples in politics.'

Chen Xitong was the mainland's eighth-ranked leader when he was sacked in 1995 and later sentenced in a massive graft scandal.

His fall from grace was widely seen as a victory for then president Jiang, who used the corruption campaign to purge his political rivals and consolidate his control.

Chen Liangyu's sacking could have the same political significance for President Hu, according to Professor Liu. 'It not only marks a new era for Mr Hu, but also a new cycle for the mainland's politics.'

Professor Liu said the fight against corruption was an increasingly common theme in recent power struggles, replacing the ideological conflicts of past decades.

Although Beijing has stepped up its fight against rampant official corruption, it is widely believed that senior cadres, especially those at ministerial level or above, are exempt from harsh punishment.

Analysts said they would usually be caught only when they fell foul of the ruling party faction, such as Chen Xitong, or after their retirement.