Reading between the lines of a party boss’ speech as China’s power reshuffle looms

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 2:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 6:05pm

Guangdong Communist Party boss Hu Chunhua made a high-profile declaration of his political loyalty in front of the provincial party congress on Monday. He repeatedly mentioned President Xi Jinping in his nearly 100-minute speech, referring to him as the party’s core and stressing the importance of concepts earlier proposed by the state leader.

Hu’s speech comes ahead of China’s major leadership reshuffle this autumn, in which he stands a strong chance of being named as one of the handful of members to the country’s top decision-making body – the Politburo Standing Committee.

Why does it matter?

Hu, at 54 and one of the youngest members of the 25-strong Politburo, is seen as a strong contender for a seat on its Standing Committee, the party’s innermost circle of power. With the five-yearly leadership reshuffle due in less than six months, his every move and statement is being closely watched.

The provincial party congress is the last chance for him to be in the limelight ahead of the 19th party congress, after he kept a low profile throughout most of his rule in the southern province.

All eyes on Hu Chunhua as he takes over as Guangdong party chief

Guangdong has been one of China’s economic powerhouses since the “reform and opening up” policy was launched nearly four decades ago, and its gross domestic output has ranked first among all provinces for 28 years. Its economic gravity is politically significant: it is one of the few provincial-level administrative regions whose party chief has an automatic ticket to the Politburo.

The development of Guangdong also has big implications for Hong Kong, across the border from thriving Shenzhen. In recent years, Guangdong has been aggressively pushing for greater integration with Hong Kong, but so far has achieved limited results, partly due to growing fears that it will lose its high degree of autonomy and freedom. Hong Kong was handed back to China 20 years ago after being a British-run territory since 1841.

What were the buzzwords in Hu’s speech?

“Xi Jinping”– The name of the Chinese president was mentioned 26 times, a loud and clear declaration of political loyalty that echoes throughout his speech. Among them, Xi as “the core” of the party’s central leadership – a status Xi anointed himself last year in a boost of his authority – was mentioned seven times; the “important instruction” Xi made to Guangdong last month – which Hu hailed as bearing “major, milestone significance to Guangdong’s development” – was mentioned six times.

Hu said: “To break new ground on a new starting point, we must absolutely safeguard the authority of the party central leadership with comrade Xi Jinping at its core, and to ensure government decrees from the central leadership are implemented smoothly in Guangdong.”

Why is Xi Jinping giving Guangdong a rare thumbs-up ahead of China’s power reshuffle?

Reform” – Mentioned 54 times. Once a forerunner of China’s reform and opening-up spearheaded by the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Guangdong has found itself facing reluctance to change. Hu was surprisingly candid in laying out the problems and challenges facing the province’s economic restructuring: the large share of low-end industries, a still extensive growth model and a lack of core technologies, and serious water pollution in some areas. He also addressed the imbalance in regional development within the province, citing the sluggish northwestern region and other rural areas that were “seriously lagging behind”. Hu pledged to deepen “supply-side reform”, a measure introduced by Xi to help restructure the economy.

Hu said: “Reform and opening up is the most outstanding character and advantage of Guangdong; through reform and opening up, Guangdong achieved remarkable developments that drew worldwide attention, and we must rely on reform and opening up to build a more glorious future.”

“Innovation” – The first of the five development concepts proposed by Xi as China’s new development model, was mentioned 81 times. As China’s economy had entered a “new normal” of slower growth, Guangdong with its heavy reliance on traditional manufacturing and exports faced increasing pressure to keep its top spot as the country’s economic powerhouse while other eastern provinces were catching up. Like the rest of China, Hu said Guangdong was looking to innovation as a new engine of growth. Hu reiterated the plan to increase investment in research and development to 3 per cent of Guangdong’s gross domestic product in five years, from the current level of slightly over 2.5 per cent.

Hu said: “Innovation is the number one engine to drive growth. To solve the deep structural problems of Guangdong’s development, the most fundamental is to switch the engine of growth, to drive the economy with innovation instead of factors of production, to transform from a model of following others’ development to lead [one’s own] development.”

What else was said or went unsaid?

Political loyalty – In the last of his 10 points, Hu dedicated about 3,000 words to make it clear that he was “politically reliable”. He pledged to “absolutely safeguard the authority of the central leadership with Xi as its core” and to strictly toe its line, to “unify the minds of all party members and cadres in the province” with Xi’s governing ideas, and to place political principle and discipline as a top priority.

A brief mention of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area – Hu remained vague on the controversial plan, which aims for further integration among the three regions, only saying the three places should develop smooth channels for the flow of people, goods, capital and information.

Dream has been killed in China’s democracy village

No mention of Wukan – Throughout his speech, Hu did not mention Wukan, the remote fishing village in the east of the province that once emerged a symbol of China’s grass-roots democracy where protests over land grabs repeatedly made headlines around the world. Under Hu’s watch, the village was placed under tight lockdown last September as villagers clashed with riot police. Rubber bullets and tear gas were used, and journalists thrown out, in the toughest crackdown the village had seen over the years. Last month, Hu made a high-profile trip to Wukan after receiving the “full endorsement” from Xi, a move analysts said was meant to bolster his prospects for promotion by drawing attention to his loyalty and tough stand.