Bo Xilai today stepped down from his job as Chongqing Party Secretary and was promptly replaced by Zhang Dejiang. This choice of a successor is an intriguing one for a number of reasons. Most notably, because Zhang’s got plenty of his own political baggage.
First and most obviously, Zhang studied economics at Kim Il-Sung University in North Korea. We’re not sure yet exactly why Bo fell from favor, but if it was for being too socialist in his policies, the Party is sure sending an interesting message here. Bo’s egalitarian-centered Chongqing Model may not be as dead in the water as Bo himself is.
Zhang Dejiang’s main claim to fame though is his involvement in suppressing news of the SARS outbreak as Guangdong secretary in 2002. In the end, he escaped official blame and firing – unlike many other high Guangdong officials. This was likely because he was too high of a figure to be allowed to fall off the horse; and the fact that he was an ally of then-President Jiang Zemin probably didn’t hurt either.
Then in 2003, the Guangdong newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily (SMD) reported the story of a man who was arrested for not having his ID card and then beaten to death in custody. The story was huge – so huge that Beijing abolished the detention law under which the man had been arrested. Guangdong leadership wasn’t pleased though. Police lost out on the revenue they gained through these kinds of detentions and many local officials were disgraced.
The Guangdong government under Zhang Dejiang started pressuring the paper through indirect warnings and pressing advertisers to come up with evidence of corruption against the paper. Then in late 2003, SMD further embarrassed Guangzhou leaders by reporting that a new case of SARS had resurfaced – before the government acknowledged it. Zhang subsequently approved a full-on corruption probe of the paper. Eventually, two of the paper’s editors were given 6 and 8 year prison sentences on trumped up charges – effectively neutering SMD’s muckraking.
During the rest of Zhang’s tenure in Guangdong, a few other notable things happened under his watch:
In July and August 2005, two major coal mine disasters killed 139 people in the province. It was later found that they were owned by government officials who didn’t follow required safety protocol. Dozens of officials were punished, including four high level provincial leaders.
Also in July 2005, residents of the Guangdong village Taishi assembled to protest a corrupt land grab. Hundreds of police were dispatched and opened fire, killing several people and injuring dozens more. The incident was one of several similar ones to hit Guangdong that year.
Then, to cap off an already hallmark year, a state-owned smelter dumped loads of poisonous cadmium in the Beijiang River.
While it’s not clear how much blame Zhang deserves for these things, by early 2006, many were calling for his ouster. In February that year he allegedly accepted responsibility for Guangdong’s problems and made an offer to the Politburo to resign – which it declined. He ended up stepping down as Guangdong secretary in 2007, but he remained on the Politburo where he’s been Vice-Premier since 2008. Before his series of Guangzhou debacles, he may have been a contender for the Politburo Standing Committee at the 17th National People’s Congress.
According to a 2007 Asia Times piece:
Guangdong officials and general public have mixed feelings about Zhang’s five-year [Guangzhou] rule. The southern province is continuing its high-speed economic growth of the past five years, a period when it is said Zhang protected corrupt Guangdong officials, fearing that harsh crackdowns on corruption could hurt the economy. He reportedly promised Beijing that Guangdong would “clean its own house”, begging that the central government not intervene by sending its own anti-graft busters to the province, while at the same time warning his officials to behave themselves.
Interestingly, Zhang was succeeded in Guangdong by Wang Yang, who’s seen as a reformer because of his support for more freedom in speech and media. Wang’s Guangdong Model is the rival of Bo Xilai’s now heavily-bruised Chongqing Model – which maintains a strong authoritarian hand to institute egalitarian measures and corruption crackdowns.
From the limited available information, it seems that Zhang Dejiang, like Bo, embraces the authoritarian hand and has no desire to liberalize speech or press freedom. And past actions also seem to suggest that, unlike Bo, he uses the authoritarian hand to protect corruption rather than fight it.
If Beijing was looking for a safe clean replacement for scandal-tainted Bo, it sure made an interesting choice. But, for all Zhang’s drawbacks, he led steady economic growth and didn’t draw too much attention to himself. This has indeed traditionally been the way to rise through the party ranks. As BBC reported, he may end up on the Politburo Standing Committee after all.