According to the People’s Daily and Xinhua news agency, former Chinese minister of railways Liu Zhijun (劉志軍) was dismissed on Feb. 12 for “severe violation of discipline.” Liu had apparently been under investigation by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Commission for Discipline Inspection since the beginning of this month.
Liu earned the nickname “Leaping Liu” for his desire to develop China’s railway system in a “leapfrog” fashion, and was said to have prized the concept and development of high-speed rail systems. Liu’s tenure witnessed the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the highest railway in the world.
However, his time in office also witnessed numerous corruption allegations, harsh conditions for migrant workers and several rail accidents, including the Shandong train collision of 2008, the worst railway disaster in China in more than a decade, which killed or injured close to 500 passengers.
A scandal involving his younger brother, Liu Zhixiang (劉志祥), in 2006 brought with it a death sentence that was first suspended and then commuted to life in prison. The younger Liu was found guilty of hiring a man to stab a businessman in front of his wife and child.
According to the Straits Times of Singapore, many in China thought “he [the elder Liu] should have been fired long ago.”
The same report also divulged the reason why Liu Zhijun -survived as long as he did politically and professionally: his close ties with former Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民).
Liu Zhijun rose through the railway ranks under the tutelage of Han Shuping (韓淑萍), a former minister and Jiang confidante, and escaped numerous calls for his removal unscathed.
According Willy Wo-Lap Lam (林和立) of the Chinese University of Hong Kong: “[The elder Liu’s] downfall has to do with the power struggle between Hu Jintao [胡錦濤] and Jiang. There has been much talk that the Jiang camp has put a lot of pressure on Hu ahead of the 18th Party Congress next year. This is Hu’s counter-attack.”
By many accounts, the sacking of the minister of railways demonstrates that factional politics is alive and well within the ranks of the CCP in the run up to the 18th Party Congress, set to take place in the fall of next year. Hu, although handpicked by the late Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) as Jiang’s successor, owed his own rise in part to Jiang’s support.
As the transition from Hu, a former Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL) secretary and member of the CCYL faction — as designated by Chinese leadership academic Cheng Li (李成) — to Xi Jinping (習近平), a member of Cheng’s “princeling faction,” continues, one might reasonably expect that more heads could role, as Jiang’s “Shanghai clique” may be in the process of being elbowed out.
The apparent open season on the once well-protected elder Liu is perhaps indicative of a larger political push.
Using corruption allegations to topple a Jiang crony, if not the entire Shanghai faction, would be ironic, as Jiang himself placed a great deal of focus on reining in corruption and began referring to corruption as a life-and-death issue for the party.
Speculation as to the scale of such inner-party factional struggles aside, observers should be troubled by the ongoing campaigns against well-connected officials within the party.
Although the transfer of power within the CCP has been relatively peaceful over the past two decades, such pillorying of high profile officials is problematic for a number of reasons.