China's Power Shift

The leadership is about to change--and a new generation is waiting to make its move

For a man first in line to be the next President of China, Hu Jintao is a conspicuously enigmatic figure. Currently China's Vice-President, Hu, 59, rarely travels oversees and even at home remains something of a mystery. No wonder aides to U.S. President George W. Bush have been trying for some time to bring the two men together. Bush may finally get his chance when he makes his first state visit to Beijing on Feb. 21-22.

Taking Hu's measure is crucial because his expected ascension next year will be part of the most extensive government overhaul in recent Chinese history. Fully half of China's top government officials are expected to retire in coming months, making way for the so-called fourth generation of leaders. The first generation was led by Mao Zedong, the second by Deng Xiaoping, and the third by current President Jiang Zemin. Besides Hu, the fourth generation includes current Vice-Premier Wen Jiabao, 59, who is slated to become premier, and Zeng Qinghong, 62, a senior Communist Party official who could become Vice-President. At the same time, the chairmanship of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, may go to a liberal from the third generation named Li Ruihuan. If history is any guide, these men will be at the helm of the world's fastest-growing economy for the next 5 to 10 years.

How far will Hu, Wen, and the others move China from its thoroughly authoritarian but increasingly free-market path? Will democracy be allowed to spread beyond the village level? Will the brutal campaigns against dissidents, criminals, and religious and ethnic minorities be moderated? Will the issue of corruption--including wrongdoing attributed to the princelings, or sons and daughters of the elite--be frankly addressed? (See Editorial: "China's Emerging Leaders".)

While the successors of President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji are expected to push ahead with economic reform, sorting out the rest of the agenda of the new generation is no easy task. These leaders, long mindful that a purge could sweep them away at any moment, shun the spotlight and keep contact with foreigners to a minimum. China-watchers agree, however, that the next crop of leaders will jettison ideology for pragmatism--notwithstanding the occasional rhetorical blast.

Mostly in their 50s and 60s, they are too young to have taken part in the Communist revolution that helped form the rigid views of their predecessors. Rather, this generation came of age during the chaos of such destructive political campaigns as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Hence, they distrust dogma. Political survivors, they know how to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. Consider Wen: In 1989, he was close to reformist Premier Zhao Ziyang and went with him to meet protesting students in Tiananmen Square. When Zhao was later ousted for being overly sympathetic to the protesters, Wen survived. Wu Guoguang, a political science professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who once worked with Wen, remembers his former colleague as "a master of handling sensitive issues. His relations with everyone are good."

In a China where it is no longer possible to be a patriarch in the mold of Deng Xiaoping or Mao Zedong, Hu & Co. are expected to forge policy through consensus. In recent years, various institutions have gathered increasing power, forcing the central government and the Communist Party to become more accountable and flexible. One growing force is the National People's Congress. While it still acts like a rubber-stamp parliament much of the time, the NPC has been voting against government policy in recent years. The media, too, have become bolder: While still tightly circumscribed, they regularly report on official malfeasance. At the same time, the public is becoming increasingly vocal on everything from official corruption to rural hardship. As a result, fourth-generation leaders are expected to be more closely attuned to the public mood than their predecessors.

China has also become too decentralized and complicated to be run by remote control from Beijing. The nation's gross domestic product has quintupled, to $1.19 trillion, since 1990, and by most accounts could outpace Japan to make China the world's second-largest economy by 2030. Much of that growth has been generated by tens of thousands of new private and quasi-private enterprises that can't, or won't, be tightly controlled from the top. The new leaders must continue the delicate process of dismantling thousands of useless state enterprises and finding work for millions of displaced workers. And of course, now that China is a member of the World Trade Organization, Hu & Co. will be forced to abide by its strictures--some of which will be deeply painful to society.

Given the extraordinary challenges they face, it is fortunate that the fourth generation is one of the best-educated group of leaders in modern Chinese history. Unlike their predecessors, many of whom were force-fed a narrow Soviet curriculum, Hu and his contemporaries are open to a range of ideas. During a trip to Europe last year, Hu displayed an unusual willingness to listen to his aides. "It was completely different from how Jiang or Zhu deals with their staff," says a Western diplomat. On the same trip, Hu demonstrated a keen interest in world affairs and was especially well versed in Britain's response to economic challenges over the years.

Clearly, under the new leaders, continued market liberalization will be a priority. Wen's reformist credentials are especially strong: He was an economic aide to purged liberals Hu Yaobang and Zhao and spent the past few years heading up reforms in two of China's most difficult areas: the corrupt financial sector and the lagging rural economy. Under Wen, Beijing has adopted policies aimed at reversing the growing urban-rural prosperity gap, including an effort to ease the tax burden on rural residents and a liberalization of the residency system that has tied farmers to the land. "[Wen] is very concerned with the low income levels of the peasants," says a political scientist in Beijing. "He is liberal toward agricultural reform."

China's next leaders will no doubt continue the policy of gradually extending Beijing's influence over the rest of Asia. At the same time, the fourth generation will likely foster improved relations with the U.S. That's partly due to the realities of the post-September 11 world, of course. But China's new technocrats also understand how much it relies on the U.S. for everything from technology and investment to education visas for the country's many overseas students. Says Chinese Academy of Social Sciences scholar Wang Yizhou: "In certain fields, we hope America can play a leading role or larger role in the region." To be sure, there are still irritants--not the least of which is Washington's support for Taiwan and its plans to shield the island from mainland missile attack. These issues will be on the table when Bush visits Beijing, as will America's increased presence in the region.

Yet even on Taiwan, the new generation may be more flexible. Already there are signs that Beijing's approach could soften. When Vice-Premier Qian Qichen gave a speech that appeared to offer a much more conciliatory approach toward Taiwan last month, both Hu and Zeng were present--a fact featured prominently in news reports. One factor that will contribute to a peaceful solution of the Taiwan issue is the waning influence of the People's Liberation Army. Its last representatives were bumped from the powerful standing committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party in 1997, and since Jiang became President the generals have been largely forced out of their once-extensive business operations. Says a Western diplomat in Beijing: "The political stock of the [PLA] has fallen."

There are even signs that Hu & Co. will speed up political reform. Public unhappiness over corruption and the lack of accountability of local officials could explode, and Hu and his comrades know they must find a way to defuse this anger. Protests by agitated citizens have become a daily occurrence across China. Political reform "is the essential step to maintain political stability," says Feng Chongyi, a professor at the University of Technology in Sydney. "Social resentment can lead to collapse," he says.

How might political reform look under Hu? As head of the Central Party School, the training ground for cadres or party leaders, he has allowed research into which political systems best suit China. Several foreign lecturers have spoken at the school, among them Peter Mandelson, the British parliamentarian, who discussed the Labour Party's recent successes. On a trip to Europe last year, Hu expressed a keen interest in the structure of Germany's Social Democratic Party. And at a January conference in Beijing, critics of the Communist Party were allowed to openly call for more rapid democratization, says Feng, who attended. "It is quite astonishing," he says. "Even high-ranking officials spoke candidly."

That said, there's a huge difference between discussion and implementation. Still, a more assertive National People's Congress could gradually force the leadership to make decision-making more democratic. If Li Ruihuan wins his battle to take over the chairmanship--still a 50-50 proposition--it's very likely that the liberal-minded party elder will encourage the institution to vote even more independently. Many expect him "to beef up the power of the legislature and make it a more lively organization," says Jeremy Paltiel, a China expert at Carleton University in Ottawa.

To be sure, there are potential pitfalls ahead for the new leaders, most notably their lack of policymaking experience. Under China's top-down authoritarian system, midlevel officials often find themselves carrying out orders from above rather than risking their necks by formulating innovative policies. "If one wants to become a cadre, they must toe the line," says Li Shenzhi, a former adviser to Zhou Enlai and one of the present Chinese leadership's most vocal critics. Most of them "are younger officials who are probably more liberal, but they dare not say anything." Asks Carleton's Paltiel: "If bold initiatives had to be taken, who would step in?"

A good question, indeed. If Jiang and hard-line National People's Congress Chairman Li Peng have their way, they will follow Chinese tradition and continue to exercise power even if they hold few leadership titles. Jiang wants to stay on as chairman of the Central Military Commission--just as his predecessor Deng Xiaoping did after giving up his other leadership positions. Barring that, Jiang hopes his protege Zeng, who runs the Communist Party Secretariat, will help ensure that his policies are followed.

For his part, Li Peng is intent on seeing his man Luo Gan, currently China's top law-and-order official, named head of the party's discipline body, which is in charge of the battle against corruption. That move would protect a host of retiring officials, including Li himself, who bears heavy responsibility for the bloody massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Some analysts say that growing tolerance and Westernization won't necessarily triumph in China. Despite nascent signs of political reform, the new leaders likely will favor a one-party state for the foreseeable future. Nationalism could derail efforts to improve relations with the U.S. Indeed, Hu Jintao already has experience manipulating China's patriotic youth: After the streets of Beijing erupted with protests following the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May, 1999, Hu was the leader who first appeared on television to appeal for calm. But the future President also had tough words for the U.S. and expressed strong support for the Chinese students.

Make no mistake: The new generation of leaders is as capable of ruthless behavior as its predecessors. Shandong native Luo Gan is held responsible by groups such as Human Rights Watch for widespread abuses, including the vicious crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual group. And in last year's Strike Hard campaign against crime, Luo oversaw thousands of executions. Hu Jintao, too, has shown his willingness to crack heads when Beijing's ultimate authority is challenged. In early 1989, during his four-year tour as party secretary in Tibet, Hu responded to independence protests by instituting martial law. Scores of Tibetan demonstrators were shot and killed, and hundreds more were jailed.

How the next decade plays out depends largely on the ability of Hu and his administration to channel the forces unleashed in recent years by economic and political liberalization. Keeping a lid on social unrest, as always, will remain a top priority in Beijing. But if the fourth generation manages to keep corruption in check, maintain robust economic growth, and get more wealth flowing to the countryside, Hu & Co. may yet have the courage to take political reform to the next level and make China the great power that it so wants to be.

By Dexter Roberts in Beijing, with Mark L. Clifford in Hong Kong

— With assistance by Mark L Clifford

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