Commentary: How Hu May Rule China

The torch has smoothly passed to a man less inclined to favor the iron fist

Brutal struggles have always been part and parcel of transferring power from one Chinese Communist Party leadership to the next. So what was truly remarkable about the Sept. 19 news that President Hu Jintao had replaced Jiang Zemin as head of the military and formally emerged as paramount leader was what did not happen. Contrary to rumors in Beijing, there appear to have been no behind-the-scenes clashes between hard-liners and reformers, and no purges of Jiang loyalists. Instead, it was the most peaceful leadership transition in modern Chinese history.

The anticlimactic announcement underscores the broad consensus in Beijing on how China's economy and government should be run. After 25 years of reform, all the top leaders, including Jiang and Hu, basically agree that the economy should continue to integrate with the outside world and open to the private sector. Fifteen years after the Tiananmen Square bloodbath, the Communist Party is as committed as ever to maintaining its monopoly on power and keeping a lid on dissent. Leaders are still determined to expand China's military -- but show little eagerness for truly serious confrontation with the U.S. or Taiwan. Indeed, compared with little more than a decade ago, when distinct rival factions of aging ideologues and reformers maneuvered inside the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, it's hard to discern any major ideological divides among the nine top leaders that make up the Politburo's Standing Committee.

So rather than tumultuous shifts, the administration of the 61-year-old Hu is likely to be marked by more subtle changes in policy. For example, compared with 78-year-old Jiang, whose surprise departure was rumored to have been accelerated by poor health, Hu is expected to make government more accountable by permitting more public comment on policies and perhaps giving the National People's Congress a greater role in monitoring corruption. Under Jiang, Beijing often reacted to diplomatic flare-ups with Washington, Tokyo, or Taiwan by unleashing bellicose tirades or spouting old Communist rhetoric. By contrast, Hu seems determined to expand China's global influence by playing a constructive diplomatic role in issues such as North Korea's nuclear program and freer trade and investment within Asia, while staying low-key on potential flash points like Iraq and territorial disputes over the oil-rich Spratley Islands in Southeast Asia.

As unchallenged leader, Hu also will have a freer hand to pursue his agenda of crafting a more palatable image for the Party. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have put the problems of migrant urban workers and the nation's 800 million rural residents at the top of their agenda. "Hu will focus much more on China's poor," says political scientist Jin Canrong of Beijing's People's University. "An important task is resolving the wealth gap between rural areas and cities." Hu and Wen also seek to redevelop the Northeast industrial belt, which has been hit hard by layoffs at state factories, and relatively backward western China. While Jiang and ex-Prime Minister Zhu Rongji were at the helm, Beijing lavished resources on coastal cities like Shanghai, where they both had served as mayor.

Hu could make his biggest imprint on China by professionalizing the government. As did previous leaders, Jiang blatantly promoted his cronies to high office in the provinces, the party's Central Committee, and the military. In 2002, for example, Jiang caused an uproar by installing the highly unpopular Jia Qinglin and Huang Ju to the all-powerful Standing Committee. Many analysts had assumed that Jiang's top aide, Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, would be named vice-chairman of the military as a price for Jiang agreeing to step down. But so far, Zeng has not been promoted. "While Jiang was obsessed with nepotism and favoritism," says China-watcher Cheng Li of New York State's Hamilton College, "Hu has emphasized institutions."

Optimists would be mistaken, though, if they assume that Hu is now ready to open China's political system. In a Sept. 15 speech, he called Western democracy a "blind alley." But neither has he shown a desire to be iron-fisted when it comes to crafting policy and filling top posts. Given China's history of stormy politics, that's a big step forward.

By Dexter Roberts

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.